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The New Drugs: What Are Synthetic Marijuana, K2/Spice, and Bath Salts?

There’s a lot of hype in the media these days about synthetic marijuana, K2/Spice, and bath salts, and it is fuelling concerns that these drugs are becoming more common among youth and adults alike. The question for employers then becomes, is it worth testing for these drugs? If so, are you able to? This post will provide you with some information that could help you make that decision. First, we need to understand what these drugs are and how they could impact safety sensitive work.

Synthetic Marijuana, K2, and Spice

Synthetic marijuana, also known by the common brand names K2 or Spice (among others), is a mix of herbs, spices, or shredded plant material often sprayed with a synthetic compound that chemically causes body reactions similar to those caused by consuming THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Health Canada says smoking synthetic cannabinoids can cause a range of symptoms that include hallucinations and acute psychosis.

There is a grey area when it comes to whether synthetic marijuana is illegal in Canada. Not all synthetic cannabinoids have been specifically listed by the federal government in Schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). Some active ingredients have no similar structure to THC and because of that, they are not considered to be similar synthetic preparations, and therefore, not considered illegal. However, Health Canada has declared that it considers K2, Spice, or any other synthetic marijuana product a controlled substance under the CDSA if it gives the same effects as marijuana.

What Are Bath salts?

Bath salts is the street name for a number of designer drugs often containing substituted cathinones, which have effects similar to amphetamine and cocaine. These drugs are often in the form of white crystals resembling epsom salts. Users report experiencing headaches, heart palpitations, nausea, cold fingers, and in some cases hallucinations, paranoia, and panic attacks.

There are no statistics on the prevalence of bath salts in Canada or the U.S., but the American Association of Poison Control Centers says the number of calls it received related to synthetic cathinones rose from 303 in 2010 to over 6,000 in 2011.[1] Also in the U.S., a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that bath salts were involved in nearly 23,000 visits to hospital ERs in 2011. Here in Canada, the federal government has banned methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), a drug commonly found in bath salts. MDPV is now on Schedule I of the CDSA, in the same category as heroin and cocaine.

Can employers test for these drugs?

Some manufacturers have developed a POCT kit to test for synthetic marijuana products, but there are limitations. As we know, POCT testing is not as accurate or reliable as lab-based testing. Like with any quick test, it’s imperative to have qualified, credible laboratory tests to provide support in the form of appropriate screening and confirmation tests for any non-negative POCT outcome. Currently, because of the costs associated with developing the testing process, procedures, protocols, and running each test, only two laboratories in the U.S. will arrange for synthetic cannabinoids to be tested. As such, testing for synthetic marijuana may be costly for clients in Canada who wish to ship specimens to the U.S.

The other problem with testing for synthetic marijuana is that it is not just one chemical. There are more than 450 synthetic cannabinoid chemicals with similar effects, and even in the U.S. where testing is done, it is only available for a small number of these drugs.  The manufacturers of this family of drugs can create next generation versions, and by altering the chemical structure of these compounds, labs will be required to invest in expensive and new substance-specific, accurate, and valid testing protocols to try to detect each next generation drug.

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[1] Coppola, M. & Mondola, R. (1 June 2012). Synthetic cathinones: Chemistry, pharmacology and toxicology of a new class of designer drugs of abuse marketed as “bath salts” or “plant food.” Toxicology Letters. Vol. 1, Issue 2: 144–149.