Recreational Research: Analyzing ‘Designer Drugs’ at Miami’s Premier Electronic Music Festival

by Jim Dawson

October 2015

When toxicologist Barry Logan brought his research team to Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in 2014 to gather data on designer drugs, he used a straightforward approach to convince attendees to provide saliva, urine and blood samples: he asked them if they wanted to help science. Electronic dance music festivals have a long-standing reputation for attracting young people who use designer drugs or as the Miami Herald wrote: “a smorgasbord of psychotropic uppers and downers.” By focusing on electronic dance music festival attendees as a sampling population, Logan has gathered data that otherwise would be difficult to obtain.

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Utilizing a grant from the National Institute of Justice, his researchers have been able to identify the parent drug in blood samples and correlate that drug with metabolites that are produced as the drug is being broken down inside the body. This vital information can lead to faster and more accurate drug screening techniques that might one day help police identify impaired drivers during traffic stops, and provide first responders with life-saving information during overdoses. 

The lack of a database on these designer drugs and their metabolites has made it difficult for everyone from emergency room personnel to forensic investigators identify exactly what an individual has taken. Sampling at electronic dance music festivals provides perhaps the only ethical way to get comprehensive samples that reveal how the human body processes these novel and potentially dangerous designer drugs. Logan’s project has built a library of information about designer drugs that links parent drugs to metabolites, which through publications and presentations is becoming available to the medical and forensic toxicology communities.

Dangerous ‘designer drugs’

Designer drugs, as the name implies, are marketed as bath salts and other ostensibly harmless products to avoid U.S. drug laws.  Most of these new drugs come from China and other parts of Asia, and are being legally shipped in the US. “There are literally labs filled with synthetic organic chemists who design drugs that circumvent the controlled substances act,” Logan said. “They are also being designed to enhance potency.”

The drugs available on the streets change quickly. Synthetic cannabinoids like “Spice,” “K2” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” have recently joined the more traditional drugs like bath salts, usually stimulant drugs, and “Molly,” which can be both a stimulant and a hallucinogen. Knowing exactly which drug a person has overdosed on when brought into an emergency room is a critical problem confronting medical personnel and can also make the difference between life and death. 

Music festivals and metabolites

In both 2014 and 2015, Logan rented an RV and used it as a mobile research station positioned, along with his team of researchers, about 100 yards from the main entrance to the festival. In addition to asking participants for help, Logan had more tangible rewards—bottled water and candy for all volunteers, and a $20 Dunkin Donuts gift card for those brave enough to give blood. More than 400 individuals provided samples for the study. While the samples from the 2015 festival are still being analyzed, of the 145 attendees who volunteered to provide samples at the 2014 Ultra Fest, 72 percent said they had taken a “medicinal or recreational drug” within the past week.  Although many said they had taken marijuana or cocaine, 33 said they had taken Molly or other designer drugs as well.

Some participants said they had taken a specific designer drug, but toxicology testing later revealed they had ingested a different drug altogether, Logan said. Knowing exactly what drug has been taken is a serious and ongoing problem in the drug market. Still, while most of the volunteers said they agreed that taking an unknown drug is a problem, they insisted that the drugs they used were different. “They trusted their dealers,” Logan said. Some of dealers had even told their customers that the drugs they were selling were “Swedish research grade materials.” Of the 104 urine samples taken, more than 70 participants showed metabolites from an array of drugs, including cocaine and several designer drugs, most notably, alpha-PVP, commonly known as “Flakka” today, and dimethylone, methylone, ethylone and butylone, sold as “Molly.” 

Oral samples were also taken, and according to Logan, they are extremely important to the research as well. “Oral fluid is in equilibrium with the blood, and it’s a quick and easy way to determine which parent drug is present,” Logan said. By taking an oral fluid sample along with the blood sample, researchers were able to determine if an oral sample can also be used to identify the parent drug. “With this research we know what the parent drug is,” Logan said. “We can then find the metabolites, which helps us develop better tests and drug screen approaches for death investigations, drug facilitated sexual assault, and impaired driving cases, as well as providing better information to emergency responders and medical toxicologists.”

The next step

The electronic dance music festival culture has been largely understudied in the U.S., as Logan’s team noted in a research abstract: “This population has proved to be an invaluable resource in terms of learning about patterns of recreational drug use and emerging NPS. Data on which drugs are being ingested at these events can be useful for educating users about risks associated with NPS, provide opportunities for harm reduction, and enable forensic laboratories to target testing strategies for impairment of death investigations associated with these events.”

In addition to analyzing samples from electronic music festival attendees, Logan has also formed a partnership with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s System (AFMES) Division of Forensic Toxicology, which participated in analysis for synthetic cannabinoids, and NMS Labs which performed confirmatory testing for traditional drugs or abuse. Logan’s group is currently examining data from the second Miami sampling, which involved 250 participants, and is planning to return to the 2016 Miami Ultra Fest. The researchers also plan on investigating regional differences in drug use patterns by taking samples at next September’s TomorrowWorld electronic dance festival in Chattahoochee Hills, GA.

About the Author

Jim Dawson is a science writer with Palladian Partners, a federal contractor, on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.

Date Created: October 20, 2015