Many people mistakenly believe synthetic drugs are less dangerous because they’re made in a laboratory, but these drugs can still pose a serious threat to users’ health. Despite the government’s many attempts to ban synthetic drugs, regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have had a hard time regulating and monitoring these man-made chemicals. This is because manufacturers frequently alter the molecular structure of illegal or controlled substances to circumvent existing drug laws. Unfortunately, evasion of the law can cause people to mistakenly believe that synthetic drugs are less dangerous than non-synthetic drugs. But in reality, this lack of regulation can make lab-manufactured drugs more potent, dangerous, and addictive than non-synthetic drugs, contributing to the rise in synthetic drug abuse.
Understanding Synthetic Drugs
Synthetic drugs, also known as “designer” or “club” drugs, are drugs chemically created in a lab to mimic the effects of popular street drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, or morphine. Many synthetic drugs are made in foreign countries and smuggled into the United States. Often crafted in secret, synthetic drugs have no manufacturing safety standards. In other words, no one really knows what ingredients “manufacturers” use in synthetic drugs nor their potency. As a result, designer drugs can have different and more dangerous effects on the brain and body than drugs that are better understood. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has currently identified more than 200 synthetic drug compounds, most of which fall into the following categories:
- Synthetic stimulants such as “bath salts” and “Flakka” which are designed to mimic the effects of cocaine. Synthetic stimulants can also mimic the effects of methamphetamine and amphetamines.
- Synthetic cannabinoids, which are “designer” forms of man-made marijuana. “K2” and “Spice” are two of the most common forms of synthetic cannabinoids.
- Synthetic hallucinogens are made to mimic psychoactive and mind-altering substances like psilocybin mushrooms, also known as “magic mushrooms,” peyote, and ayahuasca. Common examples include “LSD,” “PCP,” Ketamine, “Molly,” “N-Bomb,” “MXE” “Methoxamine,” and “Smiles.”
- Synthetic opioids are often used for medical purposes and include fentanyl, methadone, carfentanil, and tramadol.
Synthetic stimulants and cannabinoids are the two most popular types of designer drugs. However, regardless of their type, all forms of synthetic drugs have dangerous side effects that often include anxiety, aggressive behavior, paranoia, seizures, loss of consciousness, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes even coma and death.
The Effects and Dangers of Synthetic Drugs
Because of their lack of regulation, synthetic drugs can be more potent than many other illicit drugs. Synthetic drugs also have unpredictable effects on the brain and body, making them incredibly dangerous to consume. Despite this, Americans continue to use and abuse synthetic drugs. Unfortunately, the increase in the popularity of designer drugs has contributed to a significant increase in emergency room visits across the country.
- In 2011, synthetic drugs were a factor in more than 23,000 emergency room visits.
- In 2015, the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) reported more than 7,500 calls that were related to adverse reactions to synthetic cannabinoids. There were also 520 exposures to bath salts in 2015.
- From January 2016 to September 2019, 21,714 emergency department hospital visits involved synthetic cannabinoids.
Even when users’ reactions to synthetic drugs don’t result in a hospital visit, designer drugs can still have significant and adverse health effects on users’ bodies and brains.
Adverse Health Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids
Synthetic cannabinoids are commonly used as an alternative to marijuana. Unfortunately, these seemingly harmless packages of “fake weed” can have serious side effects and severe effects on the body. Although the symptoms of synthetic cannabinoids can vary, common reactions to these designer drugs include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Violent, aggressive behavior
- Nausea and vomiting
- Suicidal thoughts and/or attempts
When compared to intoxicated drivers and people high on marijuana, synthetic cannabinoid users were significantly more impaired. They experienced greater confusion, disorientation, incoherence, and slurred speech. In fact, most synthetic cannabinoid users admit to feeling “zombie-like” when they consume the drug because they move slowly and struggle to form cohesive thoughts.
In addition to those short-term effects, long-term use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Memory loss
The danger associated with these effects comes from JWH018, the compound that makes up synthetic cannabinoids. “The problem with JWH-018,” John Huffman, who helped develop the chemical, admitted, “is that absolutely nothing is known regarding its toxicity or metabolites.”
