September 3rd, 2014, 3:40 PM
News & Releases

Companies, testing facilities need to cope with rise in synthetic drug use

By Trish Mehaffey

The Gazette Published: August 31 2014 | 12:01 am in News, CEDAR RAPIDS — Manufacturers of synthetic drugs such as K-2 stay one step ahead of the law by changing the chemical make up when one substance is banned. That isn't only a problem for law enforcement but also for employers as they strive to create safe workplace environments. Employers are now faced with the dilemma of paying an added expense to test employees for synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, which differ from the regular drug tests. However, those tests may not be reliable because when the products are altered to skirt the law, new drug testing panels have to be developed to detect the recently created products. Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement Special Agent Dan Stepleton said the trend of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones isn't going away. "We have the convenience shops and head shops selling under control, but they are just getting smarter about it," Stepleton said last week. "They don't have it out in the open, and the regular customers know to ask for it." Stepleton said the manufacturers change the man-made chemicals sprayed on the materials to produce that "high" practically every week. "Outlaw one and there 15 new ones," he said. There were two recent convictions of distributors and three more are pending trials in this district's federal court. In the wake of one death and five overdoses attributed to synthetics, the city of Cedar Rapids just amended an ordinance to fine and criminally charge anyone selling or buying products. Eastern Iowa businesses that require drugs screens as part of the pre-employment process were asked if they were adding additional testing for synthetics, but many declined to comment and wouldn't discuss their policies. However, Dennis LaGrange, a Mercy Medical Center counselor and licensed social worker, said about 50 percent of company supervisors he works with are aware of K-2 — a synthetic cannabis — but others had no knowledge of these illicit drugs. He provides drug and alcohol education for businesses, along with helping them set up their drug-free workplace policies. In the past year, LaGrange has gone to 30 local companies to provide on-site workplace drug education training and offered about eight trainings at Mercy for smaller companies. Dale Woolery, associate director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control and Policy in Des Moines, said employers and human resource managers have been asking for information or education on synthetics for the last few years. "It's challenging for the workplace to keep up with the laws and the companies making the testing products, but a few years ago we couldn't even detect synthetics," Woolery said. "Technology is catching up." Woolery said the total number of synthetic drug compounds listed as Schedule I controlled substances in Iowa now stands at 64, plus five classes of synthetic cannabinoids. QPS Employment Group, a staffing agency with 12 branches across the Iowa, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, places employees in many manufacturing and other companies. Its regional vice president, Jim Roy, has discovered many aren't aware the standard 10-panel drug tests don't detect synthetics. "When they find out there's more cost to add synthetics, not many are willing to pay the cost," Roy said. Gary Bucher, owner of ARCpoint Labs in Des Moines, said the standard 10-panel tests range from $50 to $60 per person. To add the two synthetic tests, it would be twice that amount. He has interest from employees wanting to test for synthetics, but that cost deters them. His labs have done testing for parents who request it and for treatment agencies, though. The standard 10-panel tests only detect marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines (methamphetamine), opiates (heroin), phencyclidine (PCP), barbiturates, methadone, propoxyphene, methaqualone (quaaludes) and benzodiazepine (Xanex), noted Dr. Shirley Pospisil with St. Luke's Work Well Clinic. Pospisil said the clinic has tested 59 employees for K-2 this year from a company participating in Work Well and all came back negative. She said she wasn't that familiar with synthetic drugs, except from reading the research, but they can cause irreparable damage and even death in some cases reported here and across the country. According to a DEA fact sheet, synthetic cannabinoids can cause severe agitation and anxiety, elevated blood pressure, tremors and seizures, hallucinations and suicidal and other harmful thoughts or actions. Synthetic cathinone — similar to amphetamines — use is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, chest pain, extreme paranoia, hallucinations and violent behavior. Local labs such as Weland in Cedar Rapids hasn't tested synthetics for employers, only drug treatment programs, and C.J. Cooper and Associates in Hiawatha only tests synthetics for law enforcement and the Iowa Department of Corrections. Dr. Robert Hatcher with Iowa City Drug and Alcohol Testing said he hadn't tested for employers but he's had some inquiries from parents about testing their teens — but no one has followed through. But the reliability of the tests is an issue, said Justin Grodnitzky, a criminalist with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. The testing panels could be six months behind what authorities are seeing on the street. Another challenge is that the synthetic drugs process through the system faster, some within two hours — unlike marijuana and some other drugs. "Employers have to make informed decisions when it comes to testing," said Barry Sample, director of Science and Technology for Employers Solutions of Quest Diagnostics in Madison, N.J. His company provides drug testing education to employers across the country and, he said, they all are dealing with those same issues. He has been providing education about synthetics since 2010. "I think most employers are aware of synthetics and recognize the threat," he added. He doesn't think it's necessarily practical for employers to test for synthetics as part of the pre-employment process. Sample recommends they should test if there is "reasonable suspicion." For more information on Synthetics or Reasonable suspicion testing & training contact Mobile Medical Corporation 888-662-8358 ext. 201

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