Synthetic drugs often use packaging with labels and flavors meant to appeal to young people.
On June 19, 1986, Len Bias, a stand-out college basketball player from the University of Maryland fatally overdosed on cocaine.
His death not only shocked Maryland but it changed how many Americans viewed recreational drug use. Laws were changed, harsh sentences for drug possession were put on the books, and police ramped up the so-called War on Drugs.
After Bias' death, the University of Maryland — in partnership with state government — created the Center for Substance Abuse Research or CESAR. Its goal: identify emerging drug trends before they get out of hand.
Dr. Eric Wish has led the program at College Park since its inception. For more than two decades, he has studied Americans and their drug habits.
"It just seems that we human beings want to alter our consciousness, want to experiment and try new things," says Wish. “We have a job here to inform public about what the latest drug problem is so that they can be prepared to deal with it.”
Dr. Eric Wish has worked with the Center for Substance Abuse Research at College Park for more than two decades. (University of Maryland)
A unique challenge for drug enforcement
Wish and his colleagues at CESAR are like an early warning system, always on the lookout for the next potential drug epidemic. It's their job to suss out when new drugs start hitting the market.
They look at drug tests and toxicology reports. They talk with emergency rooms and poison control centers about overdoses.
And they've had success. Like the time in the late 1990s, when a party drug known as ecstasy started showing up on the tests — at the time, it wasn't really on anyone's radar.
"One year our indicators showed a rise in ecstasy use among kids, so we fed it into state government and Maryland had the first public service announcements on this drug," says Wish.
And then there are other drugs that seem to ebb and flow over time, like heroin or marijuana.
But Wish and his counterparts are now facing a new challenge: synthetic cannabinoids and other designer drugs. These narcotics are different.
The underground chemists who create these drugs — often in factories in China — are constantly tweaking the formulas to stay ahead of law enforcement. That's made drug testing difficult. It was especially challenging when these synthetic cannabinoids first started appearing several years ago.
"We were about ready to send our first batch to our local laboratory to test for 10 metabolites," says Wish. "And they said to us 'Those were all now made illegal, you want to go the new ones that aren't illegal.' So they told us to add two more [metabolites]. If we hadn't added those two new metabolites, we would've missed 95 percent of the positives."
"Sometimes the drug is so new there is no test for it," Wish says.
The challenge of identifying what's in these new synthetic drugs is more than academic.
There have been handful of deaths around the country that have been attributed to synthetic cannabinoids. Here in Washington D.C., trips to the emergency room for suspected cases of synthetic cannabinoids shot up nearly 900% last month over the previous year, according to the Washington Post.
The problem, again, is no one can be sure what's in them.
"No one, neither your doctor, the person at the emergency room or even the person creating the substance knows how this is going to affect your body," he says. "When they take this drug, they are literally playing Russian Roulette with their body."
How to curb D.C.'s problem
Wish says his research has found that young people in D.C. are especially are at-risk.
“We collected specimens from juveniles who were going through the D.C. court system. We found synthetic cannabinoids at a rate of 20 percent. So about one in five kids going through the system were using synthetic cannabinoids," Wish says.
Wish says authorities in D.C. are doing a good job of combating synthetic cannabinoids by going after the retailers that sell these products in their stores. But because it's so difficult to restrict access to synthetic drugs — chemists keep skirting bans — the key will be to limit the demand for these types of drugs.
"So education, education, education, I think is the answer here."
[Music: "Bales of Cocaine" by Reverend Horton Heat from The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds Of Reverend Horton Heat]