Synthetic Drug Testing in Washington, D.C.-Transcript
DC Public Safety Radio
Leonard: From the nations capital this is DC public safety, I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, the topic for today is synthetic drug testing. This is a topic of great importance throughout the United States and we have a new capacity here in the nation’s capital as of October 1. To do synthetic drug testing, to discuss this new capacity we have two guests, Leslie Cooper, deputy director of pretrial services agency for the District of Columbia, www.psa.gov. Gerome Robinson, he is the director of forensics research again for pretrial services agency for the District of Columbia. To Leslie and Gerome, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Leslie: Good afternoon thank you.
Leonard: All right, you know this is a really interesting topic because this is an issue that is, that parole probation agencies, pretrial agencies, criminal justice agencies, throughout the United States are facing right now. We have this new capacity and new equipment, new protocol to test the different people we have under supervision for synthetic drugs. Now, the amazing thing about this is that that’s like twenty-five thousand samples a month, all the samples that we take ordinarily we are to start testing for synthetic drugs. So before getting into synthetic drugs, Leslie, tell me a little bit about the pretrial services agency for the District of Columbia.
Leslie: The pretrial services for the District of Columbia is a small federal entity, we’re actually housed under the umbrella of the court services and offenders supervision agency. We have a fairly simple and straightforward mission which is to promote pretrial justice in enhanced community safety.
Leonard: Is this considered one of the best pretrial organizations in the United States? You have higher rates of compliance, I’ve taken a look at the national averages for pretrial, and the national averages throughout the United States, you have more people returning to trial than just about anybody else.
Leslie: It’s true. I think that we benefit here in DC. We have a very strong statutory structure which allows us to operate from a system that presumes that the best path is for someone who is awaiting trial is release to the community. Our responsibility in that regard is to conduct risk assessments for individuals who are arrested, and then make recommendations to judges prior to their appearance, and then for those persons who are actually released while [inaudible 00:02:58] we provide the supervision through their appearance.
Leonard: And drug testing. Okay, the presumption in the District of Columbia is release unless there is a public safety reason to hold that person, correct?
Leslie: That it correct.
Leonard: All right so that makes us unique. So it’s not a money bail, in the District of Columbia.
Leslie: That’s correct.
Leonard: Now pretrial does the testing for our agency court services and offenders supervision agency as well as pretrial services, correct?
Leslie: That’s correct, so in addition to our supervision and release detention recommendations function, we serve the primary purpose of providing drug testing for individuals in the adult criminal justice system in the District of Columbia, which includes probation, parole, pretrial, supervised release. We also do some testing for respondents with matters in the DC family court.
Leonard: Okay, but we also do lockup, and this question goes over to Gerome Robinson, director of forensic research for pretrial. Gerome, we have it a bit complicated. We test at lockup, where people who are arrested in the District of Columbia. It is essentially voluntary and, let’s just say 60-80 percent of these individuals do provide samples unless a judge orders it. So, it’s voluntary unless a judge orders it, but the majority do provide samples, correct?
Gerome: That’s correct.
Leonard: Okay. Pretrial, which is the second part of this, is that those court-ordered by the judge, which are the vast majority of individuals under pretrial supervision, right?
Leonard: Okay. Parole and probation, which is us, court services and offenders supervision agency, like Leslie said, we are a federal agency with a local mission. We tested intake and we do a lot of testing, once or twice a week. It can be that high, you can gradually come off it if you test negative, if you test positive you go back to the original testing schedule, but tests are also based upon the risk level of the person under supervision, do I have that correct?
Gerome: That’s basically correct.
Leonard: All right, so it’s a tri-partied series of tests. I know, Leslie, you mentioned family court and instances, but basically speaking we test at lockup, we test for pretrial, and we test under parole and probation supervision. Those are the three, and twenty-five thousand samples a month.
Gerome: That’s correct.
Leonard: That’s amazing! Twenty-five thousand samples a month, we’re testing for from those three populations, correct?
Gerome: That’s correct.
Leonard: That’s amazing. That’s a lot of drug testing, and we ordinarily test for blood, cocaine, amphetamine, PCP, what else? Marijuana in some circumstances …
Gerome: Marijuana, methadone, opiates.
Leonard: Methadone, and opiates. Oh my Heavens, I forgot opiates. Considering that I’ve been around the criminal justice system for 45 years, how did I leave opiates out of that? We understand that, at all three levels, whether it be lockup, whether it be pretrial, whether it be under parole and probation supervision, some people that come into contact with us are going to use synthetic drugs to escape testing positive. Some sample is going to do that, correct?
Gerome: That’s, yes that’s correct.
