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Synthetic Drugs: Investigating A Global Epidemic

Many of the more than 300 new synthetic drugs on the market are known to trigger unpredictable, sometimes fatal, highs. They're now commonplace, often legal. And the effects can be devastating.

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By Remi L. Roy

08/05/14

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Molly, DMT, Krokodil, N-bomb, Smiles, Devil’s Breath, Cannibal, Sizzurp, Snapchat, Speckled Cross – the names are as numerous as the trips they induce are varied. Many of the more than 300 new drugs on the market are known to trigger unpredictable, sometimes fatal, highs. Synthetic and designer drugs are now commonplace, often legal. And the effects can be devastating.

New age drugs have been responsible for a multitude of health emergencies over the last number of years. In 2010, synthetic cannabis sent more than 11,000 people to the hospital. Synthetic drugs have been the cause of more than 39,000 emergency room visits and 7,000 calls to poison control centers in the United States alone since 2011. Those numbers are growing daily. 

By far the most popular and dangerous new drug is synthetic marijuana, more commonly known as K2 or Spice. The ubiquitous substance, which produces a high nothing like conventional weed and is more accurately likened to Potpourri – in taste, form and chemical make-up – is wreaking havoc in communities the country over. 

The severity of the issue was highlighted earlier this month in Texas when 30 people overdosed on tainted synthetic marijuana in one day and more than 100 over a five-day period. Patients were reported to be hallucinating and acting violently while suffering from psychosis, among other scary symptoms. During that same time, Austin emergency rooms also handled about 15 cases allegedly linked to synthetic cannabis. Because of the sudden rash of overdoses from the drug, police in the state are looking into the possibility that the synthetic weed in these cases was laced with substances like PCP, heroin or formaldehyde. 

25i-NBOMe, known on the streets as N-bomb, has claimed the lives of 20 Americans and triggered the hospitalization of a myriad of others. The statistics surrounding the powerful synthetic psychedelic, which produces a trip similar to traditional LSD, are set to get worse.  Because, like most designers and synthetics, there is no standard for manufacturing the drug, which is sold online for $5-10 a pop, the potency of each batch is different, greatly increasing the risk of more overdoses. 

Bath salts have been one of the most distressing drugs to emerge in recent years. The aggressive trips of users high on the stimulant have written enough horrific headlines to fill 10 newspapers: Bath salts send hundreds of New Yorkers to ER with seizures and heart attacks; irate teen high on bath salts accidentally strangled to death by friends trying to restrain him; man slices his own throat while high on bath salts… and the list goes on. In fact, the drug has been linked to numerous suicides and murders across the country. 

Synthetic drug abuse is, of course, not isolated to the US. The issue is a global epidemic that is indiscriminately claiming victims on every continent in the world. 

In Ibiza, for instance, a 28-year-old man was arrested by 10 police officers for trying to bite bathers after downing an experimental drug called Cannibal. The British reveler didn’t go down without a fight. A video from the incident shows the young man, who allegedly even tried to gnaw emergency workers, screaming in a subhuman tone. 

Four other people on the Mediterranean party island were hospitalized after taking the drug, which is said to be similar to bath salts. 

More frightening than the incidents were the facts that surfaced when experts commented on the story to the media. Balearics Islands health chief Raul Izquierdo told reporters that drug traffickers on the island, renowned for its riotous nightlife, were using party-goers as guinea pigs to test new synthetic drugs. 

Over the last year in Northern Ireland, Speckled Cross has claimed 20 lives, and counting. Coroner John Lecky likened the deaths to having a serial killer on the loose in the countryside. 

While little is known about the unregulated designer drug, what is certain is that the psychoactive substance has been ravaging European party scenes. 

First discovered in the Netherlands in 2012, Speckled Cross, which typically has a cherry imprint on it when found in pill form, has been tied to deaths in Finland, Hungary and Denmark. 

