Synthetic Drugs Creating Havoc for Lawmakers

Addiction medicine specialists will encounter many patients who use two classes of synthetic drugs—synthetic cannabinoids (a.k.a. “Spice” or “K2”) and substituted cathinones (a.k.a. “bath salts”). Learn what to expect with the use of these substances and the extent of their use during Symposium 11, “Emerging Drugs: Synthetic Cannabinoids and Substituted Cathinones” from 8 to 10 a.m., today, in Grand Salon West, Salon D.

“While I am not hearing much in the way of people running into problems with them, these synthetic drugs are becoming much more prevalent in society,” says Symposium Moderator Michael Fingerhood, M.D., FACP, Associate Professor of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University. “Especially with synthetic cannabinoids, I’ve started seeing people in their early 20s who have had experiences with these drugs, and you are starting to read a lot more about them in the press as well. If people want something, they can find it, and right now they are starting to look for these drugs.”

The drugs are manufactured in a lab and are related to cannabis and cathinones, but they remain unscheduled because the creators make slight changes to their formulas to remain one step in front of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 39 states have already banned one or both of these substances with 2009 and 2010 legislation targeting specific versions of the drugs. Minor changes to the substances’ chemical make-up allowed manufacturers to sell similar drugs not covered in the laws.

The response to this cat-and-mouse scenario is 2011 and 2012 legislation that targets entire classes of substances and aims to prevent new formulations of synthetic drugs from remaining unregulated, Dr. Fingerhood says. This also allows for substances that are approved for medical and research purposes.

“The state legislatures have really taken the lead in fighting this battle ahead of any federal action,” he says. “This makes sense, because they are able to react more quickly, so they are sort of setting out the path for the DEA.”

Today’s symposium will cover these issues and a host of others, Dr. Fingerhood says, with four speakers presenting on various aspects of the current state of the issue. The speakers are:

  • Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore
  • Erik Gunderson, M.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences and Department of Medicine, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville
  • Elizabeth Crane, Ph.D., M.P.H., Social Science Analyst, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • Robert Bell, Staff Coordinator, Synthetic Drugs and Chemicals Section (ODS), DEA

“The last speaker will talk about what the Justice Department believes are the most important points regarding these drugs, as well as what they think is coming down the road,” Dr. Fingerhood says. “That will focus mostly on what has to happen to schedule this class of drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.

“The lack of general knowledge and the risk these drugs pose is an issue that we all need to be very aware of. Young people become  extremely paranoid, and addiction medicine physicians need to be aware of the warning signs that will help them zero in on the patients who might be using these products.”