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Guide to Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs are intoxicating substances manufactured to have properties similar to known hallucinogens or narcotics, but different enough to be considered legal substances that can be sold in retail stores. Although many prescription medications are synthetic or semi-synthetic, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, these medications are tightly regulated and have a medical purpose. Typically, when a government agency or news outlet refers to a synthetic drug, they are referring to a dangerous substance that is designed to bypass the law and get users “high.”

synthetic-drugsAlthough the Drug Enforcement Agency and several state agencies have worked to make synthetic drugs illegal as soon as the substances are discovered, labs that produce these intoxicating and addictive drugs often slightly alter the chemical formula in order to continue sales and go around the law. As of 2013, state and federal enforcement agencies have encountered 200 synthetic drug compounds.

In 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act into law. This law is part of the Food and Drug Administration’s Safety and Innovation Act, and places 26 specific synthetic drug compounds on the DEA’s Schedule I list, meaning these drugs are illegal and have no accepted medical use. The law also allows the DEA to add new compounds to Schedule I more quickly, so that enforcement actions can be taken against retail sellers and importers. In addition to the federal changes, 43 states have created their own laws to make synthetic drugs illegal.

Types of Synthetic Drugs

There are two popular categories of synthetic drugs: synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones. As of 2011, all 50 states have banned the majority of these compounds, either with individual bans on specific synthetic compounds or with general bans. These drugs are sold as herbal incensebath salts, or other names.

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemicals that are similar to THC, which is found in marijuana. The manufactured substance is then sprayed onto dried plant material or available in liquid form. These are typically sold in retail stores as potpourriherbal incense, or liquid incense. These drugs are labeled “not for human consumption.” The point of this labeling is to get through legal loopholes by claiming the substances are not intended to be consumed.In 2009, when synthetic drug use in the US began to dramatically increase, the DEA found 95 separate compounds being sold as “legal marijuana.” These compounds are now outlawed, but new forms are being created all the time.Common names for synthetic cannabinoids are:

  • K2
  • Black mamba
  • Spice
  • Skunk
  • Sativah herbal smoke
  • Ninja

Synthetic cathinones are a class of stimulants related to amphetamines. The most common chemicals found in this class of drugs consist of methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), methylone, and mephedrone.By 2012, state and federal agencies reported 31 new synthetic cathinone compounds, compared to four found in 2009. These drugs are typically snorted or smoked, although they can also be injected or eaten for similar intoxicating effects. Common names for synthetic cathinones include:

  • Bath salts
  • Jewelry cleaner
  • Research chemicals
  • Plant food
  • White knight
  • White lightening

Although synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones are the most worrisome compounds for regulatory agencies at the moment, there are other synthetic drugs of abuse.

  • Ecstasy or Molly: These MDMA-based amphetamines became popular in the 1990s as club drugs. Ecstasy lost much of its popularity due to dealers cutting it with other substances like caffeine, but recently, Molly has hit the scene as a replacement. Molly is advertised to be a pure form of MDMA, although this is not generally true. Even if it were true, purity does not make the drug safe for consumption. These drugs are typically sold as tablets, and they release a quick surge of serotonin, which increases the person’s sensitivity to physical stimuli, such as touch. The drugs can also increase sex drive and lead to severe dehydration, liver failure, inability to regulate body temperature, insomnia, paranoia, kidney failure, high blood pressure, fainting, panic attacks, and seizures. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a 2004 survey showed that over 11 million Americans had tried a form of MDMA at least once. In 2013 and 2014, several overdose deaths were attributed to Molly.
  • LSD: This strong hallucinogen is manufactured in illicit laboratories in the US. The drug is sold as pills, paper blotters, tablets, and sometimes as a liquid, and taken orally. Typical effects of LSD include a distorted sense of time, as well as visual distortions or hallucinations. Sometimes, the person who abuses LSD has an increased or changed sense of touch. Because of the hallucinations and visual changes, people who are high on LSD can easily hurt themselves, either accidentally or on purpose. The drug can cause high blood pressure, depression, sweating, high body temperature, insomnia, tremors, and paranoia.
  • Piperazine: This new type of synthetic drug is sometimes sold as herbal ecstasy or legal E, because it is a chemically similar amphetamine that produces some of the same effects as MDMA. This drug is sold as tablets or pills, and it can be legally acquired online or in retail stores. However, it is a very dangerous compound. The most common side effects include tremors, sweating, stomach pain and nausea, headaches, and hot and cold flashes. The drug can cause strokes. Although the compounds are not well regulated by the DEA at the moment, there are no accepted medical uses for this class of drug, and it is under critical review by the World Health Organization.

