Overdoses from Strange New Street Drugs are Baffling Hospitals

There has been an explosion of strange new street drugs that have been hitting the streets. It seems that clandestine chemists have been rushing to create new narcotics that exist outside the bounds of the law.

There was a recent report from the United Nations that listed some 644 new street drugs that have been discovered in 102 territories and countries between the years of 2008 and 2015. During an interview with a member of the Drug Enforcement Administration last year, it was noted that the DEA encounters new street drugs practically every week.

Labeled as new psychoactive substances (NPS), these new drugs are popping up on the streets quicker than governments are able to ban them. Obviously, banning them really doesn’t do very much good.  The problem is that because of the quickness with which these new drugs are being created and made available, users have no clue at all what they are taking. This means when they experience an overdose, medical professionals at their local hospital are clueless in how to treat them.

Finding the Contents of these New Street Drugs

In a recently released study that was funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we have been provided with some insight into how bad this problem has gotten. A group of researchers from Maryland were curious to see the prevalence of these new street drugs during hospital visits. They were particularly interested in data regarding synthetic cannabinoids (SC). Many of these SC drugs are called “Spice” or “K2” on the street and are able to mimic many of the effects experienced from using marijuana.
There have been huge numbers of overdoses across the United States that have been connected to synthetic cannabinoids, including a single week where over 100 people overdosed in the city of New Haven, CT in only 48 hours. Thankfully, none of these people died from the drug. People who overdosed from these new SC drugs have been described as being in a “zombielike” state, followed by seizures and cardiac arrest. It was later discovered that this particular SC drug contained brodifacoum, which is a rat poison.

Needless to say, there is a strong movement to quickly find out what emergency rooms are dealing with when they encounter these synthetic cannabinoid overdoses. But in the end this team of researchers from Maryland discovered that it was even more difficult than expected to find out which of these new street drugs were responsible for all these overdoses.

What is In Your Urine?

During the year of 2016, these researchers collected 175 samples of urine from two different hospital emergency rooms in Maryland. They screened the samples for 169 different drugs, which included some 26 various synthetic cannabinoids. The team really wanted to include even more drugs, but in several cases, the drugs were so new there were no reference standards for them yet – in regards to urine testing. In most cases, these hospitals are only able to screen for fewer than nine drugs — and none of them are synthetic cannabinoids.

These 175 patients who submitted their urine either came to the ER experiencing symptoms that were very much related to SC use, or were caught with the drugs by medical staff or police, or appeared to be agitated, hallucinating, or just completely unresponsive due to using an unknown drug.

But just one of them was flagged for SCs, which indicates that the overdoses had been caused by completely new drugs that weren’t part of their test panel. Approximately one year later, the researchers returned to retest the urine for an additional batch of 20 new synthetic cannabinoids.

Roughly about 25% of the urine samples yielded positive results from these new standards, which was a whole lot lower than they were expecting to see. What was particularly interesting is that the most often found synthetic cannabinoid was known as MDMB-FUBINACA, which is illegal today, but this SC has been distributed in vaporizer e-liquids. This form of SC had been linked to 25 deaths and countless hospitalizations in Russia.

“Even after we excluded the persons enrolled in the study for agitation from an unknown cause, we found that the percentage testing positive for SC only increased to about 24 percent in each hospital,” the researchers reported. “On the other hand, these specimens were found to contain a variety of other drugs, many in combination with one another, that had likely caused their symptoms.”

The Important of Testing

The fact is that the 175 people test in this one study is actually very small. So in reality, it might not represent the majority of those who are using synthetic cannabinoids recreationally, especially with the number of times multiple drug use is often involved. For instance, around 90% of people who test positive for SC will have at least one other drug in their urine.

And the scary part is that it looks as if these users are not always aware of what they were taking. And the danger is not knowing the effects of certain chemical combinations in advance.

“The continuously changing nature of the substances available make it difficult to develop urine tests for all of the new drugs as quickly as they are discovered,” the researchers urged. “Even though we re-tested our specimens with a larger panel of SC metabolites, it is still possible that our results underdetected the SC that these patients might have used.”

There were some people that weren’t included in this study because their urine could not be collected. It is also very possible that a certain number of these urine samples had degraded before they could even be evaluated and screened.

This study does demonstrate just how hard it is, and how poorly equipped that most hospitals are, in trying to treat and detect overdoses from these strange new street drugs. Even if a person’s urine screen does flag hundreds of different chemicals, it will need to be updated regularly. Unfortunately as soon as a drug is marked as illegal, another even more deadly drug often takes its place on the streets.