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Do Drug Tests Drive People to Legal Highs?

A study finds that many pot users turn to the synthetic variety so they can pass drug tests.


Synthetics like Spice don't show up on
standard drug tests. Photo via

By Victoria Kim


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Use of synthetic drugs (aka "designer drugs" or "legal highs") is rising across the globe. Seeking to understand the appeal of these substances, a study found that some users may be turning to synthetics in order to avoid positive drug tests. Researchers from California State University at Long Beach surveyed 374 undergraduate students and interviewed 25 designer drug users. They found that most of students who used synthetic cannabinoids (SC)—often marketed as K2 or Spice—were trying to avoid drug test screenings or criminal sanctions, since synthetic cannabinoids don't show up in standard urine drug tests. "What we found was unexpected, but not surprising," head author of the study and assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Cal State, Dr. Dina Perrone, tells The Fix. "We [initially] thought SC were being used by young people with difficulty getting into the marijuana market, but we actually found these [SC users] were people who were for the most part law-abiding but trying to circumvent the potential harm of an arrest or conviction. Most were using SC to avoid positive drug tests, seeking some type of altered state but trying to do so without getting punished." Many synthetic pot users in the study were attending abstinence-only drug treatment programs, under community correctional supervisions, seeking employment, or joining the US military, and would return to pot after the drug testing period ended. The researchers conclude that US drug policies—specifically the prohibition of marijuana and the growing popularity of workplace drug testing—have led more users to seek out legal highs. "We have to understand the consequences of zero tolerance policies," Perrone tells us. "Drug testing doesn't actually reach the goal of zero tolerance and should be limited."

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