Horror stories attributed to synthetic marijuana use are in no short supply — often complete with graphic details involving crazed, naked maniacs or catatonic zombies.
There was the Phoenix man accused last month of repeatedly stabbing and eventually decapitating his wife, and who told police he smoked synthetic marijuana about an hour before the attack. And in Waco, Texas, a man was sentenced to a year in jail after he strangled and tried to eat his roommate’s dog while under the influence.
Law enforcement authorities across the U.S. are ramping up their efforts to curb synthetic marijuana use, with NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton this month calling the drug “weaponized marijuana” that makes users “totally crazy.”
But a lack of testing capabilities to identify the drugs is leaving a large loophole in lawmakers’ plans. The scare-tactic rhetoric and new laws banning sale of the drugs may put a dent in use in the short-term, but health and public safety experts say that only with more accessible and widespread testing methods will law enforcement be able to reliably confirm who is using or selling synthetic marijuana and to draw up charges.
Experts say a large part of the appeal of synthetic marijuana, often known by nicknames such as Spice or K2, is the fact it’s unlikely to show up in standard drug tests. The drugs’ popularity has been particularly pronounced among individuals who are subject to drug tests either for work, such as those in the military, or under court-ordered supervision, said Marilyn Huestis, Chief of Chemistry and Drug Metabolism at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The desire to skirt court-ordered drug tests is a big factor in the rising popularity of synthetic drugs in areas where large swaths of residents are under correctional supervision, particularly among poor communities of color, said Joseph Richardson, a researcher with the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research.
“Most guys are only shifting over to smoke it because they were on probation or parole,” said Mr. Richardson, who is currently studying the correlation between synthetic marijuana use and violence. “It was an alternative.”
And in communities where a high proportion of the population may be under community-based correctional supervision, the desire to smoke synthetics to avoid a positive drug test is likely rubbing off on others.
“If you have a disproportionate number of people who are under supervision and they are smoking, even if you don’t smoke it, you may be in the same social network, and that may influence your decision to smoke it,” Mr. Richardson said.
The Department of Defense announced in 2013 it would begin incorporating synthetic drug screens in its standard drug tests after discovering through a sample drug test that military members were using synthetics at higher rates than other drugs.
Part of the consternation in combating synthetic marijuana is its ever-evolving nature. Classified as “synthetic cannabinoids,” the drugs are synthetic compounds cooked up in laboratories in China and often sprayed onto herbs or plant material. The chemists who synthesize the drugs can easily change (and consistently do) a few chemical components to create a brand-new drug — one that may not be explicitly banned by existing law but still creates a high for the user.
Though the U.S. has federally banned 26 types of synthetic drugs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has identified more than 300 derivatives being sold.
The ability to rapidly change the compounds creates problems twofold: If laws can’t keep up with the newest chemical structure, the drugs are not technically illegal, and if the chemical compounds are ever changing, it’s tough to keep tests up to date in order to identify the drugs themselves or suspected users.
That means difficulty for law enforcement officials trying to bring charges against a person caught with synthetic marijuana as police must wait until lab tests confirm that the compounds in the drug are banned.
“Special testing labs are completely backed up trying to test it,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. “If we’re looking at somebody undercover, we can go make an undercover buy and have it tested before we take action. If it’s something that happens along the way, it can take some time.”
As the cat and mouse game evolves, prosecutors have been able to go after distributors based on current laws that allow synthetic drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they have “substantially similar” chemical structures and are meant for human consumption. But prosecutors have been hesitant to use the same statute to go after lesser crimes, such as driving under the influence, because of concern they won’t be able to prove the drugs are “pharmacologically the same,” Dr. Huestis said.
Washington, D.C., has been among the cities grappling to get a hold on rising synthetic drug use — with emergency workers recently transporting as many as 24 synthetic marijuana overdose patients a day to area hospitals.
Data published by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2009 estimates that 1 in 35 adult Washingtonians are on either parole or probation, and another 1 in 50 are incarcerated. And with officials cognizant of the correlation between correctional supervision and synthetic drug use, they are hoping synthetic drug testing will finally provide some relief.
The city’s Pretrial Services Agency, which oversees drug testing for individuals awaiting trial, is working now to incorporate synthetic drug testing into their panel of drug screens.
“We think it will have a deterrent effect,” said Leslie Cooper, the agency’s deputy director. “If people think they can get away with something, they are going to try to push the boundaries of what they can get away with.”
From a public health standpoint, new testing developments will also help hospital workers learn more about the bad reactions that users are having to the drugs and whether they could be brought on by certain doses, chemicals or combinations with other illegal substances.
“Early on it was shown that even if you bought from the same distributor, the same name, that a product bought the same day could have totally different drugs in it and totally different concentrations. There is absolutely no quality control at all in these products,” Dr. Huestis said. “A big part of our problem is figuring out which drug was taken and to tie it to adverse events that occur.”
To that end, D.C. hospitals are also beginning programs to test incoming patients exhibiting signs of synthetic marijuana use for the drugs.
Anything to help spread the word about the dangerous side effects of synthetics is welcome news to law enforcement.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of it. We’ve got to get people to realize this stuff is nasty and deadly,” Mr. Payne said. “If we can’t get our arms around the demand for the drugs, we are in trouble.”