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State Crime Lab concerned about new synthetic drugs that mimic opioids

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Posted at 7:55 PM, Feb 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-24 21:55:11-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Officials in Utah say they are seeing a rise in synthetic drugs, and not just the commonly known "spice."

Scientists at the Department of Public Safety Crime Lab said they're coming across new drugs they've never seen before, and these drugs are deadly.

With a drop of liquid, and a change of color, Mike Hepworth can tell what drug he's dealing with.

A white substance in a tiny dish turned the red drops blue in a matter of seconds.

"That's a positive presumptive test for cocaine," the senior forensic scientist explained.

But he said the state crime lab doesn't deal much with cocaine anymore. That's on the decline.

Instead, they see a lot of methamphetamine, heroin and, in the last couple of years: spice.

"We started to see an uptick of these synthetic compounds," he said.

Spice is essentially a synthetic marijuana.

Their drug samples are mostly evidence collected from police on the streets. He explained the chemical makeup of spice has changed overtime. Lawmakers will ban the compound, then drug makers will head back to the lab to alter the compound in order to skirt the law.

"The spice compounds that have been coming in for the last several months are not anything similar to what we saw four years ago," he said.

While the changing chemical makeup of spice has certainly been the trend, he said they've caught something else new in the last several months.

They've tested drugs that turned out to be synthetic substances mimicking not marijuana, but other known drugs like opioids--which are narcotic painkillers.

"Now we're seeing synthetic, what they call bath salts, or other synthetic substances, and now even analogs of fentanyl" said senior forensic scientist manager Jennifer McNair.

They said coming across the altered version of fentanyl, a powerful opioid, was new for them.

These changed drugs, Hepworth said, can prove dangerous or even deadly for those who take them.

"You get the wrong amount of that, that could kill you very quick." He said. "It's kind of scary, to think that people take this stuff with the idea to get high."

At the lab, the job is to identify those new drugs, and report back to law enforcement to help prosecute cases.

But it's also giving insight into what's happening out on the streets, so the law can catch up.

The DPC Crime Lab processes around 10,000 to 15,000 samples of drugs a year. Once they receive a sample, they can test and identify it within about a week.