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War on Synthetic Drugs Continues With New Tests

But will the new technology change patterns of use?

August 30, 2012 3:55 PM ET
synthetic marijuana k2
A pouch of 'K2' dried herbal potpourri that is being called 'synthetic marijuana.'
Wendy Galietta/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Less than two months after President Obama signed a nationwide federal ban on many synthetic drugs – including so-called synthetic marijuana and bath salts – Ohio's Omega Laboratories has announced the existence of a new test for these substances' presence in humans. But while this news has been touted as a powerful tool to decrease the use of synthetic drugs, the very nature of the chemicals being targeted may prove both the ban and drug-testing efforts to be futile.  

Synthetic drugs work by mimicking the effects of more familiar substances. The synthetic cannabinoids in fake pot can make a user feel like he or she has smoked weed, while the synthetic cathinones in bath salts (including Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, and mephedrone) can replicate the high of ecstasy or speed – and until recently, users could get these effects without the complications of using an illegal drug.

Anecdotal evidence linking synthetic pot and bath salts to psychotic episodes, health problems and crime has prompted a wave of bans on both the state and federal level. But suppliers simply responded by tweaking their formulas to create substances that produced similar effects without running afoul of the law – catching officials in a messy cycle that has been referred to as a "a game of whack-a-mole." It remains unclear whether Omega's testing technology will do much to change that.

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