Prisons in the United Kingdom have been trying to cope of late with a rash of physical and mental health issues tied to inmates’ consumption of synthetic marijuana. Because it doesn’t smell like traditional weed and cannot be detected in drug tests, synthetic cannabis has become the choice catch for UK inmates. At HM Prison Ford in West Sussex, a recovery team recently found that an astounding 85% of its prisoners were using or selling spice. 

A report filed by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlighted that synthetic cannabis was the culprit in a spate of recent prisoner emergency room trips for symptoms including, but not limited to, psychosis, heart palpitations, loss of motor control and seizures. At one prison in West Yorkshire, more than a dozen inmates sought medical attention and five had symptoms so severe they were subsequently hospitalized. 

In Australia a new drug called Snapchat sent four people to hospital in one night last month. The ecstasy-like pill, which is stamped with the popular photo messaging apps logo, is said to turn on its unsuspecting users, rendering them “aggressive and disoriented,” according to Clint Slims, superintendent of the Drug and Organized Crime Division.

Authorities down under issued a public safety warning that Snapchat was made-up of unknown compounds and had a high likelihood of posing a dangerous threat to the health and well-being of anyone who ingested the pills. “These drugs are not produced under pharmaceutical conditions and the reality,” said Slims, “is people have no idea what they are taking or worse, what effect it will have on them.” 

Governments around the globe have tried and, for the most part, failed to subjugate the proliferation of designer drugs. 

Japan recently introduced hardline new laws in hopes of combating its growing synthetic drug problem. According to the country’s National Police Agency, 125 incidents involving synthetic drugs were reported in 2013, nearly double the number from a year earlier and up from a mere eight five years ago. 

Earlier this month a man high on spice recklessly drove his car into a crowded area near Tokyo's Ikebukuro Station, killing one person and injuring seven others. 

To avoid another headline-grabbing horror story, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare added more than 750 varieties of synthetic marijuana to a list of 90 other narcotics banned in earlier years. The new laws include harsher sentences for crimes associated with the use, production and sale of synthetic drugs. 

Hawaii Sen. Josh Greene, chair of the Senate health committee, admitted that staying a step ahead of savvy street chemists in the US that are beating lawmakers to the punch on this front – obsoleting old products at the same time bills are being passed to outlaw them – is rife with challenges. Yet, he said broadening existent controlled-substance legislation to include any chemical alteration is one of the means Congress can use to regulate the prevalence of synthetic drugs. 

“Every year we update our statute to include any of the new chemicals found in synthetics. We do that, but underworld chemists try to tweak their chemistry just enough to stay ahead of law enforcement. Our intent now is to give a little open-ended latitude for the drug enforcement folks so that those not following the spirit of the law can be busted,” he said. “Normally, I’m a treatment-first kind of guy. But with synthetic agents that cause psychosis and long-term harm, I’m erring on the side of harsh penalties and harsh intervention by drug enforcement.” 

Reached by phone at his Washington, DC, office, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne called synthetic drugs “the new frontier.” In the last five years, he said, the agency has identified more than 300 new synthetic drugs on the market and in the streets, almost all of which come from some of China’s over 160,000 chemical manufacturing companies. 

“As chemistry and science advances, we’re seeing more and more drugs, designer drugs, new derivatives, new compounds that are making their way into the Unites States and across the world,” he said. “None of this stuff has any sort of industrial purpose or medical use, we’re purely being treated as guinea pigs because we’re willing to abuse the stuff, unfortunately.” 

While he voiced similar concerns as Sen. Greene, Payne advocated a differing tactical approach to combating the propagation of designer drugs. He said that spreading the message of the dangers of synthetic drug abuse and misuse to target demographics is the front-line solution to this ever-evolving issue. 

“We have regulatory authority at the DEA to put controls on certain substances if they pose an imminent health threat. In addition, Congress has changed the laws and added many chemicals over the last several years to the Controlled Substances Act,” he said, concluding: “But this is not a problem that you regulate or legislate or arrest your way out of. It takes people understanding that this stuff is poison, it’s Russian roulette.” 

Remi L. Roy, founder of Martyr Magazine, last wrote about holding doctors responsible for prescription drug deaths.

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