Leonard: And there’s research out there that indicates that there are somewhat substantial numbers of people who tested negative but when we retested those urines, we come to find out that they tested positive for synthetic drugs.
Leonard: Okay, so synthetic drugs is a problem. It’s a problem in the District of Columbia, it’s a problem throughout the United States, and ladies and gentlemen in the show notes, we did a television show about a year and a half ago on synthetic drugs and I’ll be putting the link in the show notes to the television program that we did. So, we’re talking about overall between these three populations and twenty-five thousand samples a month, we’re talking about somewhere in the ball park between twenty-five and twenty-six percent testing positive within any sample.
Gerome: Yeah, overall population.
Leonard: Overall population.
Leonard: Out of all these tests, do we have a sense yet as to who’s testing positive for synthetic drugs? So, we don’t know the number yet because we just started it October 1st.
Leslie: That’s correct, what we have been doing, and I’ll let Mr. Robinson talk a bit about the partnership that we have that started our synthetic testing program, but we started our testing program October 1st and we anticipate having data on the actual prevalence of synthetic use within this population over the next few months.
Leonard: Okay. That is gonna be, the results are going to be instructive as to how many are using synthetic drugs. Now, synthetics can change the ingredients, of what we call synthetic drugs, can change, correct?
Gerome: That’s correct.
Leonard: Gerome, you were talking about, before we hit the record button, as to how you work with the coroners office and the drug enforcement administration and other sources because we have the capacity to change what we’re testing for, correct?
Gerome: That’s correct, and it’s one of the things that has really made this work for us, and for the region, and for the district. It’s the collaoration between the different parties: the DEA, the office of the chief medical examiners, the toxicology unit, the different DC government agencies, social entities, and so on. We’ve all come together to talk about this and give the information and knowledge that we have in our special field. They pulled all that together, and we’re at a good place now in terms of staying close to the cutting edge of the drugs that are coming in, because of this collaboration. The DEA keeps us [inaudible 00:08:33] of what they’re picking up on the packets, and then once we hear that we say, “Well let’s go look and see if we can get a standard on this, or if we can find a metabolite that we can run.”
Gerome: So that’s what has happened, that’s the key, in my opinion, of why it’s worked so well for us.
Gerome: Then, of course, we have the support of the agency, the leadership and the agency, to get this done.
Leonard: Okay so everybody’s talking to each other to figure out what we’re going to be testing for, and what it means, so if new trends come up we can be right on top of it.
Gerome: That’s correct.
Leonard: We bought our own equipment to pull this off?
Leonard: That’s a heck of a commitment.
Gerome: Well, yes, it is, and the last piece of equipment we got was a LCMSMS, which is quite expensive, but necessary.
Leonard: Yeah, prior to that we had all of the instrumentation we needed. So, and I’ll explain maybe later on in the program how we went piecemeal in monitoring this stuff, one technique to another and then moving on to something else, and doing the partnerships and collaboration and all of this. So yeah, they provided the instrumentation that we had prior to getting the LCMSMS, and then they went and they got the LCMSMS, and I’ve been extremely excited and happy about that.
Leonard: Now, we have committed within our budget to test for every sample that comes in. Twenty-five thousand samples a month, we’re going to be testing all twenty-five thousand samples a month for synthetic drugs.
Leonard: That’s an amazing commitment.
Leslie: It is. We realize, though, the severity of the issue. We, as Mr. Robinson said, are very close partners with the Metropolitan Police Department, with the entire district government, up through Mayor Bowser’s office, with the United States attorney’s office, and everyone is talking about synthetics and with PSA being the agency that does the testing, we recognize that that placed a responsibility on us to actually go out and to procure the equipment that would allow us to provide this critical information to the community at large.
Leonard: Okay but my conversations with my peers throughout the country when we talk about synthetic drugs is that very few people out there are testing for synthetic drugs. We’re not just testing, we’re testing every single sample of every person at lockup, every person on pretrial that’s going through drug testing, every person who’s going through parole and probation supervision through court services and offenders supervision agency, that is a huge commitment.
Gerome: Yes it is.
Leslie: It’s absolutely a huge commitment, again, but out investment in the Washington DC community requires that. Everyone is interested in ensuring and maintaining public safety here in the district and we see it as an investment that’s well worth it. We’re trying to keep DC a safe place for people to live, work, and visit, and we see that as part [inaudible 00:11:35] of our responsibility in carrying out that mission.
