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Suboxone and Spice: 7 things COs need to know

Fentanyl isn’t the only hot contraband drug – here are some key facts about two of the substances most often smuggled through the mail


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By Rachel Zoch, CorrectionsOne BrandFocus Staff

Contraband drugs are a big problem in correctional facilities, especially Suboxone and synthetic versions of marijuana, often called K2 or Spice. One Texas corrections official declared K2 “the new drug of choice, inside and outside of prison," in 2017.

Soaking paper in liquid Suboxone and mailing it to inmates is a common smuggling method. Sometimes the drugs are mixed with ink or crayon wax and delivered as handwritten mail or children’s drawings. These drug-laced papers can pose a significant risk to COs and others tasked with mail inspection and delivery. (image/Pixabay)
Soaking paper in liquid Suboxone and mailing it to inmates is a common smuggling method. Sometimes the drugs are mixed with ink or crayon wax and delivered as handwritten mail or children’s drawings. These drug-laced papers can pose a significant risk to COs and others tasked with mail inspection and delivery. (image/Pixabay)

“They are both big problems for prison populations,” said Dr. Michael Frunzi, senior scientist and business development manager with Smiths Detection, which makes X-ray and other detection tools. “I read that K2 is in fact the No. 3 contraband after homemade alcohol and cigarettes, which are still incredibly popular contraband.”

Contraband Suboxone and synthetic marijuana come in many forms, and inmates and their associates are endlessly inventive when it comes to smuggling them behind bars. Here are seven things you need to know about these drugs:

1.What is Suboxone?

Suboxone is a brand-name combination of buprenorphine, an opioid medication used to treat opioid addiction, and the overdose antidote naloxone, better known in its stand-alone form as Narcan. This combination is designed to provide relief from opioid withdrawal symptoms without giving the user a high.

Suboxone can still be abused, though. It’s not the same kind of rush the user might get from a narcotic like fentanyl, but for an addict or someone looking to get high, it's better than nothing.

“Getting high and drug use remains a key problem throughout correctional institutions,” said Frunzi.

2.How is Suboxone smuggled into correctional facilities?

Suboxone, which requires a doctor’s prescription, comes in a small strip that goes under the tongue and slowly dissolves. A common smuggling route is to hide the strips under postage stamps, stickers or tape.

Another common smuggling method for the drug – soaking paper in liquid Suboxone and mailing it to inmates – is less evident to the naked eye. Sometimes the drugs are mixed with ink or crayon wax and delivered as handwritten mail or children’s drawings.

These drug-laced papers can be a significant risk to COs and others tasked with mail inspection and delivery. Watch out for paper with a waxy appearance or yellow tint, as both can indicate that the paper contains drugs.

3.What are the risks of exposure to Suboxone?

Because Suboxone contains naloxone, it’s difficult to overdose, but it’s still possible. Although it doesn’t pose the same respiratory failure risk that fentanyl does, unlike fentanyl Suboxone is very easy to absorb through the skin. Symptoms are similar to other narcotics – headache, drowsiness, disorientation, etc. 

4.What are synthetic cannabinoids, such as K2 and Spice?

Synthetic marijuana, often referred to as K2 or Spice, is a catch-all term for lab-created variants of THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high. Chemists cooking up these substances are tinkering with the molecular structure to skirt DEA regulations, says Frunzi.

“Because these molecules are versions of THC but not actual THC, the prevailing idea is that they will not turn up in a drug screen,” he said. “The last thing an inmate wants to do is to test positive for any of these substances, so a substance that you don't believe is going to have a positive drug test is very attractive.”

5.What are the risks of exposure to synthetic marijuana?

Because the full range of chemicals that falls into this category is constantly changing and not fully understood, the full range of symptoms is likewise not well known.

“The problem is that really, you don't know what's in them. It is actually difficult to figure out what the reaction might be,” said Frunzi. “In general it’s disorientation, inability to stand or think straight, lack of control of one's limbs, etc.”

6.How do these drugs affect mail inspection and delivery in correctional facilities?

Because paper mail – including letters, cards and books – is the most common smuggling route for Suboxone and synthetic marijuana, many facilities have made drastic changes to their mail policies. Efforts to thwart smuggling range from prohibiting book deliveries to a postcard-only policy to providing scans or copies to inmates rather than the originals. These policies have been challenged in court, sometimes successfully.

Whatever the approach, mail inspection and delivery is very time-consuming and potentially dangerous. Going through the mail piece by piece places a huge drain on staffing resources, as COs have to inspect each piece. It’s also a significant risk, because those COs are potentially exposed to whatever illicit substance might be lurking in the mail.

With the right tools and strategies, correctional leaders can protect their employees and catch contraband smugglers without radical policy changes that can trigger expensive lawsuits.

7.What tools are available to protect COs and catch contraband drugs?

A variety of tools can help minimize the risk to corrections staff as well as keep contraband out. For example, X-ray body scanners have been shown to detect physical concealment of contraband while also deterring future attempts. 

Trace detection tools can help make mail inspection faster and more thorough. With a swab system like the IONSCAN 600 from Smiths Detection, COs can quickly test mail and other objects entering the facility for trace narcotics contamination.

Procedures and protocols used by correctional facilities can vary, but one idea for efficient use according to Frunzi is:

“You can take one swab for the IONSCAN 600, drag it across 10 or 20 pieces of mail, and as long as the machine says the swab is clean, you confirmed that all 20 pieces of mail are clean. If you do get a red light at a certain batch, you can say one or more letters in this batch are suspect, put them aside and deal with them later.”

COs can then don proper protective gear and swab each piece in the flagged batch to identify the contaminated piece or pieces for destruction. This helps decrease risk to the CO while ensuring that would-be smugglers are caught and other inmates get their mail.

Fentanyl isn’t the only drug to watch out for in jails and prisons. Correctional officers can never be too vigilant with their searches when it comes to contraband, especially when it comes to the mail. Take steps to catch contraband Suboxone and synthetic marijuana to keep your COs safe and your facility secure.

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