Who Abuses Synthetic Drugs?

Who is qualified?

Because synthetic drug compounds skirt the law, these technically legal substances tend to be abused by age groups that cannot otherwise acquire drugs. Adolescents and teens who are 12-17 are among the biggest users of synthetic drugs due to easy access. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5.8 percent of 12th graders reported abusing synthetic cannabinoids in the past year in 2014. While that percentage is down greatly – over 11 percent of 12th graders abused synthetic marijuana during the prior year in 2012 – these drugs are still very dangerous.

In 2010, there were 11,406 ER visits associated with just synthetic cannabinoids, and 75 percent of those visits were from teenagers and young adults, ranging from 12 to 29 years old. Synthetic cannabinoids were reportedly abused by 0.5 percent of 8th graders in the past year in 2014.

Signs and Symptoms of Synthetic Drug Abuse

The slight changes that are continually made to synthetic drugs make these chemicals unpredictable. Although there are expected symptoms for some of the compounds, doses are not measured in any way, so each package can contain a different amount, quickly leading to overdose. Additionally, the changes to chemicals to make them legal can have dangerous effects on the body that no one can foresee. For example, 45 percent of people who abuse bath salts experience the effects for over 24 hours unlike other stimulants, such as cocaine or ecstasy, with effects that last for much shorter periods of time.

Effects of synthetic cannabinoid use include:

  • Relaxation
  • Elevated mood
  • Altered perception, as with hallucinogens
  • Psychosis (disordered thoughts or speech, delusions, detachment from reality, etc.)
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Hallucinations

signs and symptoms

When a person begins to overdose on synthetic cannabinoids, symptoms include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Violent behavior toward oneself and others
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heart attack
  • Kidney failure
  • Unconsciousness
  • Numbness and tingling

Signs of synthetic cathinone use include:

  • Euphoria
  • Alertness
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Acute agitation
  • Dehydration
  • Combativeness and aggressiveness
  • Violent and self-destructive behavior
  • Delusions and hallucinations

Overdose

Symptoms of synthetic drug overdose include:

  • Hypertension
  • Overheating
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Breakdown of muscle fibers
  • Grinding teeth
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Seizures

There are no antidotes when a person begins to overdose. Emergency rooms struggle to help people who overdose on synthetic drugs, often putting patients on respirators to help them breathe, and heavily sedating them so they will not lash out at doctors, nurses, or themselves. With one of the latest synthetic cathinones called flakka, people who take the drug can easily become dependent on it, but at the same time, a regular dose can cause the body’s temperature to spike as high as 106 degrees. Brain damage from elevated body temperature begins at 107 degrees.

Get Help for Synthetic Drug Addiction

sitting-on-wallIt is very important for people who are abusing synthetic drugs to get help before serious damage takes hold. Individuals put their lives at risk every time they ingest these compounds.

Currently, there are no medications specifically to treat synthetic drug withdrawal symptoms; however, benzodiazepine medications have been shown to ease the aggression, anxiety, and psychosis associated with these chemicals. In some cases, antipsychotics can be used to treat ongoing paranoia or psychosis.

A comprehensive rehabilitation program is the best course of action to help people struggling with addiction to synthetic drugs. Inpatient programs can be appropriate, because the facility will keep the person away from sources of the drug, eliminating the chances of relapse during treatment. Rehabilitation programs offer medical oversight, including prescriptions as needed for co-occurring medical or mental health issues. These programs also offer social support, with both individual and group therapy.

While new synthetic drugs appear on the market on a seemingly daily basis, addiction treatment is constantly evolving as well. Look for a treatment facility that offers research-based care and an individualized treatment approach, ensuring that all clients have the best chances of a complete recovery.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of River Oaks Treatment is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More