Leonard: So the bottom line is, in terms of what it is we’re testing for, the various components of synthetic marijuana, or synthetic drugs, the vast majority, all of those components, we’re testing for and as they change, we’ll change as necessary for all twenty-five thousand samples a month. Again, to me, that’s a huge undertaking that’s not happening throughout the rest of the country. That’s just my information, I don’t know if that’s completely accurate, but that’s the sense that I’m getting from talking to my peers throughout the country. Synthetic drugs are obviously illegal, I mean I want to make that point clear just in case we have anybody caught up in the criminal justice system listening to this broadcast.
Gerome: They have to be scheduled. I mean you have to realize, I think you already know this, that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of compounds that come under that terminology.
Gerome: Of course, the DEA doesn’t schedule every one of those, they schedule ones that they see as becoming a problem. If they hear of people getting sick or dying from some of these compounds, they’ll put it on their schedule. So, you know, we monitor the schedule that they create, and we base our components on that schedule. So right now, in the LCMS, we’re looking at thirty-one compounds.
Gerome: The screening looks at about, I think close to the same amount.
Leonard: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Gerome: It depends of what they are.
Leonard: But we’ll change it as necessary, I mean, the coroners office says, “Hey, we’re discovering this new compound.” The DEA, “We’re discovering these new issues at the east coast.” So we can change, and reflect, and report that back to the courts, report it back to the parole commission.
Gerome: I mean, that’s what we’ve seen. When we first started, we saw JWH-018073 and then that dried up, and then we had to move to something else, then UR-144, and the XLR-11 came in. What has amazed me, though, is that’s been several years and UR-144 and XLR-11 are still showing up, and that’s what we mostly see. Recently, they’ve been AB, AB-FUBINACA, AB-PINACA, all these -aca names, have been added to the profile.
Leonard: So the bottom line is, if that person who is caught up in the criminal justice system is using synthetics to get around the drug testing requirements, that person is in for a big surprise, very shortly.
Leslie: That’s the message that we’d like to convey.
Leonard: That is the message, where if you were doing this to get, to fool us within the criminal justice system, that stops on October 1, 2015.
Leslie: Correct. We think that part of the reason why you may see certain spikes in use is for that very reason, that people believe that you can use these substances while under criminal justice supervision, and use them undetected. So we recognize that challenge, we are prepared to meet that challenge to the extent possible. To your earlier point we are constantly trying to keep on top of the changing compounds just to make sure that we are trying to keep pace as quickly as possible with what we see out in the samples.
Leonard: Synthetic drugs, synthetic marijuana, is often times being sold in storefronts throughout the District of Columbia. This is, I want to make this perfectly clear being we have a national audience, this is happening throughout the United States. This isn’t, it’s in Milwaukee, it’s in Los Angeles, it’s in San Diego, and I would daresay for twenty percent of our audience, that are international it’s in your city as well. It looks almost like a pack of hot rocks from years ago, from decades ago, I mean they’re very colorful packets, they look like something that you would buy for fifty cents, like candy almost. You get the impression when you buy synthetic marijuana, synthetic drugs, that this is something that has to be legal because gee, look at the packaging. I mean, heroine’s not packaged that way, cocaine’s not packaged that way, amphetamine’s aren’t packaged that way, this is packaged in such a way to convey to people that this must be a legal drug, because my goodness I’m buying it from the local grocery store, I’m buying it from the local gas station.
Gerome: Also, to attract the younger individuals in the community: teenagers, and so on. Although, a large portion of adult populations are using it too.
Leonard: Obviously, we deal with adults on supervision, we’re talking about, you know, [inaudible 00:16:36], it’s twelve thousand on any given day. The population for pretrial on any given day, Leslie, is about seven thousand?
Leslie: Just over four thousand.
Leonard: Four thousand, I’m sorry. So, right there you’re talking in the ball park of thirty thousand human … I’m sorry, twenty-thousand human beings on any given day. The people going through lockup, I mean that’s tens of thousands of people a year, I’m assuming.
Leslie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Leonard: I don’t know the number, off the top of my head, so this is an adult population taking this, but the really scary thing is these packages make it seem to kids that this is safe to take.
Leslie: Certainly, I mean the packages are labeled, “Not for human consumption,” however, we know that as they are presented they are fairly attractive and I think you are absolutely correct in that when you see something on a store shelf you make an assumption that it is safe for some type of human interaction.
Leonard: I would make that assumption.
Leslie: So, again, our hats are really off to this city for the efforts that it has undertaken to crack down on the sales of these particular substances. I think they’ve done a phenomenal job with both regulatory efforts and enforcement of those, to really try to get these products out of the stores, just because of the dangers that can be associated with their use.
