EDITOR’S NOTE: Because this article focuses on the use of illicit substances, some last names have been withheld to protect privacy. 

Preventing new drug outbreaks could become easier than ever, according to a study released by the university’s Center for Substance Abuse Research last week.

Funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, researchers tested the Community Drug Early Warning System, which is designed to identify emerging substances and lessen their threat to a community. CESAR researchers tested the system based on the idea that emerging drugs can be found in high-risk criminal populations before detection in the general public.

More than 1,000 anonymous urine samples from five different criminal justice population groups in  Washington, Prince George’s County and Chesterfield, Va., were sent through a more thorough CDEWS drug screening — testing for certain specific molecules in drug metabolism called metabolites — after being subjected to traditional tests. Synthetic cannabinoids, an emerging family of drugs, showed up in the second round of screening after going undetected in the traditional screening.

More commonly referred to by product names such as “K2” or “spice,” the substance has fallen under heavy scrutiny in recent years. The drug, also known as synthetic marijuana, has been characterized by the often unknown chemical makeup that its manufacturers infuse into organic material. Because traditional drug tests look only for evidence of illegal substance abuse, synthetics use in criminal justice populations has flown largely under the radar.

In light of numerous accounts of the drug leading an individual to commit a crime or even suicide, a new state law went into effect Oct. 1, banning all types of synthetic cannabinoids. 

“These drugs are really dangerous, and the reason they are is because they are designed to have the effect of another drug,” said Eric Wish, CESAR director and the study’s principal investigator. “They’re not regulated by the FDA, so the person taking the drug is the drug-tester.”

Wish said he had mixed feelings about the term “synthetic marijuana” because it could mislead consumers. Because the man-made chemicals in the products — dangerous or not — are only designed to imitate the high of marijuana’s main active ingredient, THC, Wish said “fake marijuana” would be a more appropriate label.

Finding traces of synthetic cannabinoids in the criminal justice system is alarming, Wish said, adding that it means the drug could find its way to the masses on an epidemic scale. 

“If they’re in the criminal population, they’re everywhere,” Wish said.

Vini, a senior government and politics major, said he tried spice when a friend offered it to him after buying a pack at a local gas station. His experience was mild, he said, and he only used it once.

“It wasn’t really bad, and it wasn’t really good; it just made me feel high,” Vini said. “But I’ve heard horror stories where kids have died. I just don’t see a reason for it when there’s comparatively no risk with actual marijuana.”

But for Jenna, a sophomore criminology and criminal justice major who tried K2 with a friend at a music festival this summer, the high was much more instantaneous — and stronger — than her experiences with marijuana. 

“I’m usually pretty cautious,” Jenna said. “So when it started to hit me, I said, ‘I should probably stop.’”

Still, she said her trip was tolerable compared to her friend’s first time trying the drug.

“She tried it and thought she was going to die,” Jenna said. “Her friends went into a gas station for a few minutes, and when they came out, she was in the car just kind of sitting there, like catatonic, terrified they had abandoned her.”

When researchers initially developed the study, Wish said they planned to test for 10 different metabolites —  evidence that synthetic cannabinoids had been used. Taking the advice of a local laboratory, they added to the screening another two metabolites (UR-144 and XLR-11) that were legal at the time and believed to be used more frequently in the newer forms of synthetic marijuana. 

Of the 1,064 specimens observed in the study, 591 were screened for synthetic cannabinoids. Of those, 118 — about 20 percent — tested positive for at least one of the 12 metabolites on the panel. All of those that tested positive contained either the “UR-144” or “XLR-11” metabolites. Had researchers not included these two additional metabolites in testing, Wish said, they would have missed 95 percent of their positive samples.

This evidence shows how quickly synthetic marijuana products can change composition — a dangerous quality for an unregulated substance, he said.

“Even a product with the same name could have different chemicals than last month,” Wish said.

Coupled with the ban, Wish said he expects the CDEWS to evolve with future studies. In a few months, he said, a follow-up study will be conducted in Washington to collect more data about potential dangers of emerging substances. This time, though, the test will screen for other substances such as the synthetic drug known as “bath salts.”

Wish said he would not advocate for the use of naturally grown marijuana, but he said the drug carries far less uncertainty than synthesized imitations.

“Marijuana is absolutely less harmful,” he said. “It’s been around for thousands of years. At this point, we pretty much know what happens when someone uses it.”