Negative Health Effects of Synthetic Stimulants
Synthetic stimulants consist of chemicals called cathinones that mimic the effects of cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamines. Despite having seemingly innocent names, such as “bath salts,” synthetic stimulants can lead to several adverse health effects. Some of these synthetic stimulants’ dangerous effects include:
- Violent behavior
- Stomach problems
More severe side effects of synthetic stimulants include:
- An increased heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Extreme paranoia
- Violent behavior, which can cause users to harm themselves or others
Chronic use of bath salts and synthetic stimulants can lead to brain damage, depression, kidney and liver failure, and possibly death.
Adverse Effects of Synthetic Hallucinogens
Most synthetic hallucinogens fall into the N-methoxybenzyl (NBOMe) classification. Known on the streets as “N-Bomb” synthetic hallucinogens can change the way a person perceives the world by altering their thinking, sense of time, and emotions. Although NBOMes were originally developed to help map serotonin receptors in the central nervous system, the substances were quickly misused and abused for nonmedical reasons, resulting in a wide range of adverse health effects. Common adverse effects of synthetic hallucinogens include:
- Involuntary jaw clenching
- Teeth grinding
- Muscle cramping
- Blurred vision
- High blood pressure
More severe effects of synthetic hallucinogens include:
- Heart failure
- Hyperthermia, or a dangerously overheated body, which can lead to kidney failure and death
Negative Effects of Synthetic Opioids
Laboratory-made synthetic opioids mimic the effects of naturally occurring opioids on the body. They have the same pain-relieving effect as drugs created from the opium poppy plant. Unfortunately, most synthetic opioids are more potent than naturally occurring opioids like morphine and heroin, making them much more addictive than these already highly addictive drugs.
Some of the negative effects of synthetic opioids include:
- Trouble breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
Synthetic opioids can also cause more severe health effects that include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Blood clots
- Vein infections
- Urinary retention, which can lead to kidney failure
- Respiratory depression, which can lead to respiratory failure
How Addictive Are The Most Common Synthetic Drugs?
Known as the “new psychoactive drugs,” synthetic drugs have quickly become a nationwide problem. Often marketed as “herbal incense,” “bath salts,” “jewelry cleaner,” “or “potpourri,” users can easily purchase deceptively-labeled synthetic drugs over the Internet or in convenience stores, where they are marketed as “organic” or “natural.” But synthetic drugs aren’t natural. They’re full of unregulated chemicals and toxins which make them extremely potent and highly addictive. Unfortunately, users continue to inject, eat, smoke, and inhale these substances, causing a significant rise in synthetic drug addiction in recent years. Let’s explore how addictive some of the most commonly used synthetic substances really are, how they’re used, and how they interact with users’ brains.
Bath salts are synthetic stimulants made up of cathinone, a substance found in the khat plant. Native to East Africa and southern Arabia, the khat plant is a shrub that people chew for mild stimulant effects. Unfortunately, synthetic forms of cathinone can be much stronger than the natural product. In fact, 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), an ingredient commonly found in bath salts, is at least 10 times more powerful than cocaine. Research also reveals that bath salts can also be more addictive than methamphetamine.
Often sold under brand names such as “Bliss,” “Cloud Nine,” “Lunar Wave,” “Flakka,” “Vanilla Sky,” and “White Lightning,” bath salts are typically found in small plastic bags via online and drug paraphernalia stores. Even though most users snort the white or off-white powder up their nose, bath salts can also be swallowed, smoked, or mixed with a liquid and injected with a syringe. The out-of-body experience users feel after consuming bath salts only last for about 3 to 4 hours. After that, users report having intense, uncontrollable urges to use the drug again. When users become physically and chemically dependent on bath salts and the urge for more isn’t satisfied, users may begin to quickly experience uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, which can include:
- Intense cravings
- Muscle aches
- Inability to focus
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feelings of foggy-headedness
Most people who use bath salts can easily get addicted to them. Long-term use of bath salts can cause hallucinations, paranoia, and psychosis that can resemble schizophrenia.