Leonard: We’re more than halfway through the program, the topic today is synthetic drug testing, the fact that as of October 1 pretrial services agency, who does the testing at lockup, that does the testing for pretrial, and does the testing for court services and offenders supervision agency, those on parole and probation, as of October 1, all twenty-six thousand samples a month, twenty-five thousand samples a month, are going to be tested for synthetic drugs. At our microphones today, Leslie Cooper, deputy director pretrial services agency for the District of Columbia and Gerome Robinson, director for forensic research, again at pretrial services agency. Both of our agencies are federal agencies, www.psa.gov.
So, what do we see, what do you expect is going to happen come October 1? I would imagine word is getting out, little bit by little bit, to the population that we’re now testing for synthetic drugs. What will that mean?
Leslie: I think what will begin to happen is people will begin to recognize the use of synthetic drugs in a way we already recognize the more commonly known substances. So again, from a risk mitigation standpoint on both the pretrial and the [inaudible 00:19:10] side, what you’ll see is our continued existing response to abuse of any drug. What we do in those instances, when positive drug tests are received on and individual contributor, we coordinate with the releasing authority, alert them to their use, we may impose …
Leonard: Which means the courts, in your case, for pretrial.
Leslie: Correct. For us, it’s going to be the courts on the [inaudible 00:19:31], it will be the parole commission, or the court for someone who is on probation, and so we will notify that releasing authority, let them know what our efforts have been internally, to try to stop the abuse. Then, when we’re unable to stop the use on our end, after providing probably both sanctions and an opportunity for treatment, we then do refer back to either the court or the parole commission and ask them to take action.
Leonard: Okay so the bottom line is that this is a person that could be really facing jail time, prison time, if the person doesn’t comply with their standards of supervision, what is expected of them on the pretrial level, and on the parole and probation level.
Leslie: That’s correct. In violation of a drug test in condition by repeatedly testing positive could result in revocation of supervision, so yes, that’s correct.
Leonard: And we do know that those individuals, taking a look at your data Leslie, the individuals that don’t do well on pretrial supervision are the individuals who are caught up with heavy duty drug use.
Leslie: We do have information that shows that those people who are suffering from some form of addiction tend to do more poorly in terms of their outcomes. Again, our primary outcomes at pretrial are to ensure that they’re not re-arrested during the pendency of their case, and also to make sure that they show up for court each and every time, and we do find that there are variations in the outcomes for individuals who are using drugs actively during the period, yes.
Leonard: We find within court services and offenders supervision agency those folks who were in pretrial, I mean those folks who were on probation or coming out of prison, that it’s the heavy duty drug users who don’t do well, the people with mental health issues, drug issues, co-occurring disorders, so finding out who the synthetic drug users are, and intervening meaningfully in their lives, is part in partial to public safety.
Leslie: Absolutely, we consider substance abuse to be one of the primary domains that is necessary to be examined in order to put together a community supervision plan and that’s either at the pretrial or post-adjudication phase.
Leonard: Criminalogically speaking, that’s been the basis for drug testing for decades. I mean, the best practices as of decades ago, is to drug test, and research indicates that the more you test, the less they get involved in drug use and the less they get involved in criminal-based activities. So, drug testing has been in-partial, and we probably do more of it than just about any other criminal justice agency I’m aware of.
Leslie: I think one of the benefits is that we do have our in-house testing laboratory, so again, having the ability to test in-house and then have a quick turn around for result does help drug testing become a substantial part of the supervision planning process, yes.
Leonard: You know, Gerome, in a lot of agencies, they take their drug testing requirements and they farm them out, and they send them out, to an outside lab, and what we have done, as of, since the beginning of [00:22:49] pretrial …
Leslie: Actually, even prior to that.
Leslie: Prior to that. Pretrial existed prior to that, and Mr. Robinson can probably speak because it’s near and dear to his heart that pretrial was one of the first agencies to actually have it. I think the first pretrial agency to have in-house testing, that dates back to 1984.
Leonard: Wow, and Gerome, have you been around that long?
Gerome: I got here in October 1989.
Gerome: So, they had a few years on me.
Leonard: So the whole idea is that bringing it in-house, having complete control over the process, is part in partial to public safety. When it’s not sent out, we control the whole thing [inaudible 00:23:31].
Gerome: Yeah, and you can adjust, to whatever is coming down the pike, like Franciscan synthetics, I mean, we’re able to adjust I think very well to testing for this.
Leonard: We control cost that way, correct? I mean, it’s a lot more expensive if you farm this stuff out.
Gerome: It can be, yes.
