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'Spice' users left high and dry?

April 1, 2011
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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A DEA ban, plus new detection methods, ends the “legal” status of synthetic marijuana compounds

Most drug screens include a test for marijuana use, so it's no surprise that a “legal” substitute grew in popularity so quickly. For over a year, we've heard about synthetic THC being sold legally in “herbal incense” products, marketed under names like “Spice,” “Genie” and “K2.”

“People would take these substances hoping to prevent a positive drug screen,” explains Sean Kobayashi, marketing director at Redwood Toxicology Laboratories, a national drug testing lab based in Santa Rosa, Calif. “They're being used as a way to beat the system.” 

Derived from chemical compounds, synthetic marijuana compounds, or cannabinoids, are usually produced in powder form, then dissolved into liquids and sprayed on herbal materials. They have been readily available on the Internet, in tobacco shops, gas stations, and even convenience stores. And not only were these “legal” substitutes for a marijuana high, but they were also undetectable to drug tests.

At least until recently.

On March 1, five of the synthetic cannabinoids identified in Spice and K2 were classified as Class I controlled substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And even before these ingredients were banned nationally, numerous labs had already been developing methods to add Spice and its counterparts to their drug testing panels.

“We were getting a lot of inquiries from customers who were running into issues with Spice,” notes Matt Woodcock, PhD, director of R&D for Dominion Diagnostics, a Rhode Island-based drug testing lab. “There was a clear need to develop a test for this.”

Developing a reliable detection test

Over the last several months, labs have identified two compounds currently found in all Spice products as well as a number of chemically similar variations. The two, known as JWH-018 and JWH-073, serve as the primary receptor agonists that enable the synthetics to produce the marijuana-like effects. 

Who's testing for Spice?


Atlantic Diagnostic Laboratories

Avee Laboratories Inc.

Dominion Diagnostics

MEDTOX Clinical Laboratories

Redwood Toxicology Laboratories

STERLING Reference Laboratories

U.S. Drug Testing Laboratories

“Most things we test for are very defined and characterized, so this was definitely different,” explains Woodcock. “Initially we had to look at everything, but once we knew what to look for we were able to narrow it down and simplify the assay.”

In order to come up with a test, labs had to develop standards based on the commercially available synthetics. Redwood Toxicology confirmed that JWH-018 and JWH-073 were the active ingredients in 27 herbal mixtures. Then, it established methods to test for the presence of each compound's metabolites.

Dominion Diagnostics assembled a pool of 25 patients whom clients had identified as potential Spice users. “Some were positive and some were negative,” Woodcock explains, “but we saw a trend where three metabolites were present at all times when we found a positive case.”

Identifying the correct metabolites has been critical to developing reliable tests, according to Kobayashi. “When we were first developing our test, some labs were claiming they had a K2 test, but it involved parent drug detection, which is completely unreliable-and not legally defensible,” he says.

In fact, the compounds themselves don't usually appear in urine samples, so “you really have to test for the metabolite to catch anyone using Spice,” says Woodcock. “If you only test for the compounds, you probably aren't going to catch many users.”

Weighing test options and costs

In the few months that tests have been available, labs have had a surge of inquiries. “As soon as [tests were] launched, we started seeing a very high percentage of positive results,” notes Kobayashi. “So it very much confirmed our suspicions about how popular this drug has become.”

From an organization's perspective, implementing Spice testing is easy: this specialty test is simply added to the more routine drug test panel. Of course, tests for more common drugs or metabolites like THC, opiates, or cocaine are less expensive because these are already built into a panel.

“Tests for Spice and K2 are specialty tests, so they are going to cost more,” says Kobayashi, adding that their pricing is “very comparable to any other specialty test.”

According to Woodcock, another consideration when it comes to cost is that typically, confirmation tests cost more than ELISA (enzyme-linked immune-sorbent assay) or immunoassay tests. But as confirmation tests go, it's really no different than what you would see for opiates, marijuana or cocaine.

“Essentially, testing for metabolites puts the cart before the horse, in terms of running what are typically referred to as ‘confirmation tests’ right off the bat,” explains Woodcock. “So we know which metabolites are positive and potentially which are negative.”

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