The federal government is moving to temporarily outlaw five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana products currently sold on the Internet, in head shops and in convenience stores.
The fake pot, popularly known as K2, is alarming health officials because users are ending up in emergency rooms. It raises concerns for employers and law enforcement officials because the chemicals in it can’t be detected by routine drug tests.
On Nov. 24, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration gave a 30-day notice of its intent to classify the five chemicals as controlled substances, putting them in the same category as heroin and cocaine. The final rule could come later this month and would make it easier to prosecute those who manufacture, sell or possess the chemicals.
The agency proposes to outlaw the chemicals for up to 18 months so their effects on humans can be studied. Based on the results, the chemicals might be placed permanently on the controlled substances list.
The agency’s action was prompted by a spike in reports from poison centers, hospitals and law enforcement officials. As of Dec. 14, 2010, more than 2,683 calls about products containing these drugs have been received by poison centers across the country, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System.
The manmade chemicals are applied to a blend of herbs and marketed as incense to avoid prosecution. In addition to K2, the products are sold under names such as “Spice,” “Blaze” and “Red X Dawn,” said agency spokeswoman Barbara Carreno.
The chemicals haven’t been approved for human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Association, and the potency can vary—even among packages bearing the same product name. The chemicals can seriously impair an individual’s abilities. State health officials have issued warnings of adverse health effects, including elevated heart rates, vomiting, hallucinations and seizures, according to federal officials.
Nevertheless, the products are popular because the chemicals don’t show up in routine drug tests. “People are using this to evade drug tests,” said Carreno. “They think they can experience the same high without getting into trouble for it, without being held accountable.”
Gwynne Wilson, president of Drug Test Services in Omaha, Neb., said she’s been getting calls from employers with questions about K2. Employers have been concerned “because some employees’ behavior has been unexplainable, but they’re passing any ‘reasonable suspicion’ tests,” Wilson said.
“It’s really scary, but if [employees] can get that high without getting caught, it’s a thrill too,” she said.
In recent months, several drug-testing laboratories have begun offering tests to detect some of the five chemicals that the federal officials propose to ban. The test costs an additional $60 above the $25 charged for the routine “five-panel” test for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and phencyclidine, commonly known as PCP, said Wilson, who sends samples to Redwood Toxicology Laboratory in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Redwood Toxicology provides drug testing primarily for addiction treatment programs and parole agencies and had one of the earliest tests on the market. Since it began testing in July, 2010, 4,506, or 26.5 percent, of 17,034 court-ordered urine tests of juveniles on probation have tested positive for two of the chemicals that the government proposes to ban, said Sumandeep Rana, the laboratory’s scientific director.
Not all testing is accurate, she cautioned. Some companies only test for the parent drug, but the parent drug may not show up in the urine, Rana said. It takes about four months to develop a test for the drug metabolytes, compounds produced by the chemical changes of a substance in the body, a more accurate indicator of drug use.
The Drug Enforcement Administration proposed listing five chemicals as controlled substances: JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47, 497 and cannabicyclohexanol. The chemicals mimic tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
But testing for synthetic marijuana is like shooting at a moving target. As soon as one test is developed, those producing the fake pot will change the chemical ingredients slightly so that they escape the law.
“You’ve got clever capitalist chemists out there working all the time to develop new things that they can sell that will help people evade the law,” Carreno said.
That’s one reason that Quest Diagnostics, one of the larger drug-testing laboratories, has opted not to offer such tests. “You don’t necessarily know what you’re testing for,” said Barry Sample, director of science and technology for the employer solutions division of Quest Diagnostics in Madison, N.J. And, until final action by the federal government, the product is still legal in most states, he said.
Because of those challenges, employers might be better off treating synthetic “knock-off” and designer drugs as they would alcohol—by stating the company’s policy on such substances in the company handbook, Sample said. “Alcohol is a legal substance, and employers have rules on its use,” he said.
Matthew Nieman, counsel for the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace in Washington, D.C., reminds employers that the purpose of their policies on substance abuse is to provide a safe workplace for everybody. “Education is oftentimes the key,” he said. “Whether or not your drug test detects someone’s drug use, that doesn’t mean that you can’t provide them with the resources to explain why what they’re doing may not be a good idea.”
The government’s move to control synthetic marijuana should prompt employers to update their policies on drug abuse, Nieman said. “Some policies identify the substances individually, which would not necessarily capture something like synthetic marijuana, so it can be added to the list,” he said. “As with any other policy, you don’t just write it up and put it on the shelf. You want to make sure it’s still stating what you want it to say and including what you want it to include.”
Employees should be informed about any changes made to company policy. “If someone understands what is going on, they are much less likely to have questions after the fact,” Nieman said.
Eleven states have laws banning one or more chemicals in synthetic marijuana. They are: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, at least six state agencies—in Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota and Oregon—have taken measures to restrict use of the chemicals.