How a D.C. Murder Created Rare Congressional Accord on Synthetic Drug Legislation

It was the moment when everything changed.

Kevin Sutherland had recently graduated from American University. His Twitter profile is full of pictures taken by someone thrilled to be living in the center of American politics.

But the pictures suddenly stopped July 4. Sutherland was on a Metro train filled with passengers headed to the fireworks when another man hopped on board, police said. That man, identified as 18-year-old Jasper Spires, stabbed Sutherland 30-40 times in front of almost a dozen other horrified passengers, detectives said.

Surveillance video from a Metro station shows Spires throwing away the knife in a trash can, prosecutors said.

Spires' lawyer says his client is innocent and that it is a case of mistaken identity.

A DC Murder Creates Rare Congressional Accord

But for Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., Sutherland’s murder is the moment Capitol Hill realized how dangerous synthetic drugs really could be.

"The reason I'm sitting here is because it looks like his assailant was probably high on synthetics," Himes said.

He said he first met Sutherland when he was a teenager volunteering on the Himes campaign. He later hired Sutherland to work in his Washington congressional office as a college intern.

"He was more than a staffer. He was a terrific friend," Himes said. “It’s one of those things where if it can happen to Kevin, it can happen to anybody."

Himes agreed to sit down for an interview with the I-Team if he could have Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., by his side.

“We've had overdoses and deaths in my area" from synthetic drugs, Dent said.

Dent is a Republican. Himes is a Democrat. But in a rare moment of congressional accord, they say Sutherland's death brought them together to fix a federal law used to prosecute synthetic drug cases.

Why Synthetic Drug Cases are So Tricky

Synthetic drug cases have been very tricky for prosecutors because all it takes is replacing a single atom or tweaking a molecule’s side chain to create a totally new, and legal, drug.

For instance, researchers found just four weeks after law enforcement outlawed the chemical used to make one of the earliest versions of the synthetic drug Spice, a new chemical popped up in the packets. The two molecules look nearly identical – except for a tiny addition to the second molecule’s side chain.

Fast forward to 2015 and the DEA says it's now identified more than 300 new chemicals in synthetic narcotics.

But we found only 37 are actually on the government's list of illegal drugs.

New Federal Legislation

"The manufacturers and distributors of this poison have found a way to reformulate these compounds," Rep. Dent said.

He’s introduced an unusual bill for Congress -- a long list of more than 200 molecular compounds connected to synthetics he says the DEA wants to outlaw. The bill also tries to make it easier for prosecutors to bring cases against similar drugs, even if they're not on this list. 

Whack-a-Mole Legislation

But the University of Maryland's Dr. Eric Wish at the Center for Substance Abuse Research, one of the nation's leading experts on drug abuse, worries laws like this won't fix the problem.

"I think that laws that require the identification of the molecular structure as a basis for bringing a case against them are primarily going to fail at the edges,” he explained. “You know that game of whack-a-mole? As soon as you identify a drug and you put it on that list, they come up with a new one. You're never going to keep up with it.”

Virginia’s Approach to Synthetic Drug Laws

That's why Virginia recently made a major change to its drug laws.

"In 2015, thus far, we've probably seen 30 to 40 different compounds coming in," Virginia Department of Forensics Director Linda Jackson said. 

She showed two molecules they’ve seen in synthetic drug packets (below). She said the molecule on the left is on the state's schedule of illegal drugs. The other is not, but under Virginias’ new law, it is still illegal because they have the same “backbone” structure.

"There are numerous places on that molecule you could change,” Jackson said. “Hundreds of different possibilities that a chemist could create different drugs that would still be included as being scheduled in Virginia."

A bill before the D.C. Council would make the district’s drug laws similar to what Virginia is doing.

It's a different approach from what Dent and Himes are trying to pass on the Hill, but the two congressmen are confident their bill will work.

"This will shut it down for a while,” Dent said. “They're going to keep trying but we're going to make it a lot harder for them."

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