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Designer drugs proliferate

July 15, 2011
by Sumandeep Rana
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Sumandeep rana
Sumandeep Rana

Recreational drugs produced in the laboratory have been around since at least the middle of the 20th century, when LSD was first studied. But over the past few years, a new wave of synthesized chemicals, so-called “designer drugs,” have had a significant impact on the drug culture.

The term “designer drug” is used for chemicals that produce similar subjective effects to illegal recreational drugs. Development of synthesized drugs may involve altering the molecular structure of existing drugs, or identifying different chemical structures that generate the same effects that illegal drugs produce.

Several synthetic products designed to mimic marijuana, cocaine and other drugs are available today in head shops and over the Internet for as little as $15. Labels that promote these products as “herbal incense,” “research chemicals,” or “plant food” serve only to circumvent regulation by suggesting that they are not for human consumption.

Many designer drugs are currently legal and attractive to adolescents and young adults, particularly those seeking to avoid a positive urine drug screen, as well as those who would like to experiment. People may mistakenly believe that because the drug is not illegal, it must be safe.

The two major classes of designer drugs recently gaining popularity are last year's big-selling synthetic cannabinoids or “fake marijuana” (marketed as K2, Spice, etc.) and this year's designer stimulants or “bath salts” (with names such as Purple Wave and Bliss).

Synthetic cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids, also known as cannabinomimetics, are chemical compounds that mimic the effect of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal active ingredient of cannabis. Like THC, they bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

These cannabinoid receptor agonists were originally developed as therapeutic agents for treating pain by John W. Huffman, a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University, who synthesized more than 400 such compounds. However, the desired properties could not be separated from unwanted psychoactive effects.

Spice was the first product laced with synthetic cannabinoids to appear in the market and became popular in Europe in 2008. In the U.S., the brand K2 became popular in 2009, and since then many competing products have appeared. These products are typically sold as incense or potpourri and consist of synthetic cannabinoid chemicals sprayed on dried leaves, flowers and herbs. The product isn't marketed for human consumption, but when smoked or infused it produces a marijuana-like high.

JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid named after creator Huffman, was one of the main active ingredients in most first-generation “fake marijuana” products. Others such as JWH-073 have been identified in different brands since then.

Products containing certain synthetic cannabinoids are banned in many countries. Here in the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently used emergency powers to outlaw five chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, placing them in the Schedule I (not for legitimate medical use) category. But manufacturers are quick to adapt, cranking out new products with formulations that are only a single molecule apart from the illegal ones. The same product often is spiked with different doses of different drugs, making it difficult for users to know what they are taking.

Numerous health agencies and professionals say these substances have spurred symptoms that include a racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, confusion, nausea, and in some cases seizures and hallucinations. Since 2010, more than 4,500 calls regarding fake marijuana have been received by poison control centers around the nation.

First to offer a reliable drug test, Redwood Toxicology Laboratory has been detecting the synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018, JWH-073 and their metabolites in urine specimens since July 2010. More than 50,000 urine samples have been analyzed, primarily from treatment and drug court programs. An alarming overall positive rate of 18 percent indicates the popularity of these products, which unlike marijuana do not show up on a routine drug screen.

Also, the active ingredients are constantly being changed by the “drug chemists” to avoid detection. To address this concern, Redwood developed a saliva-based test that quantitatively confirms the presence of JWH-018, JWH-073 and JWH-250 in human oral fluid. Redwood has analyzed more than 600 samples, with a positive rate of 15 percent.

Since parent compounds are detected in oral fluid, it is easy for our lab to develop tests to keep up with the ever-changing formulations of designer drug-laced products, and more compounds can be added to the testing menu with relative ease. We are also finding oral fluid testing gaining popularity within our addiction and mental health treatment customer base.

Designer stimulants

Similar to K2 or Spice, synthetic designer stimulants are produced in clandestine laboratories and are commonly sold at smoke shops or available online. They are sold under a variety of names that include Ivory Wave, Cloud Nine, Bliss, Red Dove, Vanilla Sky and Hurricane Charlie.

These “bath salts” are in reality potent crystallized chemicals that are snorted, swallowed or smoked. They contain powerful stimulants such as methylone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and mephedrone, which mimic the stimulating effects of cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA.