The Dangers of Synthetic Drugs

By The Fix staff 03/25/19

Although technically they may not be illegal, these drugs are very dangerous.

Man with head on table with synthetic drugs, pills

For law enforcement and drug counselors, keeping up with the ever-evolving world of synthetic drugs is an endless game of cat and mouse. When one substance or ingredient is detected and outlawed, backroom chemists can tinker with a formulation, changing it slightly to make an analogue that is technically not illegal. (Although legislators are trying to catch up with wider blanket bans on psychoactive substances).

Despite the gray area of legality, synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous. This has been shown clearly in the United States, where fentanyl and its analogues are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year. However, opioids aren’t the only drugs being made synthetically. Sometimes known as “legal highs” or “new psychoactive substances,” these synthetic drugs are still every bit as dangerous—if not more so—than drugs that are explicitly banned by the law.

Although there are decades of research about the health effects of drugs like heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, there is little research on synthetic drugs. Still, these so-called legal highs can present the same symptoms as those of more traditional illicit drugs, and require treatment in a rehab clinic.

Here are some of the common synthetic drug formulations, and the signs and symptoms that someone might be using them to get a “legal high.”

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Street Names: Spice, K2, Black Mama, Annihilation, Herbal Incense

Description: Until relatively recently, Spice was a common sight in some corner stores and smoke shops. Spice generally features a blend of tobacco or other dried plants sprayed with chemicals that cause psychoactive effects. Synthetic cannabinoids can also be sold as liquid to be used in vapes.

Symptoms: Although it is sometimes marketed as all natural or safe, Spice is very dangerous, arguably more so than marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, testing shows that the chemicals used in Spice are made in labs and are not safe for human consumption. Like the active ingredients in marijuana, these chemicals act on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, but some research indicates that they bind even more strongly. This can amplify the effects of the drug, including negative effects like psychosis, paranoia and hallucinations. Synthetic cannabinoids have also been linked to suicide, violence and cardiovascular effects.

Synthetic Cathinones

Street Names: Bath salts, Flakka, Bliss, Cloud 9

Description: Synthetic Cathinones are a class of synthetic stimulants. Just as synthetic cannabinoids are meant to mimic the effects of the marijuana plant, synthetic cathinones are meant to mimic the effects of khat, an African shrub used as a stimulant. And, just like synthetic cannabinoids, the effects of synthetic cathinones are much stronger—and more dangerous—than the plant they are meant to simulate.

Synthetic cathinones are sometimes sold in smoke shops, disguised with the categorization of "not for human consumption." Instead, they’re labeled as bath salts, plant food, jewelry cleaner or phone screen cleaner.

Symptoms: When ingested, smoked or injected, synthetic cathinones act on the body in ways that are similar to cocaine, amphetamines and other stimulants. However, they’re much more potent—up to ten times as powerful as cocaine, according to one study cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. People who have taken synthetic cathinones can experience paranoia, hallucinations, panic attacks and delirium.

Synthetic Hallucinogens

Street Names: N-bomb, legal acid, smiles

Description: Synthetic Hallucinogens act on the serotonin receptors in the brain. They mimic the effects of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD but are much more powerful. They are sold in a variety of forms, including powders, liquids, on blotter paper or as edibles.

Symptoms: Like most synthetic drugs, the research around synthetic hallucinogens is limited; however, it suggests that they are very dangerous. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people have died from taking synthetic hallucinogens, and one scientific paper documented a suicide attempt after someone took a synthetic hallucinogen. Severe hallucinations can lead to panic in users.

Some people mistake synthetic drugs for being “designer drugs” that are safer than other illicit substances. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As the case study of a suicide attempt shows, even one-time use of synthetic drugs can have dire consequences. It is therefore important that people who are using these drugs connect with a rehab clinic that can help them stop their use.

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