Background image

USDTL Research

Synthetic Cannabinoids and Drug Testing

See Full Article

A Review of “Hair analysis as a tool to evaluate the prevalence of synthetic cannabinoids in different populations of drug consumers.”

by Joseph Jones, Ph.D., NRCC-TC

Scientist in laboratory testing synthetic cannabinoids.

By Canva© Studio

What are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

A few years ago, synthetic cannabinoids (syn-cans), such as K2 and Spice, exploded onto the scene as an alternative to marijuana because of the marijuana-like effects experienced following use. The first, and perhaps most popular, of the synthetic cannabinoids was the JWH and HU series of cannabimimetic compounds with over 250 different analogs. Governments have struggled to keep up with the cat-and-mouse game as distributors migrate from one compound to the next as they are banned or controlled in varying jurisdictions.  Marketed as a legal high, marijuana users used these preparations as an alternative drug in order to pass drug screens since most routine drug screens do not detect many, if any, of the endless variety of compounds.

Synthetic Cannabinoids Are No Game

Although perceived to be a low risk alternative to marijuana, syn-cans have been associated with several negative health consequences. These negative consequences include anxiety, tachycardia, hallucinations, violent behavior, and psychosis.1 The health effects of long term syn-can use are largely unknown. Fortunately, the use of syn-cans in the general population is still low compared to the prevalence of marijuana.2 

Testing For Synthetic Cannabinoids In Hair

There are few methods in routine use for the detection of syn-cans. Salomone et al. (2013) developed a method to detect the presence of 23 common syn-cans using hair as the specimen type. Hair is a non-invasive specimen and offers a potentially long detection window for drug detection. The method was developed according to commonly accepted guidelines (ISO/IEC 17025:2005; Gruppo Tossicologi Forensi Italiani; Society of Forensic Toxicologists/American Academy of Forensic Sciences). The fully validated method was challenged by testing 344 archived authentic hair specimens that were previously tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, methadone, amphetamines, or the long term alcohol biomarker, ethyl glucuronide.


Of the 344 samples, 15 were found to contain at least one syn-can. All 15 syn-can positive specimens were also positive for another illicit drug. Twelve of the 15 samples were positive for marijuana. The other 3 samples that were negative for marijuana were positive for cocaine, heroin, or ecstasy.


This paper provides us with a couple of interesting insights to the problem of syn-cans. The prevalence of syn-can use is still low compared to other drugs of abuse so resources for detection should be distributed accordingly. Secondly, it appears that over a long period of time, such as 3 months, users of marijuana or other drugs will not maintain use of only syn-cans. It appears that users eventually revert to their drug of choice over the long haul because they find their drug of choice to be more pleasurable. This allows the hair testing laboratory to continue to focus testing on the standard illicit drugs of abuse and, for the moment, side step the cat-and-mouse game of the never ending syn-can analogs that make their way to the marketplace.


1. Fattore, L. (2016). Synthetic cannabinoids—further evidence supporting the relationship between cannabinoids and psychosis. Biological Psychiatry, 79(7), 539-548. 

2. Tait, R. J., Caldicott, D., Mountain, D., Hill, S. L., & Lenton, S. (2016). A systematic review of adverse events arising from the use of synthetic cannabinoids and their associated treatment. Clinical Toxicology, 54(1), 1-13. 

3. Salomone, A., Luciano, C., Di Corcia, D., Gerace, E., and Vincenti, M. (2014) Hair analysis as a tool to evaluate the prevalence of synthetic cannabinoids in different populations of drug consumers. Drug Testing and Analysis, 6 (1-2) 126-134. DOI: 10.1002/dta.1556 

Dr. Joseph Jones is the Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President for USDTL with more than 25 years of experience in the forensic toxicology industry. Jones has provided expert testimony in a variety of venues throughout the country and appears as an author on over a dozen peer-reviewed scientific articles. Jones is listed by The National Registry of Certified Chemists as a Toxicological Chemist, CAP Laboratory Inspector, and qualified as an expert in drug testing in several venues including union arbitration, unemployment hearings, family court, civil court, criminal court and Military courts-martial and frequently gives workshops, presentations and webinars.

Contact USDTL


Client Services

By Phone: 1.800.235.2367
Business Hours (CST)
Monday....................7am-7pm Tuesday....................7am-7pm Wednesday.............7am-7pm Thursday..................7am-7pm Friday........................7am-7pm Saturday...................8am-5pm

Contact Client Services

Newsletters, Posters, and Catalogs

Our print materials will keep you up to date on the latest news in drug and alcohol testing.

Request Literature

Request Your Collection Supplies

For your convenience, USDTL provides test collection supplies at no additional charge.

Order Supplies