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The Synthetic Drug Craze: What Chiefs Need to Know

By Emily K. Dye, Forensic Chemist, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Special Testing and Research Laboratory

n the last five years, a new wave of designer drugs has flooded the United States. Usually marketed as “legal highs,” these compounds have become one of the latest challenges facing the criminal justice system. While the addition of designer drugs to the market is nothing new, the Internet has played an unprecedented role in their recent proliferation. Not only are these products a challenge for law enforcement, they also present a unique set of challenges to the forensic science community. There are three main types of designer drugs predominant in today’s market: synthetic cannabinoids, substituted cathinones, and hallucinogenic phenethylamines.

What Is a Designer Drug?

A designer drug is a synthetic version of a controlled substance that is produced with a slightly altered molecular structure to avoid having it classified as an illicit drug.1 The propagation of a designer drug can be thought of as a cyclical series of events. A manufacturer synthesizes a chemical that is suggested to act similarly to a controlled substance. The chemical is then marketed as a “legal” alternative to an illicit drug or as a “research chemical/not for human consumption.” A small number of users experiment with the drug, and report their experiences through blogs, forums, and videos. If their reports are positive, more and more people try the drug, and its use becomes more and more prevalent. Eventually the law catches up, and the chemical is controlled. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. As described by a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “upon legislative action against the drug, a new drug with a slightly different structure is released to evade the new law,”2 and the cycle begins again.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

“Smoking blends” or “spice” products containing synthetic cannabinoids (more appropriately referred to as cannabimimetics) gained popularity in the United States beginning in 2009.3 These products can be prepared for consumption by dissolving the powdered synthetic cannabinoid (or mixture of synthetic cannabinoids) in a solvent, usually acetone or alcohol, and applying the solution to dried plant material, such as shredded damiana or marshmallow leaf. When the solvent has evaporated off, the now dosed product is divided into retail packages for purchase by the consumer. This processing can be done virtually anywhere. An individual can make a small amount of a smoking blend in their kitchen, or multi-kilogram production can be done in a warehouse. In either case, there is a relatively high risk of explosion due to the fumes from the solvent used to dissolve the synthetic cannabinoid powder.4 The final products are available for sale over the Internet or in head shops, gas stations, and other retail stores.

The synthetic cannabinoids have been grouped into generations based on the timeline of their appearance. The first generation of synthetic cannabinoids includes compounds such as JWH-018, JWH-019, and JWH-073. Immediately after the DEA emergency scheduledfive synthetic cannabinoids (JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497, and the CP-47,497 C8 homologue) in March 2011, the next generation of chemicals emerged.5 These included AM2201, RCS-4, and JWH-122 among others. With the passage of the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, a third generation of synthetic cannabinoids appeared, including UR-144 and XLR11 (5-fluoro-UR-144). These were not explicitly controlled by the 2012 federal legislation.6 Since the passage of that legislation, a fourth generation, comprising compounds such as AKB48 and STS-135, has emerged. In early 2013, a fifth generation appeared, consisting of PB-22, 5-fluoro-PB-22, ABFUBINACA, and BB-22. At this time, exhibits seized and submitted to crime laboratories typically contain compounds from generations three, four, and five, depending on state and local legislation.7

With chemical names such as (1-(5-fluoropentyl)-1H-indol-3-yl) (2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl) methanone, it is not surprising that these compounds are given common names or acronyms. The common names may seem like a nonsensical code of letters and numbers, but they have meaning. Early compounds such as the JWH series (John W. Huffman) and the AM series (Alexandros Makriyannis) get their names from the researcher or university that developed them as part of legitimate medical research.8 Compounds such as UR-144 and the A compounds (A796,260, A834,735, etc.) were developed by pharmaceutical companies such as Abbott Laboratories, again as part of legitimate research.9 Other compounds, such as RCS-4 and RCS-8, were named for the websites selling the chemicals (in this case, Research Chemical Supply). These latter compounds marked the initial appearance of chemicals that had not previously been reported in scientific literature. Because this group of compounds is named for the websites selling them, there may be more than one common name for the same chemical; for example, RCS-4 is also known as SR-19 or BTM-4. The most recent generations of synthetic cannabinoids are named for different aspects of popular culture. These include 2NE1 (a Korean girl band), AKB48 (a Japanese girl band), XLR11 (the first liquid-fueled rocket engine), and STS-135 (the final U.S. Space Shuttle mission).

