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Testing for Synthetic Cannabinoids

An Overview of Usage in Australia

Usage of Synthetic Cannabinoids

The respected scientific journal Lancet has estimated that the usage rate of marijuana in Australia is three times the global average (1).


This high usage and the long window of detection of the psycho-active ingredient of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol  (THC) has resulted in a growing demand for synthetic compounds that mimic THC’s effect (2,9).

Synthetic Cannabis, which is often called K2, Spice or Kronic, became widely available via the internet and more recently, retail outlets from the early 2000’s (3,9). It had the advantage that it operated in a legal grey area where existing legislation did not explicitly prohibit these chemical compounds and the manufacturers advertised that these drugs were not illegal (3,4).

Synthetic Cannabinoids Compounds


Currently within the synthetic cannabinoids class of drugs which produce a pharmacologically similar effect to THC exist Benzoylindoles, Naphthoylindoles, Non-classical cannabinoids,  Adamantoylindoles and Phenylacetylindoles (4).


Within each of these chemical classes exists several compounds capable of being psychoactive and interfering with an individual’s fine motor skills, risk analysis and judgment (4,5,6,7). 


It is estimated that there is in excess of 200 different chemical compounds being marketed as synthetic cannabis available. To highlight the variation and difficulty in this area, THC is usually considered the active ingredient of the cannabis plant, Cannabis sativa.


However recent research has shown that there is another 65 chemicals in the bud of C. sativa which could also produce a similar effect to THC (8). When it is considered that potentially each of these chemicals could be synthesised and will each have various isomers that could also be psychoactive, the problem of synthetic cannabis is immense, and as yet, doesn’t have a readily identified solution (8,9). Perhaps the most disturbing statistic regarding usage of synthetic cannabis is that its usage is predicated on three key points:


- It is “legal”

- It is easy to obtain

- It is used to evade or circumnavigate drug testing procedures (9).


Testing for Synthetic Cannabinoids



Each time a urine sample is tested for synthetic cannabis, the laboratory is searching for many different chemical compounds, e.g. JWH-250 alone has 20 different metabolites that are detectable in urine (8).


However it has to be acknowledged that the chemical diversity of this class of drugs makes finding “positive” results extremely difficult.


Research by Curtin University has shown that Kronic usage has the following demographics:


- Median age is 27

- 77% are male

- 78% were employed

- 86% had completed secondary school (9)


Synthetic cannabinoids are a real and ongoing problem for employers.


Organisations that take their responsibility to provide a safe workplace seriously need to continue testing for these compounds.


Currently the most effective way to detect the metabolites of synthetic cannabinoids is using LCMS technology. It is more sensitive and flexible than GCMS and provides the most likelihood of success (8).




  2. – Cannabis

  3. – Synthetic Cannabis

  4. Wikipedia – Designer Drugs







Source:  Safe Work Laboratories



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