Molly is a form of the “club drug” MDMA. The drug, designed to mimic the effects of stimulants and hallucinogens, alters mood and perception. Molly also produces feelings of increased energy, pleasure, and emotional warmth. “Molly” is short for “molecular,” the nickname of the concentrated form of MDMA. The drug is usually found in a capsule form but is also sold as a crystalline-white powder. Ecstasy, another form of MDMA, is sold in colored tablets. Most users believe Molly is a purer form of MDMA, but the drug is far from pure. In addition to being mixed with chemicals in the lab, manufacturers frequently mix Molly with bath salts, cocaine, meth, and Ritalin, which makes the drug extremely addictive and leads to dangerous and sometimes fatal side effects.
Molly’s addictiveness is directly related to the way the drug affects users’ brains. Molly increases the activity of three neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals: dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure, serotonin, which enhances mood, and norepinephrine, which increases heart rate and blood pressure.
After the drug’s effects fade, serotonin levels plummet so much that the desire to feel “good” again, coupled with dopamine motivating the brain to reinforce and continue a pleasurable activity, typically drives users to consume more of the drug, opening the door to addiction. But Molly differs from other drugs. Even after the drug is completely removed from the body, the drug’s effects can continue to affect the brain.
When the craving for Molly isn’t met, users begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal, which can include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts
- Aggressive behavior
Withdrawal symptoms typically last for 10 or more days.
Molly’s addictiveness increases when the drug is combined with other substances such as ketamine, LSD, marijuana, cocaine, or alcohol. Chronic Molly use can cause liver, kidney, or heart failure, or even death. Despite these risks, more than 2 million Americans used MDMA, including Molly, in 2019.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times stronger. Although drug manufacturers originally created fentanyl to help manage pain for cancer patients, recreational users consistently consume the drug because of its powerful pain-relieving properties. In fact, synthetic opioids are now the most common drugs linked to opioid deaths, with fentanyl being the most widely used synthetic opioid.
Fentanyl binds to the body’s opioid receptors. At first, users feel pain-free and extremely happy, but fentanyl’s high is short-lived, quickly leaving users drowsy, confused, constipated, and in pain.
After taking fentanyl several times, the brain adapts to the drug, making it hard to derive pleasure from anything besides the drug, triggering cravings and opening the door to addiction. When recreational users try to stop taking fentanyl, they tend to experience the following withdrawal symptoms:
- Uncontrollable tremors and shaking
- Intense anxiety and panic attacks
- Chronic constipation
- Irritability and agitation
- Night sweats
- Insomnia and/or nightmares
- Depressed mood which can lead to suicidal thoughts
- Flu-like symptoms including a runny nose, watery eyes, low-grade fever, chills, aches, and pain
Fentanyl’s withdrawal symptoms usually begin 2 to 4 hours after the last use and can last up to 10 days.
Fentanyl can take the form of lozenges, tablets, sprays, patches, injections, or a white powder that’s often sold on the street as highly potent heroin. Unfortunately, only a quarter of a milligram (which is equal to a few grains of sand) of fentanyl can lead to overdose and death. Fentanyl overdose happens when the drug slows down breathing so much that the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain dangerously decreases. Doctors refer to this reduction of oxygen in the brain as hypoxia and this condition can lead to a coma, permanent brain damage, and death.
K2 or Spice
K2 and Spice are two of the most common synthetic alternatives to marijuana. Also known as “Blaze,” “Bliss,” “Skunk,” “Yucatan Fire,” and “Cloud 9,” these designer drugs have no chemical resemblance to marijuana. Manufacturers design the chemicals in K2 and Spice to be similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but the synthetic drugs can contain any number of dangerous chemicals that can produce psychosis and depressing effects.
In 2015, the DEA listed 15 variants of synthetic marijuana as Schedule I substances, meaning that K2, Spice, and 13 other marijuana alternatives are just as addictive and dangerous as crack cocaine and heroin. Users often realize just how addictive K2 and Spice can be when they attempt to stop using the drugs and immediately experience withdrawal symptoms. Research reveals that users can experience withdrawal symptoms just 15 minutes after their last dose if they use K2/Spice daily.
