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4 things cops need to know about synthetic marijuana

For starters, it’s not cannabis – learn what to look for on the street, how to protect yourself and how to gather evidence when dealing with these illicit chemicals

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Synthetic cannabinoids are sold and used under names like K2, Spice, incense, etc., often in sealed foil packets marked “Not for human consumption.” Manufacturers frequently change chemical formulas to evade detection and skirt narcotics laws.


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Spice, K2, synthetic marijuana – whatever you call it, this category of illicit drugs is a growing menace. Police1 talked with Dr. Michael Frunzi, a senior scientist and business development manager with Smiths Detection, to learn more about synthetic cannabinoids and what police need to know for effective interdiction of these psychoactive chemicals. We also discussed how officers can better protect themselves and gather evidence for successful prosecution – which can be especially tricky when it comes to these constantly changing lab-created drugs.


Marijuana is derived from the cannabis plant. THC is the primary active ingredient in cannabis that creates a high, and this well-known narcotic substance has been on the DEA Schedule 1 for decades.

“Synthetic cannabinoids” is an umbrella term for a group of lab-derived chemicals designed to mimic the physiological effects of THC and target the same receptors in the brain.

“Although they are shaped very differently chemically, they bind to the same receptor the same way,” said Frunzi. “If the brain is the lock and the drug is the key, both of those keys will fit that lock even though they don’t look alike.”

These psychoactive substances are frequently sprayed on dried plant material to resemble marijuana and get someone high. Any similarities end there.

“It’s meant to look like marijuana, but then it’s called incense,” said Frunzi. “There’s sort of a ‘Nudge, nudge, this isn’t marijuana, this is incense,’ but it’s obviously meant to look that way.”

These drugs are sold and used under names like K2, Spice, incense, etc., often in sealed foil packets at gas stations, convenience stores and smoke shops. They are also favored contraband to be smuggled into jails and prisons, where they can cause substantial problems from violent outbursts to overdoses.

Although it’s illegal to sell, buy or possess these chemicals in many jurisdictions, because the laws often ban specific chemical compounds, illegal drug manufacturers are constantly changing their chemical formulas to stay ahead of law enforcement. Unfortunately, this chemical tinkering can be easy to do and often doesn’t diminish the psychoactive effects of the drug, says Frunzi.

“You can delete an atom, you can add a group of atoms, you can add or subtract a single bond somewhere. The resultant molecule will retain some biological activity, effectively the ability to get you high or change your mood. However, that chemically changed molecule may no longer bear enough resemblance to THC to still be considered illegal,” he said. “Effectively, by changing the chemistry it is different enough that it’s no longer explicitly illegal the way that the law is written.”


Synthetic cannabinoids (or SCs) vary widely in potency, and chronic use has been associated with serious psychiatric and medical conditions, as well as overdose and even death. These substances don’t produce the same kind of effects on users as real cannabis, and because the formulas vary, the effects on users are unpredictable and can make them a danger to themselves and others.

In particular, SC use can cause psychosis. Any given SC might cause similar effects to PCP – loss of reason, loss of ability to communicate, loss of ability to feel pain – rendering users violent and hard to subdue. For example:

  • In 2017, an officer in Buffalo, New York, was seriously injured in a struggle with a suspect who said he had been smoking synthetic marijuana.
  • A Texas corrections officer said in 2017 that K2, a popular synthetic cannabinoid among inmates, “makes them crazy and crazy strong.”
  • A spokesman for the Pennsylvania corrections officers union said in 2018 that synthetic drugs cause different reactions in different inmates, but mainly increased aggression.

“The duration of effect, the behavior one exhibits, how potent, other complications, all of those factors do change when the chemistry of these substances is fiddled around with,” said Frunzi. “Those changes are impossible to predict.”

Police1 columnist and veteran narcotics officer Keith Graves recommends that if you encounter a person under the influence, “understand they are not perceiving the world as you are, and use good officer safety principles (such as contact/cover and speaking in a calming voice) during your interaction.” He also suggests reducing stimuli like loud sounds and bright lights to avoid setting off a violent reaction. It’s also a good idea to call for an ambulance if the person appears to be in a state of excited delirium.


Again, although they may be presented as plant material, synthetic cannabinoids are not related to marijuana, which is a plant. SCs are generated in clandestine labs, usually in the form of an oil, and they can be hazardous to investigators or bystanders as well as to users.

