So everyone probably remembers the infamous “zombie” like attack in May of 2012, when Rudy Eugene assaulted Ronald Poppo, a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway in Miami, Florida. During the 18-minute filmed encounter, Eugene (who was himself stripped nude) accused Poppo of stealing his Bible, beat him unconscious, removed Poppo’s pants, and bit off most of Poppo’s face above the beard, including his left eye, leaving him blind in both. As a result of the incident’s shocking nature and subsequent worldwide media coverage, Eugene came to be dubbed the “Miami Zombie” as well as the “Causeway Cannibal. The attack ended when Eugene was fatally shot by a Miami police officer.
At the time, the President of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, Armando Aguilar, believed the attack may be linked to the use of bath salts, a synthetic, semi-legal drug. But then, the toxicology reports came back. There were no bath salts in Eugene’s system, only marijuana.
Skeptics, myself included, weren’t convinced by the results. Eugene’s behavior was just too bizarre and too violent. Knowing what I know about designer drugs, I figured that the “Miami Zombie” was on something not caught by either of the two labs that ran the toxicology tests.
In an interview with the Sun-Sentinel, Dr. Barry Logan, director of Forensic and Toxicological Services at NMS Labs in Pennsylvania, the same lab hired by Miami-Dade County to help test Eugene for bath salts and synthetic marijuana, confirmed that there is no way to test for all of the different components in bath salts and synthetic cannabinoids.
“We are not testing for everything that may be out there,” said Dr. Logan
Clandestine labs are using more than 100 chemical compounds to make synthetic marijuana, but even the most sophisticated lab can only test for 17, said Logan. Bath salts, also known as synthetic amphetamines, are also hard to track for the same reason.
There are hundreds of bath salt compounds out there, but toxicologists can only test for 40, Logan said.
“This is always a moving target,” Logan said. “As soon as a test exists for something, there are new compounds waiting in the wings. We are always a step behind.”
Even Logan was surprised when Eugene’s drug scan found only traces of marijuana.
“His behavior was consistent with someone who was delusional and hallucinating, which would be consistent with bath salts,” Logan said.
The report released last week by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner contained this disclaimer: “Within the limits of current technology by both laboratories, marijuana is the only drug identified in the body of Mr. Rudy Eugene.”
As those of us who work in addiction treatment know, “spice” (synthetic cannabinoids) and “bath salts” (synthetic amphetamines) are a lure for those newly in recovery because they are subjected to regular drug testing. Synthetic drugs are a way to “beat the system” since they can’t be detected on standard drug screens. Military personnel and parolees have embraced these drugs for the same reasons.
To combat the problem of designer drug use in addiction treatment, halfway houses and treatment programs are now springing for the more expensive drug tests, which claim to be able to detect the presence of spice and bath salts.
However, these tests have the same limits as the toxicology tests: if you don’t know which compounds to test for, how can you ever have an accurate test?
The chemical compounds in spice and bath salts are constantly being changed as manufacturers try to keep one step ahead of law enforcement officials. As soon as one compound is outlawed, they simply tweak the formula and produce a new batch of chemical-laced garbage with a slightly different formula.
To complicate the problem further, synthetic drug tests detect metabolites which the body produces after ingesting cannabinoids or bath salts, not the chemicals themselves, and everyone doesn’t produce the same metabolite in response to the same compound ingestion.
Synthetic cannabinoid testing and synthetic amphetamine testing can only detect certain metabolites from a limited number of compounds for a short time after use, usually within a day.
As it stands today, laboratories must develop and validate their own methods for detecting synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic amphetamines. Furthermore, guidelines do not exist that clarify which metabolites should be measured or what cutoffs should be used, and there are no standardized quality control materials or proficiency tests.
The problem, as I see it, is those of us in addiction treatment becoming too dependent on drug tests to determine whether or not someone is actively using. Courts, employers, treatment centers, parents and others have used drug tests rather successfully to keep people ‘clean’ and deter drug use in the past. However, without a protocol and careful training in synthetic drug recognition, we may be doing more harm than good. Relying on drug tests encourages the use of these dangerous synthetic drugs, which are often more harmful than “traditional” drugs. In the end, we may not be deterring drug use when we use tests that are no longer reliable indicators, and which encourage people to switch to more dangerous synthetic drugs. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to synthetic drugs like spice or bath salts, we can help! Call us now toll-free 1-800-951-6135.