Counter-terrorism labs used to identify synthetic drugs

Counter-terorrism labs meant to fight bioterrorism like the Arkansas Department of Health have instead started to help police identify a synthetic drug that produces a marijuana-like high and has sent hundreds to the hospital.

The lab typically creates tests, such as concocting substances containing ricin, rat poison and cyanide gas, to keep the scientists sharp. By testing for synthetic pot, the scientists at the lab can use their multi million-dollar equipment built to respond to chemical or biological attacks for other important needs, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"It's an unknown chemical," Jeffrey Moran, the chief of the Arkansas lab, said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "That's exactly what we would have to deal with in a terrorist attack."

Those who smoked synthetic pot variants, including Spice, made 6,955 calls to centers for poison control in 2011. A wave of teens began appearing in hospitals suffering from vomiting, hallucinations and seizures. By trying to detect synthetic marijuana, the multibillion-dollar infrastructure against counter-terrorism is trying to adapt to a lack of chemical or biological attacks over the last decade.

"Otherwise they would be like the Maytag repairman, just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring," Stewart Baker, the former head of policy at Homeland Security, said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Congress has given more than $5 billion to states and territories since 2001 to prepare labs, first responders and public health facilities for chemical or biological attacks. While authorities have prevented or foiled several dozen bomb plots and other threats, none have involved biological or chemical substances. By keeping the labs busy testing for synthetic chemicals and other areas such as food safety with E. coli and salmonella bacteria, the facilities may be more prepared for a major terrorist threat.

"What we've learned over time is that if you respond to routine threats, then you can respond to a really large threat," Ali S. Khan, an assistant surgeon general at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, according to the Los Angeles Times.