Do Synthetic Drugs Lead to Mental Illness?

By May Wilkerson 09/09/15

Synthetic drugs like flakka have been the cause of bizarre behavior.

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Designer drugs have been recently linked to a string of violent incidents in the DC area: a metro stabbing, an abandoned baby, and a woman pointing a knife at DC police. Officials believe all three suspects may have been using these synthetic substances, which some experts are saying could cause mental illness.

Designer drugs are sold as seemingly harmless potpourri in stores, and are often marketed to young people with catchy names and colorful packaging. The unregulated substances have unpredictable side effects and could be responsible for a nationwide crime outbreak, say officials.

Synthetic marijuana, for example, is meant to mimic the effects of pot, but its unknown chemical structure could make it much more dangerous than the real thing.

Daniel Abzug, a therapist who has worked with patients in recovery from synthetic drug addiction at the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, says there is a “consensus” among staff that the substances can precipitate mental illness.

“They say like schizophrenia doesn’t really start usually until your early 20s,” he said. “Well, if that’s going to happen to you, if you start smoking synthetic cannabinoids at like, let’s say, 14 years old, you’re going to bring that mental illness on a lot earlier and it’s going to be a lot worse.”

Synthetic drugs, like the popular flakka, have been grabbing news headlines for landing young people in the hospital with a range of symptoms, including hallucinations and psychotic behavior. Flakka resembles “little crystal pebbles that can be smoked, snorted, swallowed or injected,” according to the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center. “It creates delusions,” said Abzug. “It creates kind of psychological breaks for the user.”

According to one study, synthetic drugs are now the second most common drug consumed by high school seniors. Authorities have been working to ban the drugs, but drugmakers continue to evade laws by creating new substances with slightly different chemical makeups.

Possible side effects, signs and symptoms of synthetic drug use, according to a list by the Mount Regis Center, may include sudden hyperactivity, heart palpitations, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, and psychosis.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.