While the rest of the nation struggles with heroin, prescription pills and other "traditional" drugs, DC and its surrounding suburbs are in the crosshairs of a new drug war – overwhelmed by an onslaught of violence and overdoses connected to synthetic drugs.
For decades, most street drugs could be lumped into six groups: marijuana, crack and cocaine, opioids, amphetamines, PCP and hallucinogens, according to drug experts we've interviewed. That's what police seized and courts tested for when suspects went to lock-up and came out through probation and parole. Prosecutors knew how to successfully try these types of drug cases. Doctors knew how to treat overdoses resulting from these traditional drugs.
But then, around 2008, shiny packets called "Spice" and "K-2" started popping up on the shelves of our convenience stores and gas stations. Nearly everyone called it "synthetic marijuana" until the government started cracking down on the drugs in 2011. To stay ahead of police, overseas chemists tweaked the chemicals used to make the drugs, creating totally new combinations with unknown reactions. That's when police say things started turning violent and people began to die.
One of the biggest problems facing law enforcement is also the most basic – what do you call these drugs? It's hard to fight a war on something that doesn't have a consistent name. In the beginning, many referred to them as "synthetic marijuana" because the first batches resembled the leafy weed and gave a similar high. But that's become a problem for law enforcement and health officials, who say the association with marijuana gives a false impression these drugs are safer than harder drugs like heroin and crack. Instead, researchers have found that as the drugs evolve, so do their effects on the human body.
Click on a photo to learn more about each drug:
Police say they've seen recent batches cause people to act like they're on PCP. Others – like Bath Salts, Molly and N-Bomb – come in forms that look more like crack, prescription pills and LSD. Even the experts themselves can't agree on what to call them. At a recent synthetic drug conference we attended in the District, some called them "research chemicals," while others used the terms "designer drugs" and "new psychoactive substances." DC's politicians and emergency responders use the name "K-2" even though the DEA says it hasn't seen that specific brand come through its crime lab in several years. Most chemists use each drug's chemical "class." For instance, we've found Scooby Snax typically contains an ever-changing roster of "synthetic cannabinoids," while Flakka is a type of "designer cathinone." Our newsroom decided to use one of the simplest and all-encompassing terms: "synthetic drugs." It's not perfect. We know some traditional drugs, like ecstasy and PCP, are also "synthetic" because they're made in a lab. But most experts have told us this is the most accurate catch-all term.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the area are very upfront about the fact they can't keep up with synthetics. They tell us as soon as they "schedule" or put a synthetic drug on the government's prohibited list, a new variant pops up. For example, our television crew was inside one of Virginia's crime labs when a chemist got the results of a test on some drug packets recently seized by local police. The test showed the packets contained a molecular compound they had never seen before. The DEA says it's identifying new synthetic chemicals as often as once a week. To help police and prosecutors keep up with these ever-changing drugs, lawmakers told us they're now scrambling to overhaul drug laws that have been on the books for decades.
The DEA Deconstructs Synthetic Drugs
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An Explosion of Synthetic Drugs: A Timeline
As we've reported on synthetic drugs, it's become readily apparent that few outside of law enforcement and the medical community really understand the true danger of these drugs. Most of the folks we've met on the street continue to think synthetics are just "fake weed" and don't fully grasp how little doctors actually know about their effects on the human body – how little they can do to save someone overdosing on these drugs. The drugs are so new and have so many different kinds of brand names, we've found many schools are still trying to figure out how to incorporate them into their anti-drug curriculum. Every expert we interviewed – without fail – has told us the same thing: they need to do a better job educating potential users, especially teenagers, about what's really in synthetic drugs and how deadly they can be.
The News4 I-Team interviewed more than 30 synthetic drug experts. Via social media like Facebook and Twitter, we asked you to send us the questions you have about these complicated drugs. Here are your Top 10 Questions About Synthetic Drugs along with answers from the experts we interviewed.
Is the federal government or the military "drug testing" for synthetics?
Yes. Ron Flegel is the Director of the Division Workplace Program at U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is the federal agency in charge of developing drug testing protocols. "We set the gold standard for drug testing because we set federal standards," he explained. "All labs must meet those federal standards." Flegel told the News4 I-Team the federal government started synthetic drug testing in 2011 for "all federally regulated programs, which includes the Department of Transportation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and all federal agencies." He said most testing is on "a case-by-case basis" and includes individuals applying for security clearances.
The military is also testing for synthetics. Although the Department of Defense declined our request to discuss their program, Cliff Keegan at the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency said he developed his agency's new drug testing protocols using the military's system as a guide. "What we learned from the military, which helped inform the way we ought to go with the testing, is they found once they broadcast the fact they were going to do much more robust testing for synthetics, the actual positive rates went down significantly because people learned they wouldn't get away with it," he said. "We want the same message to get out to our community."
How long does the drug stay in your system?
No one knows. Dr. Cathleen Clancy at the National Capital Poison Center said some patients have exhibited agitation "for days" but "most patients become intensely agitated" in the beginning and within "a day or two their symptoms have cleared." Cliff Keegan at the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency, which conducts drug testing for the D.C. court system, explained, "There are still so many unknowns for synthetics" that researchers still don't know what the "half-life" is, meaning, "If you consume it today, how long will the remnants stay in your system?"