Generally, common symptoms of K2/Spice withdrawal include:
- Breathing problems
- Heart palpitations
- Intense chest pain
- Sleep disorders and insomnia
- Anxiety or depression
- Intense cravings
Also known as “Smiles,” N-Bomb is a powerful synthetic hallucinogen that is often used as an alternative to LSD or mescaline, a natural hallucinogenic drug made from a cactus plant. Although there are several variations of N-BOMes, 251-NBOMe is the most widely abused and potent form of the synthetic drug. A dose of just 750 micrograms, which is equivalent to 6 small grains of salt, can have lingering effects for 12 hours or longer.
Like LSD and methamphetamine, N-Bomb initially makes users feel euphoric, empathetic and experience an alternative consciousness with strong visual hallucinations. But the drug’s effects are temporary, and users report that N-Bomb’s negative effects are worse than LSD’s adverse effects. In fact, some researchers compare N-Bomb’s addictiveness to ketamine, which has serious side effects, including the risk of a deadly overdose.
Although N-Bomb can be sold as a liquid or powder, the drug is often sold as tiny squares of paper called “tabs” or “blotters” that can come in various sizes, shapes, colors, and designs. Despite its appearance, N-Bomb is so toxic that individuals must wear a filter mask, gloves, and glasses while handling the substance.
When users try to quit using N-Bomb, they often experience symptoms of withdrawal that can include:
- Electrical shock sensations
- Auditory and visual hallucinations
- Heart attacks
- Aggressive behavior
- Bleeding in the brain
- Numb limbs
- Difficulty breathing
- Sudden death
Also known as “Ice” “Crystal,” “Tina,” or “Glass,” crystal meth is an odorless, colorless form of d-methamphetamine, a synthetic psychostimulant. Even though the drug looks like slightly transparent crystals or bluish-white rocks, crystal meth is a highly addictive drug with dangerous long-term effects. In fact, individuals can become addicted to crystal meth after using the substance only a few times.
When consumed, crystal meth greatly increases the levels of dopamine in the body, which helps regulate motor function, motivation, reward, and how the brain experiences and interprets pleasure. This dopamine rush gives users a sense of euphoria, but shortly after, users begin feeling edgy, overstimulated, angry, or afraid. This often leads to binging, also known as tweaking, which can cause a deadly overdose or long-term harm to the brain and body. Continual crystal meth use also causes dopamine to build up in the brain, making users feel like the substance is their only true source of pleasure. Dopamine then motivates the brain to seek out additional pleasure and reward, unintentionally triggering crystal meth cravings. Unsatisfied cravings can trigger withdrawal symptoms a few hours after the last dose. Common withdrawal symptoms include:
- Extreme cravings
- Lack of motivation
- Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure
- Vivid, unpleasant dreams
Typically, the withdrawal timeline begins a few hours after the last use and can last for up to 2 weeks.
Signs that Someone Needs Help for Synthetic Drug Use
The number of synthetic drugs distributed throughout the United States continues to grow. The signs and symptoms of synthetic drug abuse vary widely. However, most signs and symptoms associated with synthetic drugs are alarming enough for parents, medical professionals, and law enforcement officers to notice right away.
Less severe symptoms of synthetic drug use include:
- Heart palpitations
- Confusion and inability to speak
- Euphoria followed by anxiety or depression
More severe symptoms associated with synthetic drug addiction include:
- Suicidal tendencies and attempts
- Homicidal tendencies
- Chest pain
- Heart attack
- Overheating that causes a person to tear off their clothes
- Self-destructive behavior like bashing their head or body against walls
As soon as you notice any of these signs and symptoms, especially when combined with erratic or suspicious behavior, contact a medical professional as soon as possible.
Helping You Obtain Freedom from Synthetic Drugs
Here at Soba Recovery, we care about your recovery. With more than 30 years of combined experience, our team can help you overcome an addiction to synthetic drugs. We understand that effective treatment starts with underlying issues. That’s why we provide individual, one-on-one therapy with licensed, well-respected therapists. Our treatment programs also offer detox, residential inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, outpatient, sober living, and aftercare services. Addiction doesn’t have to continue to control your life. Freedom awaits. Contact us today if you or a loved one have an addiction to synthetic drugs.