Leonard: So we control cost and we have the flexibility to move in any direction we want, and I think that’s part in-partial to the federal commitment to the public safety in the District of Columbia, the fact that we have brought it in-house, it’s always been in-house, it’s under out control, and we have the flexibility to move in any direction we want. We’re not dependent upon re-negotiating a contract with an outside vendor.
Leonard: Okay. So, what is the major misconception about synthetic drugs?
Gerome: First, is that they’re not dangerous, right. That, in the early stages, they may have been not as dangerous as they are now.
Leonard: But they have gotten increasingly more dangerous.
Gerome: Yes, the thing is, they change it so much, they tweak it so much, you don’t know what you’re getting, and so now, like I mentioned, some of those other compounds, they’re coming in. If you remember the problem we had this summer with the people in homeless shelters, overdosing and what not.
Gerome: I suspect that a lot of these new compounds were coming in and affecting populations.
Leonard: We really never have, it’s not like it’s and FDA approved drug, where they say, “Oh by the way we’ve changed the compounds,” when you ingest this stuff you don’t have a clue as to what you’re ingesting.
Gerome: You haven’t, that’s the big problem, you don’t know what, I mean the chemists don’t know how it affects people, they just change the drug and put it out. There’s no quality control in this business.
Leonard: So what worked in terms of testing last week may not necessarily work immediately because we would have to get the data from the DEA, get the data form the coroner’s office, get the data from other criminal justice agencies and change our formula in such a way to be sure that we’re testing for what’s on the street.
Gerome: Well we have to, of course like you said be aware of those compounds, and work with our partners and the industry to cover those drugs, so that’s a little much, a bit off a lee time, you have to work on that, but it’s doable.
Leonard: Okay, and Leslie, the bottom line in terms of all of this, in terms of the biggest message we want to get out about synthetic drugs, is he folks, we’re testing!
Leslie: The bottom line is do not roll the dice. It is not a safe bet to assume that if you are under criminal justice supervision in the District of Columbia, that you can us synthetic drugs and get away with it.
Leonard: And if you’re not currently under supervision of pretrial or probation or people coming out of the prison system, or just being locked up for it. If you’re locked up and it’s turned into a positive, then that’s something that can’t have an effect in terms of either your release or your future involvement in the criminal justice system. So the bottom line is beyond health reasons, because I’m not quite sure why anyone would ingest something they are completely unaware of what it could do, I mean, the chief of police here in the District of Columbia, Cathy Lanier has said that there are people out there who just pass out, who are committing bizarre behaviors and are being involved in criminal activity. I’m not quite sure that they set out that evening to be involved in bizarre or criminal behavior. I think that being under the influence of synthetic drugs has a way of creating, or contributing to violent behavior, correct?
Leslie: I think you make a very good point in that synthetics pose a tremendous challenge to both the public safety and the public health systems, I’m pleased to hear that within the District of Columbia we are partnering very effectively, I think across both sides of that, just to make sure that we’re covering that from every aspect. I do want to just underscore what you just said, which is that you don’t know what the outcome will be. You don’t know what it’ll be on your health, you don’t know what it’ll be with your status within the criminal justice system, and those to me are two very good cautionary reasons to why you should avoid using synthetics.
Leonard: The Metropolitan police department here in the District of Columbia, and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States are cracking down on the use of synthetic drugs, because, again, anything if you’ve ever seen the television show, and we’ll post the television show in the show notes, that we did about a year and a half ago, the packaging of this makes it so conducive to kids who end up taking this, and that could produce a psychotic episode. That could have an impact on a child for the rest of their life.
Leonard: So this is something that everybody needs to stay away from, and the criminal justice system is now testing it and recognizing it, it’s dangerous, and that’s the bottom line, correct?
Gerome: That’s correct.
Leonard: All right. Anything else that I left out, Leslie? Anything that you want to put it?
Leslie: Just to reinforce the fact that we are definitely committed to continuing to look into new and emerging drugs. My hat is absolutely off to Mr. Robinson and the entire team over in pretrials laboratory, that is actively working day in and day out to identify those new compounds and really help to keep us on the cutting edge so that we, again, can keep the city a safe place to be.
Leonard: Because the bottom line is that the components of drugs are always gonna change to some degree and we’ve got to stay on top of this, and so we are staying on top of it by having folks like long term veterans, Robinson, and bringing in that process in-house and having our own equipment and then committing the budget.
Leonard: To twenty-five thousand samples a month. I want to thank my guests today, Leslie Cooper, deputy director of pretrial services agency for the District of Columbia, and Gerome Robinson, the director of forensic research, www.psa.gov, www.psa.gov, ladies and gentlemen this is DC Pubic Safety. We appreciate you comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very very pleasant day.