One of the problems with synthetic drugs is that, as part of the efforts vendors make to create technically legal substances, the formulations continue to change, making it difficult to keep up with what the products contain and how they affect the body. However, these drugs generally fall into several groups that are similar to more commonly known drugs.
This similarity is often a part of the design of these drugs. For example, synthetic cannabinoids are frequently compared to marijuana because they have a similar effect on the body. As a result, people believe that marijuana is a relatively safe, natural substance, and the synthetic cannabinoids must be as well. The manufacturers often play on this by calling the products organic or natural. This perception of safety is just one more element that leads to the dangerous appeal of these types of drugs.
Bath Salts: Synthetic Cathinones
Synthetic cathinones – deceptively known as bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food, among other names – are substances created to mimic a drug from the African/Asian khat plant. In the body, these drugs cause a response that is similar to the response brought on by cocaine, amphetamines, or other stimulants. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse(NIDA), these synthetic substances can be much stronger than their analogs.
Bath salts have become well known in recent years due to reports regarding effects of the drugs on people who take them, which include:
- Increased sociability
- Increased sex drive
- Panic attacks
- Excited delirium
This last symptom of bath salt use can result in extreme agitation and violent behavior, such as attacking others. This excited delirium can cause dehydration and the breakdown of muscle tissue. Nosebleeds, sweating, and nausea are other symptoms caused by using synthetic cathinones.
K2 and Spice: Synthetic Cannabinoids
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that, in 2015, poison control centers received 7,779 reports of exposure to synthetic cannabinoids. These are synthetic substances that are similar to THC, the active element of marijuana. They are generally sprayed over herbal blends – known as K2, Spice, and Spike, among other names – that are meant to be smoked, and that are labeled as incense. Sometimes they are used to make tea.
While the psychoactive chemical in these drugs is related to THC, the synthetics cause a more intense reaction. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that these drugs bind much more strongly to the receptors in the brain that are sensitive to cannabinoids, and they seem to remain in the body longer than marijuana, causing the psychoactive effect to last longer as well.
Some of the health effects of synthetic cannabinoids include:
- Extreme agitation and anxiety
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Tremors and seizures
- Psychosis and hallucinations
- Self-harm and suicidal behaviors
Ecstasy, Molly, and MDMA
The club drug ecstasy became popular back in the 1990s because of its ability to create a sense of euphoria. Today, the drug known as Molly is popular for a similar reason. What ecstasy and Molly have in common is that the key ingredient in both is a substance known as MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine). NIDA describes MDMA as a synthetic drug that has similarities both to amphetamines (stimulant) and mescaline (hallucinogen).
Many people think that they are getting a pure version of MDMA when they use Molly; however, this is most often not true. A significant risk with this type of synthetic is the way it is blended with other drugs. Caffeine, dextromethorphan, ephedrine,methamphetamine, and other stimulants and hallucinogens have been found in Molly capsules. Most recently, additions include synthetic cathinones. These combinations can be particularly dangerous; combining different types of stimulants can result in extremely high heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, paranoia, and violent behavior, among other reactions.
Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opiates
Synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl and tramadol, were originally formulated as prescription drugs to manage pain. Other synthetic opioids have been used to treat heroin and other opioid addictions. According to a report from NIDA in 2015, fentanyl deaths have surged in the last two years.
However, according to an article from LiveScience, acetyl fentanyl has become a designer drug that is used to lace heroin and cocaine, increasing their potency; sometimes, this is even done without the knowledge of the person who uses those drugs. Acetyl fentanyl has been also been reformulated to analogs and labeled as “not for human consumption” similarly to the other synthetic substances described above in order to avoid the issues of illegality