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Taming the beast of synthetic drugs

July 19, 2012
by By Nanci Stockwell
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Drug testing professional says, "synthetic drugs represent an especially destructive threat to society" and calls for concerted action.

The addiction treatment industry involves a constellation of organizations extending across many sectors, including treatment and recovery groups, pharmaceutical companies, legal services, hospitals, behavioral health organizations, employee benefits and insurance firms, healthcare technology companies, nutritionists, fitness coaches and advisers, and toxicology labs. All organizations within the industry share broad and difficult challenges, and each individual organization has challenges specific to its own sector as well.

A growing challenge across this industry concerns the development of synthetic drugs—an incessant effort to pump out drugs that stay ahead and outside of the classification of illegal substances and that also are not on the roster of substances for which toxicology testing companies screen. I have worked in drug treatment and in toxicology testing for more than 20 years, and taking into account all I have experienced, I can say with absolute certainty that synthetic drugs represent an especially destructive threat to society.

Synthetic drugs mimic the effects of illegal and prescription drugs, and can do tremendous psychological and physical damage, but they can be legally sold and consumed when they first emerge. Gas stations, convenience stores and specialty shops sell the drugs; they also are easily available online and on the streets. 2-CE, Spice, Texas Gold, K2 and Purple Magic are some of the names under which various types of synthetic drugs are marketed; many consumers become convinced that these substances aren’t potentially harmful.

Bath salts

Day after day, news outlets are reporting the misery and life-destroying influence of synthetic drugs. Widespread in the media at present are horror stories involving the synthetic drug MDVP, commonly called “bath salts” because the substance is crystallized and resembles the actual salts used in bathing. Bath salts—the synthetic drug type—are a sort of imitation cocaine and LSD.

Methylenedioxypyrovalerone and mephedrone, both powerful stimulants, are the primary ingredients in bath salts. Among the enticing and colorful names under which they are sold are Bloom, Vanilla Sky, Blue Silk, Snow Leopard, and Hurricane Charlie.

Most people snort bath salts, although some inject the substances. Either way, people using bath salts can almost literally lose their minds, becoming ensnared in a maelstrom of anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and confusion. Violent behavior and suicide have been the consequences for a number of users.

A ban recently signed into law by President Obama will prohibit the sale of bath salts and other similar synthetic drugs. This legislation represents a great first step in the war on synthetic drugs. Other solutions will be needed, though, as synthetic drug makers find new ways around enforcement measures.

Taking action

It’s a never-ending battle against these drugs. A new drug emerges, and then the scrambling starts among law enforcement, government and human services agencies and others to raise awareness and to ban the drug’s sale and use. Toxicology companies such as the one for which I work, Calloway Labs, will have to continue to invest in new technology so that our testing protocols will recognize these drugs.

All of us involved in drug addiction treatment will manage to catch up in a way—the drug will be made illegal and testing companies will be on the lookout for it and be able to identify it. Yet a designer drug can be out in the public and legally available long enough to do serious damage. So how do we combat it and protect the public?

First, everyone in our industry needs to stay as current, educated and informed as possible. There needs to be considerable sharing of information, and an understanding that all of us, no matter what company we work for and how long we have worked in addiction treatment, are on the same team. Efforts of professional associations in the field that produce valuable research and that foster the sharing of information and resources will be vital to protecting the public from the ravages of synthetic drugs.

There also must be increased international cooperation, including in the area of policing, to prevent those drugs that are manufactured overseas from arriving at our shores.

We never will totally eradicate synthetic drugs. We can, however, hit hard and make life far more difficult for those producing the drugs, and we can ensure that substances that are harmful cannot be legally sold.

And certainly we have to continue to be a forceful, clear and loud clarion informing the public about how hazardous these substances are to mind, body and soul. It is a major challenge, and we are better positioned for success when we take on the challenge together.

 

Nanci Stockwell is General Manager of Substance Abuse at Calloway Labs, one of the fastest-growing clinical toxicology laboratories in the U.S. The company’s headquarters and its laboratory are in Woburn, Mass. Stockwell’s e-mail address is nstockwell@callowaylabs.com.

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