PA Supreme Court Limits Application of Designer Drug Statute

What Is A Designer Drug?

Designer drugs present a difficult issue for the criminal justice system and law enforcement. In general, the idea of a designer drug is not that difficult to understand. A designer drug is some type of substance that is designed to mimic the effects of an already-regulated controlled substance but altered in an attempt to avoid regulation and criminal liability. Setting aside the pros and cons of the war on drugs, it makes sense that if the government is going to criminalize marijuana, then the government would also attempt to criminalize synthetic substances like K2 that provide the same effect of marijuana despite having a different chemical structure.

Problems with Criminalizing Designer Drugs

In practice, the issue becomes much trickier. It is very difficult for the government to craft a legal definition in a statute prohibiting designer drugs which gives fair notice to the average person as to exactly what substances are illegal or regulated. There will always be questions: For example, how similar does the substance have to be? Does the similarity apply only to the effect of the substance, or does the similarity apply to the chemical structure? If it applies to the chemical structure, how can an ordinary person be expected to know the exact chemical structure of a drug, and how do we compare substances?  And if it applies to the effect of the drug, then how do you measure effect given that drugs have different effects on different people. Accordingly, designer drug prosecutions often involve challenges to the statute itself as well as conflicting expert testimony from the prosecution and defense as to whether the substance involved qualifies as a designer drug. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just dismissed a void-for-vagueness challenge to the Pennsylvania statute which criminalizes the possession and distribution of “designer” drugs. Despite upholding the constitutionality of the statute, however, the Court has dramatically limited its application by reading in an extremely heightened mens rea requirement for designer drug prosecutions. In Commonwealth v. Herman, the Court held that although a previous version of the statute which criminalized “analogues” of controlled substances was unconstitutionally vague, the current definition of a “designer drug” is not so vague as to render the statute unlawful. Nonetheless, the statute requires that the defendant actually know that the substance involved was a designer drug and not just that the defendant possessed the substance itself.  

The Pennsylvania Designer Drug Statute

The designer drug statute prohibits the “knowing or intentional . . . possession with intent to distribute, or possession, of a designer drug.” It defines a designer drug “as a substance other than a controlled substance that is intended for human consumption and that . . . has a chemical structure substantially similar to that of a controlled substance in Schedules I, II, or III . . . or that produces an effect substantially similar to that of a controlled substance in Schedule I, II, or III.”

In Herman, the defendant owned and operated a smoke shop in York County, PA. Undercover police officers entered the store and purchased alleged designer drugs labeled “Winter Haze” and “V-8 Air Freshener.” Upon testing the substances, the prosecution determined that they contained the chemical PB-22, which prosecutors alleged was either a controlled substance or a designer drug which was substantially similar to a controlled substance and synthetic cannabinoid (synthetic marijuana) called JWH-018. Accordingly, the Commonwealth charged the defendant with three counts of delivery of a controlled substance, one count of possession with the intent to deliver a controlled substance, and one count of possession or possession with intent to distribute a designer drug.


After the defendant was held for court at the preliminary hearing, the defendant filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus asking the trial judge in the Court of Common Pleas to dismiss the drug charges. The defense argued that the statute was so vague that it made it impossible for an ordinary person to know exactly what the law prohibits. Although much of the case dealt with various definitions under a previous version of the statute, the prosecution also involved the current definition of a designer drug. With respect to the designer drug charge, the defense argued that the Commonwealth failed to offer any evidence that PB-22 had a chemical structure similar to that of JWH-018 and that the Commonwealth’s evidence showed only that the physiological and toxicological properties of PB-22 were unknown. Therefore, the Commonwealth could not show that the compounds were substantially similar in either chemical form or effect.   

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the defendant’s void-for-vagueness challenge with respect to the designer drug charge. Under the void-for-vagueness doctrine, the government may not impose sanctions under a criminal law that fails to give fair notice of the proscribed conduct. The doctrine safeguards against arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement by the government, and it prevents jury verdicts unfettered by any legally fixed standards as to what is prohibited by the statute. The Court noted that the inquiry into whether a statute is void-for-vagueness focuses on whether the law forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.

Although the trial court found the statute to be unconstitutionally vague, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling. The Court found that the “substantially similar” language used in the statute was not unusual or unduly vague and noted that such language has been upheld repeatedly both by federal courts and appellate courts in other states. Although the prosecution and defense experts differed as to the ultimate issue of whether the substances were in fact substantially similar, the issue of which expert was right was an issue for the jury. It was not a basis for finding that the statute violates due process. 

Possession of a Designer Drug Must Be Knowing and Intentional

Despite deciding to uphold the statute, the Court did have significant concerns about the difficulty in determining whether a substance actually qualifies as a designer drug. Accordingly, the Court emphasized the mens rea element of the crime. The act requires that a defendant possess the drug knowingly or intentionally. Therefore, the Court suggested that the defendant must know not only that he possesses the substance, but also that the substance is in fact a designer drug. Thus, the Court suggested that in order to obtain a conviction, the Commonwealth must show that the defendant knew the chemical he possessed had a molecular structure or effect substantially similar to that of a scheduled controlled substance. This mens rea requirement would prevent the statute from becoming a "trap for unwitting members of the public who have no expertise in organic chemistry."

Instead, the Court found that the statute is quite reasonably aimed at those who traffic in novel compounds which are essentially the same as scheduled controlled substances but contain minor differences designed to evade the statutory schedules. Thus, the Court concluded that the General Assembly can “reasonably expect and require persons engaged in that activity to possess or obtain the specialized knowledge needed to conform their conduct to law.”

Although the Court upheld the constitutionality of the statute, the narrowing of the mens rea requirement would seemingly make it very difficult for the prosecution to obtain a conviction in most cases. Now, the Commonwealth must show more than the mere possession of a substance that qualifies as a designer drug by a defendant. Instead, the Commonwealth must show that the defendant actually knew that the substance would qualify as a designer drug. This will make it possible to prosecute the manufacturers and regular distributors of such substances, but the average person or small store-owner who possesses a designer drug may be able to avoid liability unless the Commonwealth can show an actual admission or incriminating statement on their part. Thus, the statute remains in effect, but its application has been substantially narrowed by the Court. 

We Can Help With Designer Drug Charges

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Lawyers | Philadelphia, PA

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Lawyers | Philadelphia, PA

If you are facing designer drug charges or any other criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, we can help. Our award-winning defense attorneys have successfully defended thousands of criminal cases. Designer drug cases are more complicated than regular possession cases and may require the use and cross-examination of expert witnesses. We have the experience and skill to fight for you and help you get the best possible result. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer today.