Substituted Cathinones

“Bath salt products,” also commonly referred to as “research chemicals,” emerged in the United States in 2009 and typically contain a group of compounds chemically referred to as substituted cathinones.10 Originally, retail products were sold in a very pure state, but they increasingly are being adulterated with other drugs or diluents seen in common street drugs, such as mannitol, lactose, lidocaine, caffeine, and benzocaine. The resulting mixture is typically packaged in screw top vials, capsules, or tablets for retail distribution.

The first generation of bath salt products contained compounds such as MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone), methylone, and mephedrone.11 The DEA used emergency scheduling authority in October 2011 to temporarily control these three compounds.12 The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 permanently controlled MDPV and mephedrone.134 The absence of broad legislation controlling cathinone derivatives allowed for the subsequent distribution of a new generation of bath salt compounds, including alpha-PVP, pentylone, pentedrone, alpha-PBP, and MPPP. Unlike synthetic cannabinoids, which derive their common names from a variety of sources, substituted cathinone common names are typically abbreviations of their chemical names (for example, MPPP is the common name for 4-methyl-?-pyrrolidinopropiophenone).

Hallucinogenic Phenethylamines

A third class of designer drugs currently flooding the market are hallucinogenic phenethylamines. These include 2C-X, DOX, and 25X-NBOMe compounds (where X is a letter). Examples of these compounds are 2C-B, DOB, or 25B-NBOMe. These products have been submitted to the laboratory as liquids and powders and applied to blotter paper, indicating that they are consumed similarly to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).

Many of these compounds were originally explored by Alexander Shulgin and published in his book PiHKAL in which he reports how the drug is synthesized, recommended dosages, and effects on the user from self-experimentation. Shulgin discusses 27 2C-X compounds in this book, nine of which were controlled by the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012.14 He also includes information for 11 DOX compounds.15 The 25X-NBOMe compounds (also known as N-Bomb) are synthesized by a chemical reaction that adds an additional chemical group to the corresponding 2C compound.16 For example, 2C-I is used to make 25I-NBOMe.

A significant concern with the hallucinogenic phenethylamines, particularly the 25X-NBOMe compounds, is their high potency. The NBOMe compounds are active at dosages similar to that of LSD, creating a potentially dangerous situation for emergency personnel and first responders.17 Something as simple as not wearing gloves or respiratory protection when collecting this type of drug evidence from a suspect could result in a fatal overdose.18 Despite this danger, large quantities of these powders have been interspersed with packages of synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones at spice-processing facilities. Without proper personal protective equipment, responding personnel may be at risk.

Forensic Challenges

Due to the ever-changing nature of the designer drug market, chemical analysis can be challenging when a new or unique compound is encountered. Characterizing these unknown compounds requires sophisticated equipment that might not be available at some crime laboratories.

A related issue is the high cost and, in some cases, the lack of reference materials from chemical companies. Before crime laboratories issue a report, the data generated from the evidence is usually compared to the data generated from a known reference material of the same drug, often called a standard. Because these drugs evolve so quickly, chemical companies must decide to invest in constant development of the newest standards or pass the high cost of research and development of these designer drugs to crime laboratories.

Another challenge, which involves both forensic scientists and law enforcement personnel, are the problems associated with presumptive color tests for these compounds. Existing color tests for these drugs are not well known; some may work and some may not. Law enforcement personnel need to be cautious and take this into consideration before reporting the detection of a synthetic drug based on a color test. In addition, when performing a color test on a smoking blend, it may be difficult to see a color change due to the small amount of synthetic cannabinoid present on the plant material and extraction of the color from the plant material into the color test solution (which masks any color change due to the chemical present). When conducting a color test on pure powder synthetic cannabinoids or substituted cathinones, the color change is often the same as with other drugs. For example, UR-144 gives a purple color when reacted with the Marquis test (which is also indicative of heroin).

Role of the Internet

The Internet has become a primary source of information for people all over the world. So how does this come into play in introducing users to new designer drugs? One of the primary ways to obtain information about this surge of designer drugs is through online drug forums. Nearly all drug forums have threads dedicated to the discussion of the latest synthetic cannabinoids, substituted cathinones, and hallucinogenic phenethylamines. Information provided on these forums includes general information such as the chemical name and structure, dosage information, and user experiences.19 Users are quickly introduced to new drugs via this route. Potential users can scan through the forums and find information on virtually any compound.

