New Street Drugs Present Testing Challenge

Felix Adatsi, PhD, Director, Office of Forensic Toxicology Services

There’s a relatively new class of synthetic designer drugs being used as popular substitutes for marijuana. These synthetic cannabinoids are known by many names, including Spice and K2, as well less popular street names like Bliss, Blaze, JWH -018, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, and Moon Rocks. They mimic the effects of marijuana and, even at low doses, may result in serious adverse effects on users. Several different forms of these synthetic cannabinoids exist, and newer ones frequently are being synthesized and added to this class. This endless supply of newer and varied forms of the drug has resulted in the lack of a validated and standardized database of scientific information on the metabolites and testing procedures. This makes identifying these drugs and their metabolites a daunting analytical challenge for laboratories.

PSA has been doing drug testing in the District since the late 1970s. While the Office of Forensic Toxicology Services’ (OFTS) laboratory is certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/CLIA and is staffed by professionals with credentials in forensic toxicology, forensic science, medical technology, chemistry and biology; it currently does not have the capacity for the large scale testing for these drugs.

Over the past two years, some progress has been made in the scientific community in identifying and testing some metabolites of these drugs. Some commercial laboratories have developed instrument-based, high throughput screening methods for synthetic cannabinoids. Only one company currently possesses a screening method that can be used on our in-house instrument. However, even this method is limited to the detection of only some of the metabolites that have been identified by the scientific community. Beyond screening for these compounds, the current method of choice for the confirmation of detected synthetic cannabinoids involves the use of LC/MS/MS, which the PSA lab does not have, and is unable to rely on the sensitivity of our GCMS techniques to confirm these synthetic drugs.

Recently, OFTS embarked on using an immunoassay dip card testing method and successfully identified some of the metabolites of the synthetic cannabinoids. Analysis of a small number of specimens from defendants at lockup showed the presence of three of the metabolites associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids. However, the use of the dip card method of analysis does not lend itself to large volume testing of specimens and may be better suited for use on an as needed basis or for spot testing. OFTS will continue its use of the dip card to screen specimens on an as needed basis while exploring the use of other instrument-based screening methods.

It must be emphasized that the dip card method can detect only three of the many metabolites likely to result from the use of synthetic cannabinoids. If a positive result is obtained from the dip card screening test and there is a need for confirmation, OFTS will facilitate confirmation testing by contacting a laboratory that has the LC/MS/MS instrument needed to test for synthetic cannabinoids. However, it is very costly to perform this confirmation and will be done in extremely rare circumstances.

Because of the growing number of these new synthetic compounds, lack of reference materials, and limited information on their metabolism, it has been difficult to adapt traditional methods of testing to identify these synthetic cannabinoids. However, OFTS will continue to monitor the progress being made in new screening methods and advances in LC/MS/MS for confirmation in order to eventually provide large scale testing of incoming specimens for the presence of synthetic cannabinoids. In the meantime, you are encouraged to contact OFTS for any additional information or guidance.