Federal inmates get random urine tests for signs of use of drugs like heroin, cocaine or marijuana. But in the alcohol and drug rehabilitation web newsletter The Fix, former federal inmate turned-writer Seth Ferranti, who served time for an LSD offense, argues the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has yet to come to grips with the growing use of synthetic marijuana.

That’s for two main reasons, Ferranti claims: while BOP urinalysis tests screen for marijuana use, they do not screen for synthetic marijuana; and, even if prison officials manage to find an inmate with synthetic marijuana, BOP imposes far less stringent penalties (a Series 300 incident report is filed, just as for tobacco possession) than for genuine marijuana or many other drugs.

In contrast, an inmate whose drug test turns up evidence of using a drug for which BOP does test will be written up for a series 100 offense, which can bring such stricter penalties as loss of good time, visitor or commissary privileges, phone use for as much as a year, or up to 60 days in disciplinary segregation. So it would make sense for inmates to switch a drug that could not be detected in a drug test and, even if found, would bring less severe punishment.

Widely available as herbal products, synthetic marijuana is often sold in press-lock foil packages under a variety of brand names, such as Spice, K2, Black Mamba and many others. The contents vary widely, but generally contain some form of shredded vegetable material sprayed with a lab-created chemical resembling THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. Synthetic marijuana can be readily produced without a sophisticated lab or extensive chemical knowledge.

It’s also easily smuggled. One popular method involves soaking pieces of paper with the liquid chemical, using the drug-coated paper to write letters to inmates, who then smoke or ingest the paper, or sell it to others incarcerated with them.

Early in 2015, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention newsletter noted that reports to its poison centers about adverse health effects from use of synthetic marijuana had more than doubled over the comparable period the previous year. Most commonly reported effects included mental agitation, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, vomiting and confusion. CDC’s report noted that in hundreds of cases, life-threatening or substantial lasting effects were noted. Other researchers have found synthetic marijuana use can increase suicidal thoughts.

Federal prisons are not the only penal institutions fighting synthetic marijuana. Investigators performing an autopsy on former star NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in his state prison in Boston by hanging himself with a bedsheet, found he had recently used the substance, and jail informants confirmed he regularly used it.

In the U.K., prison inspectors have branded synthetic marijuana the “most serious threat to the safety and security” of that nation’s prison system. One study by criminologists at a British university in Manchester found the drug available throughout British prisons, including in supposedly “drug-free” rehabilitation units, and estimated between 60 and 90 percent of inmates regularly used synthetic marijuana – and claimed the ready availability of these newer drugs had effectively collapsed former prison markets for heroin and marijuana.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).