Many of the myriad chemical formulas are toxic and can cause any number of life-threatening physical reactions, including respiratory difficulties, rapid heart rate, chest pain, muscle twitches, kidney failure, anxiety, agitation, cognitive impairment, psychosis and suicidal thoughts.

Like fentanyl and other narcotics, these substances can pose a threat to officers who might come into contact with them. Without sufficient precautions, says Frunzi, you run the risk of accidental exposure, whether absorption through the skin or by other means, such as accidental inhalation or touching the drug and then your nose, eyes or mouth.

Be sure to wear gloves and a mask when handling unknown substances, even if it looks like plant-based material, and wash your hands early and often. (In the era of COVID-19, you should be doing this anyway.)

Detection tools can provide another layer of safety, helping you pinpoint exactly what you’re dealing with and what precautions (or medical interventions) are needed. For example, the IONSCAN 600 trace narcotics detector from Smiths Detection can accurately detect and identify a wide range of narcotics, using disposable swabs for sampling to reduce the risk of contamination risk.

“Being able to interrogate a potentially contaminated surface will always give a first warning of whether or not there’s a harmful substance present, as long as that substance is in the library of the device,” said Frunzi. “If you have a large baggie of what appears to be plant material, you swab the exterior of that baggie. There should be enough residual narcotic on the exterior to get a positive reading of what’s inside.”

With a tool like the IONSCAN 600, officers can swab hands, door handles, car doors, etc. for traces of SCs and other illicit substances – including cutting agents, precursors and other telltale drug components.

“Remember, with these materials, even the evidence is potentially dangerous,” said Frunzi. “This stuff, if it’s ingested even by mouth, can lead to some pretty severe physical consequences. Knowing what it is tells you how to safely handle it or destroy it.”


Detection tools can also help investigators gather definitive evidence. Because synthetic cannabinoids are so hard to identify, many standard drug tests can’t detect many of the chemicals used in these constantly changing formulas. Trace detection, however, can provide a more detailed picture of the substance at hand.

For example, if you need to know whether drug residue is present, the IONSCAN 600 is able to detect nanogram quantities – invisible to the human eye – of specific substances that are included in its library.

“It’s like identifying a marble inside of a football stadium,” said Frunzi. “You can wash your hands over and over again, and there’s still enough material left over for those devices to detect.”

But the IONSCAN can only provide a simple yes or no, alerting only when it detects one of the substances in its library. If you’re dealing with a visible quantity of a substance that needs to be identified, the Target-ID is designed to identify everything present in the sample, which can be particularly useful in identifying precursors and cutting agents.

Because some federal and state laws have banned general categories of ingredients rather than specific chemicals, precursors can be a key element in drug identification.

“That’s why a tool like our Target-ID is better for drug operations, because you could take it into an illicit laboratory and identify the precursors, the solvents, the middle steps, the finished product and the cutting agents all in one device,” said Frunzi, “and then generate reports and do everything you need to move the prosecution process forward.”

When a new chemical structure or different type of synthetic marijuana is developed, that substance will have a different chemical signature, and the technology won’t necessarily have the match in its library. If a substance isn’t in the device’s library but investigators think it is present, they can call the Smiths Detection ReachBackID service 24/7/365 for help interpreting results.

“We can look for certain markers and say, ‘Yeah, we don’t have an exact match in our database, but I can tell you that certain spectral features are a partial match,’” said Frunzi. “It’s like fingerprint matching. It’s not the entire one, but it’s some of it. That can give some insight.”

One key advantage of the Smiths Detection devices is the ability to add substances to each library. New chemical signatures can be recorded, labeled and added into the library so that when that same drug formula appears again, the device can recognize it. This ability to expand the library can help investigators track movements and timelines to derive the scope and timing of drug operations, as well as changing formulations and cutting mixtures.

“With all of these devices working together, you can compile a very powerful report and a very complete picture of an unknown sample that’s been found for the purposes of prosecution,” said Frunzi.

For more information, visit Smiths Detection.

Read next: How technology can enhance crime scene investigation techniques for narcotics

Rachel Zoch is a branded content project lead for Lexipol, where she has written about public safety products and issues important to police, fire, EMS and corrections since 2015. A University of Texas journalism graduate, she previously worked the copy desk of a local daily newspaper and served as managing editor of a trade magazine for the multifamily housing industry.