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Keeping up with the latest formulations of synthetic drugs like spice or bath salts is similar to a game of Whac-A-Mole — as soon as the Drug Enforcement Administration identifies and bans a compound, another replaces it.
In the past four years, 200 different versions of synthetic or designer drugs have appeared in the U.S., including 80 since July, according to DEA data.
“We have a treasure trove of chemists out there scouring the scientific literature, and the only real research they are doing is what compounds can get people high ... the pace is unprecedented,” said Al Santos, the DEA’s associate deputy administrator.
The Defense Department began realizing the scope of its synthetic drug problem in 2010, when service members were found using synthetic cannabinoids, which simulate the effect of marijuana and often are sold over the counter.
DoD quickly moved to ban these products and develop tests to screen for them. In 2012, the Navy also issued a public service announcement titled, “Bath Salts: It’s Not a Fad, It’s a Nightmare,” to teach sailors and others about the dangers of these drugs, which usually are synthesized from substances that have not been tested on humans.
The education effort — as well as limited improved testing — may be having an effect. In the past year, the Navy and Marine Corps have seen a 45 percent drop in the monthly average of members found to have used spice, and a 60 percent drop in those caught using using bath salts.
According to data provided by the Navy Department, 1,064 sailors and Marines used spice in 2012 and 67 abused bath salts. From January 2013 to October, the figures fell to 491 spice users and 22 bath salts users.
Data provided by the Army showed that in fiscal 2012, that service’s Criminal Investigative Command conducted 1,657 investigations of soldiers suspected of using a synthetic drug.
After the Army signed a memorandum of agreement with the Air Force Drug Testing Laboratory to expand its commander-requested and probable cause programs, Army commanders requested testing for synthetic drugs of 323 samples submitted to the lab from May through November, resulting in 99 confirmed positives, Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne Conway said.
The Air Force has not provided data in response to a Military Times request.
DEA officials warned that the scope of the problem is hard to nail down because of ever-changing formulations.
“The evolution of these drugs is providing a challenge for toxicology screens,” said Terrence Boos, a chemist in the DEA’s Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section. “When someone is presenting at an emergency department, they are presenting with an unknown drug in their system.”
Constantly trying to keep up with new formulations, Boos said, puts “a strain on resources.”
Along with the shifting formulas comes a kaleidoscope of name changes. In addition to spice and bath salts, there is AM-2201, a cannabinoid that became the first synthetic drug to enter the top 10 most frequently identified drugs in U.S. labs, and gravel, a combination of bath salts and anti-seizure medications or methamphetamine that recently surfaced in Tennessee.
The synthetic drug industry has emerged as a multibillion-dollar force — one that is stretching the DEA’s focus, officials said. In two operations in the past year, the agency seized $93 million worth of equipment, product and cash from major synthetic drug manufacturers.
The services have banned synthetic drugs, and troops can be prosecuted for using them. But if risking your life or your career isn’t enough deterrent, the DEA gave one more reason to stay away from synthetic drugs: terrorism.
Officials said the agency has tracked money flowing from convenience stores owned by foreigners in the U.S., and found that some profits are going overseas — and mainly to the Middle East.
So using them may well constitute aiding and abetting the enemy.