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Synthetic Marijuana in Canada: Research shows most popular in Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia

MARCH 20, 2015 – There appears to be growing concern among employers in Canada that workers are using synthetic marijuana in an attempt to beat their employer’s drug tests. Over the past few weeks, several DriverCheck clients have asked if this is an issue and if detection is possible. We try to answer your questions in this post.

How popular is synthetic marijuana in Canada and the U.S.?

Just yesterday, the CBC ran an article describing one Oil Sands worker’s experience with a synthetic drug. The Edmonton woman told the CBC she started taking it because she heard it could easily be purchased at a head shop and that drug tests used in the Oil Sands couldn’t detect it. She also warned about the long-term effects of these products.

Though there are no statistics available on the prevalence of synthetic drugs in Canada, a 2013 report from the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (CCENDU, a nationwide of community partners that informs Canadians about emerging drug use trends) found that synthetic cannabinoid use was a concern among treatment providers in Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia:

  • Edmonton, Calgary: Reports from treatment providers indicate that they are becoming increasingly concerned about synthetic cannabinoid products. Reports from Alberta RCMP indicate that SC products are readily available in Alberta and that their availability from local drug paraphernalia shops increased between 2009 and 2013. Local police forces have executed search warrants and conducted investigations; some charges have been laid with regard to possession or sale of these products.
  • Winnipeg: Treatment providers report some clients using synthetic cannabinoid products. While most of their clients have heard of these products and some have tried them, it does not appear to be a substance used regularly. It is currently unknown whether these products are available for purchase locally.
  • Halifax: Synthetic cannabinoid product use has been reported in two Nova Scotia regions. CCENDU partners report that its use is particularly frequent among chronic marijuana users and among individuals who undergo drug testing for employment.

Research conducted on synthetic marijuana’s prevalence among workers in the U.S. found that it is particularly popular in the oil and gas and rail industries. David Kuntz, Executive Director of Analytical Toxicology at the Clinical Reference Laboratory (CRL) in Lenexa, Kansas says a recent study found that approximately 7 percent of nearly 16,000 samples analyzed by CRL in 2011 were positive for chemical compounds found in synthetic marijuana.

Kuntz says that due to the deterrent effect of U.S. federal regulations, laboratories starting to test for synthetic cannabinoids, and more U.S. workplaces incorporating these additional drug panels into their alcohol and drug policies, the positive rate fell to just under 3 percent in 2014. Unfortunately, no specific measures have been taken by our federal government to curb its use.

Can synthetic marijuana be detected in a drug test?

Two years ago, a study conducted by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research found that some drug tests fail to detect synthetic marijuana. Among a sample of young men from Washington, D.C.’s parole and probation system, 39 percent tested positive for synthetic marijuana after passing a traditional drug screen.

Kuntz says progress is being made to lower the positivity rate of these drugs in the U.S. but says it is difficult to keep up with scientists who are continually modifying the compounds contained in synthetic cannabinoid products. CRL can now test for 21 different synthetic cannabinoid compounds – but unfortunately, there are at least 400 out there.

The challenge is to identify which synthetic marijuana products are in distribution, considering the vast number of chemicals that go into its makeup. The scientific community currently relies on police confiscations from drug seizures to determine which chemical compounds to test for.

Forensic laboratories analyze the confiscated products, and if there is enough volume of a certain type of plant or product found to be chemically treated with synthetic marijuana compounds, analytical laboratories will set up protocols and procedures for human specimen testing once notified of a new compound and its prevalence. All lab-based urine testing is confirmed using LC/MS/MS technology, which, like GC/MS that is used for regulated workplace testing programs, is a state-of-the-art mass spectrometry confirmation testing method.  Testing methods and technologies may be added or may change from time to time as science evolves, and subject to availability.

Currently, the DOT’s drug testing panel does not test for synthetic marijuana. Kuntz says employers who assume they can catch synthetic marijuana users in their workplace by expecting that their employees will test positive for another drug (i.e. marijuana or cocaine) are misled. He says their study shows that the majority of K2 users, for example, did not test positive for additional drugs when analyzed by the laboratory.

In addition to standard lab-based urine specimen testing, instant or POCT oral fluid screening is also available. However, this technology is not as reliable as lab-based testing and the cut-off levels used for this test type appear to rely on the premise that no amount of this drug should be contained in an individual’s system. As such, it’s not clear yet if the current cut-off levels risk capturing those who inhaled the drug through second hand smoke. Not enough studies have been done to establish which cut-off levels would eliminate that possibility.

If synthetic marijuana is a concern for your workplace, get in touch with us – we can assist you in determining if testing for these products is feasible and beneficial for your company. Canadian laboratories do not currently test for synthetic cannabinoids, but we can coordinate testing for you in the U.S.

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