How do doctors "treat" an overdose?
Treating synthetic overdoses is one of the biggest challenges facing emergency rooms in our area right now. Dr. Eric Wish at the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland explained to the News4 I-Team that "traditional" street drugs have "a long research literature because the long human experience we've had with these drugs. We know what they do to people and we generally know how to treat them." But Dr. Wish said, "The synthetics are so new that no doctor knows what to do. We don't know how to treat it. We have no clinical research to tell us what it does to people. We can guess but we really don't know like we do with the other street drugs." He bluntly put it this way: "The poor unfortunate person on the street is the drug tester. They're the guinea pigs who basically are going to show us what happens when someone takes one of these drugs."
Dr. Cathleen Clancy at the National Capital Poison Center also told the I-Team emergency rooms are "essentially guessing" while they try to keep patients alive by treating the symptoms rather than the cause. She said Poison Control will "tell them to calm the patient down and give them drug options for that. We tell them to make sure the patient is well hydrated, so they need an IV. Check to make sure they don't have muscle breakdown to prevent damage to the kidneys. And we have them make sure that the patient's temperature is normal. If it's very high, we have them cool the patient. If their heart rate is really low, you give them something to increase it. If the heart rate is high, you give them something to slow it down."
Ron Flegel at U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggested state health departments should start investing in high-tech screening devices that could quickly tell emergency rooms what chemicals a patient actually ingested, rather than relying on vague and misleading brand names.
Is there an antidote?
No. There's nothing like Narcan, which can sometimes reverse the fatal effects of a heroin or other opioid overdose. Medical experts tell the News4 I-Team they basically "treat the symptoms" and "try to keep people alive" until the drug works its way out of a patient's system.
Are they addictive?
No one knows. D.C. Department of Behavioral Health Director Tanya Royster told the News4 I-Team the molecular compounds change so quickly, with new chemicals popping up as often as once a week, there's no way to tell if any of the substances are actually addictive.
How much do they cost?
D.C. police tell the News4 I-Team when synthetic drugs first arrived in the District, part of their attraction was their low cost. Acting Lt. Detective Andy Struhar said a typical Scooby Snax or Bizarro packet used to cost $10 to $20. But after police started to crack down on stores selling the drugs, Struhar told the I-Team his undercover agents reported prices started to double to $20 to $40 during the summer of 2015. Multiple law enforcement agencies told the I-Team a standard synthetic cannabinoid packet can typically fill the equivalent of three cigarettes or one large blunt.
What are the demographics for these drugs?
The Drug Enforcement Administration said users range in age from 11 years old into their 70s. The News4 I-Team found evidence of use throughout the entire DMV, stretching from urban cities like D.C. and Baltimore into rural towns throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Winchester Police Lt. Wally Stotlemyer told the News4 I-Team users in his region are primarily teenagers and young men in their early 20s of all races and ethnicities.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier told the I-Team most users in the District are homeless or on probation and parole, hoping to "cheat" their court-ordered drug tests by using synthetics. But Dr. Eric Wish at the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland found users as young as 13 when he analyzed drug test results from the District. "What is really intriguing is we found different metabolites in specimens from juveniles than we did from adults," he said. "Does that mean they're buying them from different places? Are the youth more likely to get them from the Internet, for instance, and the adults more likely to get them on the street?"
How can I tell if my neighbor is running a "lab"
The Drug Enforcement Administration told the News4 I-Team the actual chemicals are made in overseas laboratories in China, which are then shipped into the United States as a white powder. DEA evidence photos reviewed by the I-Team show the powder is then applied to leaves by mixing acetone with the powder using a variety of machines, including concrete mixers, standup kitchen mixers and even bathtubs. The leaves are then laid out to dry. The photos show the facilities where this happens can range from warehouses to storage lockers to people's garages.
Who is profiting?
That's what the Drug Enforcement Administration wants to know. Both the DEA and the Director of White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli tell the News 4 I-Team China definitely benefits, as most of the illegal substances are initially synthesized there. The DEA told the I-Team a 2014 synthetic drug bust of gas stations in Birmingham, Alabama revealed millions of dollars of sales ended up in Yemen, fueling speculation that the money might be funding terrorism. But Botticelli told the I-Team "we know that a lot of the money goes back to fund organizations who are engaged in a wide variety of illicit activity like human trafficking and trafficking of other illegal goods" but "we haven't seen broad based information to suggest the money for these drugs are going to other countries to support terrorist activities."
Would legalizing marijuana solve this problem?
Researchers say no. Dr. Eric Wish at the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland told the I-Team drug testing in Denver found synthetic cannabinoid use is "exploding." He admitted, "That didn't make any sense to me, that was counterintuitive, and I said, ‘How can that be? People can now get marijuana on the street, why would they turn to synthetic cannabinoids?' When you hear the answer, it is pretty obvious. Legal marijuana is expensive. There's profit, it can be taxed. It gets to be expensive. Synthetic cannabinoids are cheaper."
Nelson Hsu, Tisha Thompson, Matthew Stabley