Synthetic Cannabinoids in the Workplace
Synthetic cannabinoids are man made psychoactive chemicals related to those found in the marijuana plant. They are often called “fake weed” or “synthetic marijuana”. They are sold as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana when in reality they are dangerously more powerful, usually with severe, unpredictable effects to the brain that in some cases can be life-threatening.
They come in two forms:
- Smoked – the chemicals are sprayed onto dried and shredded plant material and used like herbal incense
- Inhaled – the liquid chemicals are vaporized for use in e-cigarettes and other device
These substances, mostly mass-produced in China, were first introduced and distributed throughout Europe and the United States late in 2008 when no FDA or DEA regulations were in place. Avoiding regulation was fairly easy. They were simply labeled “Not for Human Consumption” and were sold in tiny foil packets in truck stops, convenience stores, gas stations etc. They range in price between $30 -$50 per packet. From only 2 in 2009, the number quickly rose to 51 new synthetic cannabinoids identified by 2012. The drug market is practically flooded with these synthetic substances in such a short amount of time.
Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids
The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can last up to 12 hours, with some people needing a few days to fully recover from their use. User reports list the following effects of using synthetic cannabinoids:
- Mild euphoria
- Aggressive or violent behavior
Physiological effects include:
- Poor motor coordination
- Slurred speech
- Dilated pupils
- Red eyes
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased pulse rate
Considering that a large percentage of these users are most likely employed, what are the implications in the workplace if at least one employee reporting for work in the morning used synthetic cannabinoid the night before?
Testing for Synthetic Cannabinoids in the Workplace
In 2011, with the increasing prevalence of synthetic cannabinoids in the workplace, testing laboratories began to develop LC/MS/MS screening and confirmatory tests for the detection of these drugs. Employers mostly request these tests under reasonable suspicion and post-accident scenarios. After the initial wave of results in 2012, the tests quickly expanded to include random testing and pre-employment drug testing.
At the time, only 8 compounds were included in the test panels. By 2014, the number of compounds being tested has reached 21, but the original compounds JWH-018 and 073 have been replaced by new synthetic versions. The compounds used in the manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids keep changing as more and more of them come under the control of the federal government and drug runners find the need to replace them with something else.
After some 150,000 specimens over the 3-year period from 2012-2014, a clear trend emerged:
- As the number of pre-employment drug testing increased, the random tests declined. The number of random and post-accident testing remained high.
- JWH-018 and JWH-073 were initially the most prevalent synthetic cannabinoids, but by the final year of the study they have been replaced by other compounds in the top spot, namely: UR-144, AB-PINANCA, PB-22 (JWH stands for John W. Huffman, aka “The Father of Synthetic Cannabinoids” – a university professor whose major research work was to find alternatives to marijuana for the treatment of various medical conditions).
- A high 91.8% of all positives for synthetic cannabinoids were only positive for that drug, indicating that these people are single-drug users.
- For DOT, the percentage of positives for synthetic cannabinoids is higher than that for marijuana.
Despite the government’s efforts to curtail the spread of synthetic cannabinoids by regularly adding newly discovered compounds under Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the use of these drugs continues to rise. Currently, there are some 30 compounds under Schedule 1, and more are added each month. Schedule 1 substances are those that meet the following criteria:
- The drug or substance has a high potential for abuse.
- The drug or substance currently has no accepted medical use in the United States.
- The drug or substance has no accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
High profile corporations with safety concerns are especially careful not to incur negative economic impact from accidents. These corporations (mostly oil & gas, mining, railroads etc) increasingly include synthetic panels in their drug testing programs. While the war on synthetic drugs continues to heat up, there does not seem to be an end in the foreseeable future. It does not look like these compounds will be disappearing anytime soon and employers are compelled to do what they can by strengthening their drug testing programs in the workplace.