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US Study Finds Synthetic Marijuana is a Growing Concern for Employers

It’s an illicit and dangerous family of drugs being marketed as a safer, stronger alternative to marijuana. And it isn’t just teenagers who are turning to this less expensive high – a recent study by a SAMHSA-certified U.S. laboratory suggests synthetic marijuana is a growing concern for workplaces.

Laboratory Finds Workplace Testing is a Deterrent

David Kuntz, the Executive Director of Analytical Toxicology at the Clinical Reference Laboratory (CRL) in Lenexa, Kansas says synthetic marijuana is particularly popular in the oil and gas, and rail industries in the U.S. He says approximately 7 percent of nearly 16,000 samples analyzed by CRL in 2011 were positive for chemical compounds found in synthetic marijuana.

However, 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, there are no statistics available on synthetic marijuana’s prevalence in Canadian workplaces and no specific measures have been taken by our federal government to curb its use.

Constantly Changing Compounds are a Challenge

Even though Kuntz says progress is being made to lower the positivity rate of these drugs in the U.S., he admits it’s 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.

Standard 5-Panel Doesn’t Test for Synthetic Marijuana

Currently, synthetic marijuana is not tested for on DOT’s regulated drug testing panel. 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.

Availability of Testing in Canada and the U.S.

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 you think 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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