A quarter to a third of young men drug tested as they passed through the District's criminal justice system had recently used synthetic marijuana, with positive results surprisingly high among those who screened negative for more conventional illegal drugs, according to a report released Wednesday.
The study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy highlights the growing popularity of designer drugs in the District and suggests that those under court-ordered monitoring use synthetics as a way to juke the system.
"Up to now they might miss a particular drug but they wouldn't miss a user. But now they are actually missing users," said the study's lead investigator, Eric Wish, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research. "What we find is the people taking the drugs are pretty smart. They find out what is being tested for and they don't take it."
The study tested urine samples submitted from November to March by 482 people in three different stages in the District's criminal justice system — those arrested and in lockup, those under the supervision of the Pretrial Services Agency while awaiting court dates, and those on parole or probation and supervised through Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.
Use of synthetic marijuana — the study tested for 12 different types of what is technically known as "synthetic cannabinoids" — appeared most prevalent among men under 30 who were on parole or probation.
While the standard CSOSA drug panel tests for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and PCP, the study showed that 39 percent of men who had tested negative for those drugs were testing positive for synthetic marijuana.
"The most logical explanation for this result is that persons who know they are being tested by the [criminal justice system] and know that [synthetic cannabinoid] is not being screened for are likely to use [synthetic cannabinoids] to avoid detection," the report states.
The rate of synthetics' use among men under 30 who didn't test positive for other drugs was 36 percent among those in pretrial services.
Among those in lockup, 24 percent of those who tested negative for other drugs were found to have used synthetic marijuana. Results from people in lockup — recent arrestees who didn't expect to be drug tested — could provide the closest estimate of usage rates among the general population.
"If it's in the criminal justice population, it tends to be in the general population," Mr. Wish said.
Although reports of the growing prevalence of synthetic drugs have skyrocketed in recent years, little research has been conducted on usage locally and city officials said the numbers were something of a shock.
"We were unpleasantly surprised with the number of people who were testing positive," D.C. Pretrial Services Agency Director Clifford Keenan said.
Synthetic marijuana is described by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a mix of herbs and spices that are sprayed with a synthetic substance similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, the psychoactive ingredient in traditional marijuana. Flashy packages label the drug with nicknames like "K2," "Spice" or "Scooby Snax," among others, and are often marked as incense. Smoking the drug can cause "paranoia, panic attacks and giddiness," the agency says.
The percentage of people missed by the standard screening panel shows the frustrating reality faced by those trying to monitor designer drug use — the rate at which new synthetic drugs can be created outpaces the ability to create drug tests to identify users. Researchers included testing for two compounds of synthetic marijuana in their study that were only made illegal by the Drug Enforcement Administration in May, yet those compounds comprised the bulk of the positive results.
"This has just taken the cat-and-mouse game to an entirely new level," said Robert DuPont, the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on drug treatment and testing. "The prevalence is way beyond what people have thought about."
But even when tests are developed, they have been cost prohibitive to use them on a larger scale.
The District's Pretrial Services Agency in-house laboratory conducted 2.4 million separate drug tests last year alone. While the cost for running a series of six standard drug tests averages about $2, the cost to run one test for synthetic drugs is $25, Mr. Keenan said.
"As much as we would like to, the reality is we are never going to be able to do the same volume of testing for synthetics as we do for the cocaine and marijuana and PCP," Mr. Keenan said.
Noting that testing technology might never quite catch up with the designer drug trends, Mr. Wish said he hopes the findings of this study can be used to target drug awareness campaigns to the areas of the city where the drugs are most frequently being abused.
"It's really a tough enterprise to keep up with this. That's why I think the best approach is education," he said.
The D.C. Council adopted a law last year that classified some synthetic drugs as Schedule 1 narcotics, which are subject to stringent criminal penalties. In the meantime, the Department of Health started awareness campaigns meant to educate young people about the dangers of synthetic drugs. Featuring ghoulish photos, a campaign launched this year compared being high on synthetic marijuana to being a zombie.
Mr. Keenan said the office of the chief medical examiner is now able to process some urine samples for synthetic drug testing and his agency's lab is expected to receive new equipment next month that will enable them to conduct in-house testing for synthetics.
"We are focusing traditionally on what have been the drugs of choice," Mr. Keenan said. "We're going to have to alter our treatment and supervision strategies to recognize that synthetics are likewise becoming a drug of choice."
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