Synthetic drugs are on the radar, but they aren’t easy targets

Police departments around the nation are reporting an increase in robberies, violent crimes, and peculiar 911 calls thanks to the increased use of synthetic drugs, commonly known as “bath salts”, K2, Spice, Red Dragon, Genie and a host of other creative names. Emergency rooms in many cities are also seeing an increase in patients who need to be restrained and sedated after coming in with intoxication and acute psychosis from bath salts.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, “people high on these drugs can get very agitated and violent, exhibit psychosis and severe behavior changes, and have harmed themselves and others”. They’d know. In 2011, poison centers nationwide responded to more than 13,000 calls related to synthetic marijuana and bath salts – up from 3,200 calls in 2010. And the numbers continue to rise in 2012.

These drugs mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. They have become more popular because they are cheap; potent; don’t show up on standard drug tests; and up until lately, were legally available. That is about to change. After 44 states, including Pennsylvania, had already banned synthetic drugs, the Federal government just jumped on the band wagon. On July 9, 2012, the federal Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 was signed into law, adding more than 30 substances to the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Perhaps no employer is more acutely aware of the health and safety risk these drugs pose than the United States Armed Forces. A spokesperson for Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota said, “We’ve got 19-year-olds who care for $300 million aircraft. We need to take them very seriously and be proactive.” In addition to investing $480,000 on specialized instruments that can detect Spice in urine samples, the Air Force is also now contracting with civilian labs to test Airmen. The Navy also has begun random testing for synthetic compounds like Spice. During fiscal 2012, it will invest $1.73 million into testing and expects to increase that amount to $2.9 million next year.

As more employers request synthetic testing capabilities, manufacturers of drug testing supplies are updating their products and more labs are offering testing services for synthetic compounds. Some labs already offer instant tests that identify illegal compounds found in synthetic marijuana. But it’s two steps forward, one step back. As bans on specific compounds take effect, illicit drug manufacturers are substituting closely related substances that are not detectable with the new tests.

So what is an employer to do? Remain diligent.

  • Be sure you have a Drug-Free Workplace Policy that is legally compliant, understandable and clearly communicated to every employee.
  • Be sure you are following and enforcing that policy.
  • Be sure your supervisors receive good “Reasonable Suspicion” training. They should know how to recognize intoxication and what to do about it.

The attached checklist will help your trained supervisors identify and document suspicious behaviors, whether the source is synthetic drugs, alcohol or other illicit drugs.

Click Here For The Observed Behavior Reasonable Suspicion Record

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