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Counter-terrorism chemical labs test for synthetic pot

The drug has sent hundreds of users to hospitals. Testing for it is the latest way a multibillion-dollar national infrastructure built to respond to biological attacks has adapted to the lack of an actual attack.

January 28, 2012|By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
  • Katie Seely, 31, a chemist at the Arkansas Department of Public Health counter-terrorism laboratory, operates a robot called the Zephyr that can simultaneously prepare over 90 samples of synthetic chemicals for analysis.
Katie Seely, 31, a chemist at the Arkansas Department of Public Health counter-terrorism… (Brian Bennett, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Little Rock, Ark. — When Jeffery H. Moran goes to work each day, he swipes his security badge, passes into an airtight chamber, opens a bombproof door and enters a lab full of deadly toxins.

As chief of the counter-terrorism laboratory at the Arkansas Department of Health — one of 62 such federally funded labs in the country — he heads two dozen chemists who are on constant alert for the release of pestilence or poisons in the United States.

Armed with $2 million worth of new equipment, Moran concocts gruesome tests to keep his team sharp. He has laced samples of baby formula with lethal ricin. Poured rat poison into water bottles. Tainted blood with cyanide gas.

None of those are based on real plots, thankfully. So he's added a new task — helping police in half a dozen states identify "Spice," a chemical substance that produces a marijuana-like high and has sent hundreds of users to emergency rooms.

"It's an unknown chemical," Moran said. "That's exactly what we would have to deal with in a terrorist attack."

Using a counter-terrorism lab to test for synthetic marijuana is the latest sign of how a multibillion-dollar national infrastructure built to detect or respond to chemical or biological attacks over the last decade has adapted to the lack of any actual attacks.

Stewart Baker, former head of policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said he wasn't surprised that Little Rock's high-tech lab is helping police ferret out potheads.

"Otherwise they would be like the Maytag repairman, just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring," Baker said.

Congress has given more than $5 billion to states and territories since 2001 to prepare public health facilities, laboratories and first responders for a chemical or biological attack. About $600 million is still issued in grants each year, including $7 million to Arkansas.

The impetus came shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when letters laced with anthrax powder killed five people and sparked widespread fear of bioterrorism. The FBI later concluded that a scientist at an Army research facility in Maryland, not an Al Qaeda operative, was responsible.

U.S. authorities have foiled or prevented several dozen bomb plots and other threats over the last decade, but none involved chemical or biological substances. Authorities also respond to hundreds of false alarms and hoaxes each year, usually involving suspicious white powder, but none have involved dangerous pathogens.

Ali S. Khan, an assistant surgeon general at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said the huge investment has helped build a far more robust public health network than there was a decade ago. And it's only common sense to keep the counter-terrorism labs busy, he added.

"What we've learned over time is that if you respond to routine threats, then you can respond to a really large threat," he said.

Oregon recently used federal bioterrorism funds to build a $35-million public health laboratory in Portland, for example. The facility is now considered a national leader in testing foods for E. coli and salmonella bacteria, which can cause sickness and death.

In California, the Humboldt County Public Health laboratory spent federal bioterrorism funds to buy a DNA-sequencing machine. The lab began using the device this month to test for bacteria in oysters harvested off the state's coastline.

"We don't just purchase the equipment and it sits in the corner," said Jeremy Corrigan, who manages the lab and is state bioterrorism coordinator for Northern California. "I use it for dual purposes."

Scott Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Assn. of Public Health Laboratories, said the federal support that flows to state public health labs "is a lifeline."

But critics say the bonanza of federal spending has added little tangible benefit to national security.

"Pork, pork, pork, pork, pork," said Edward Hammond, a Texas-based researcher who studies how federal anti-terrorism funds are spent. "These state departments of health have become addicted to extra federal bioterrorism dollars."

No one denies that Spice is a public health problem.

Last year, people who smoked Spice or other fake pot variations made 6,955 calls to poison control centers across the country, more than twice the number of calls in 2010, according to the nonprofit American Assn. of Poison Control Centers.

Arkansas officials turned to Moran's team two years ago after a wave of teens began appearing in hospitals suffering from seizures, hallucinations and vomiting. They had smoked packets of herbs bought in local shops under names like Head Trip, Purple Haze and Mad Hatter.

The herbs had been sprayed with chemicals that affect the brain in ways similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. And because the chemicals were not well understood, they were not revealed by urine tests, as THC is.

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