Purchasing a designer drug may be as easy as conducting a web search or sending a private message or email to a “dealer” on the forum. An Internet search yields numerous websites selling these compounds. 20 Some of the websites belong to the manufacturer that synthesized the compound and is subsequently selling it, while others are warehouse-type retailers that purchase the drug from the manufacturer for resale. The amount of drug that can be purchased ranges from small amounts to kilogram quantities. Many of these websites have bulk pricing for wholesale level manufacturers. The websites constantly update their lists of stock to stay ahead of legislation all over the world. Some websites even provide links to state and federal legislation to help their consumers choose a drug that is not controlled in their area.

Public Safety

A DEA spokesperson also describes that, “Law enforcement is playing whack-a-mole, while abusers are playing Russian roulette. Users don’t know what they’re putting into their bodies.” Just because the products are legal, does not mean they are safe. Acknowledging the lack of information on the pharmacology, toxicology, and safety of these substances is crucial to recognizing the public safety issue at hand. Despite the alleged positive experiences shown in videos posted on the Internet, there have been numerous, widely publicized incidents involving bizarre behavior, overdoses, and deaths associated with these substances. There is no information provided on the packaging about the true chemical composition of the product, so the recipients might not be consuming the chemical they believe they purchased.

Final Thoughts

By gaining awareness of the different products and chemicals that are available, the forensic science community, law enforcement, and legislators can be better prepared to address this wave of designer drugs. ♦


1Merriam Webster Online, s.v. “designer drug,” (accessed July 22, 2013).
2Public Information Officer, DEA Office of Congressional and Public Affairs, telephone interview with the author, May 17, 2013.
3United States Department of Justice. Drug Enforcement Administration National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS), (accessed July 22, 2013).
4Kathyrn Bursch, “Is There a Spice Lab in Your Neighborhood? Explosion in Land O? Lakes May Lead to More Neighborhood Busts,” 10 News —Tampa Bay, July 26, 2012,; and Chris Sweeney, “Fake Pot Industry Comes down from a Three-Year High,” Miami New Times, September 13, 2012, (both accessed July 22, 2013).
5DEA Office of Diversion Control, “Schedules of Controlled Substances: Temporary Placement of Five Synthetic Cannabinoids into Schedule I,” 76 Fed. Reg. 11075-11078 (March 1, 2011), (accessed July 22, 2013).
6Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, Part D, The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-144 (2012).
7In May 2013, DEA emergency scheduled UR-144, XLR11 (5-fluoro-UR-144), and AKB48. The emergency scheduling is effective for two years. This further demonstrates the ever-changing nature of the designer drug situation in the United States. DEA Office of Diversion Control, “Schedules of Controlled Substances: Temporary Placement of Three Synthetic Cannabinoids into Schedule I,” 78 Fed. Reg. 28735-28739 (May 16, 2013). (accessed July 22, 2013); methylone (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylcathinone) was permanently scheduled on April 12, 2013, (accessed August 5, 2013).
8 Mie Mie Aung et al., “Influence of the N-1 Alkyl Chain Length of Cannabimimetic Indoles upon CB1 and CB2 Receptor Binding,”Drug and Alcohol Dependence 60, no. 2 (August 2000): 133–140; and Alexandros Makriyannis, cannabimimetic indole derivatives, United States Patent 7241799B2 (2007).
9Abbott Laboratories, 3-cycloalkylcarbonyl indoles as cannabinoid receptor ligands, International Patent Application WO 2006/069196 A1 (2006).
10United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS), Special Report: Synthetic Cannabinoids and Synthetic Cathinones Reported in NFLIS, 2009-2010 (Springfield, Va.: Office of Diversion Control, 2011).
12DEA Office of Diversion Control, “Schedules of Controlled Substances: Temporary Placement of Three Synthetic Cathinones into Schedule I,” 76 Fed. Reg. 65371-65375 (October 21, 2011), (accessed July 22, 2013).
13The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012; and Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (Berkeley: Transform Press, 1991).
Shulgin, PiHKAL.
16John F. Casale and Patrick A. Hays, “Characterization of Eleven 2,5-Dimethoxy-N-(2-methoxybenzyl) phenethylamine (NBOMe) Derivatives and Differentiation from their 3- and 4-Methoxybenzyl Analogues Part – 1” Microgram Journal 9, no. 2 (December 2012): 84-109, (accessed July 22, 2013).
17The Vaults of Erowid, “NBOMe Series Dose,” (accessed July 22, 2013). The information provided on this website is not the result of a scientific method of inquiry. The author cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information on this website.
19Liana Fattore and Walter Fratta, “Beyond THC: The New Generation of Cannabinoid Designer Drugs,” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 5 (September 2011) 60.

Please cite as:

Emily K. Dye, "The Synthetic Drug Craze: What Chiefs Need to Know," The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 60–62.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 9, September 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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