These drugs often chemically resemble natural-occurring products, but they have differences in their chemical structure.
There are many different types of synthetic drugs. For instance, the powerful opioid fentanyl is a synthetically derived opioid that resembles other opioids like heroin and morphine, but it is far more potent.
When most major health organizations are discussing synthetic drugs, they are not talking about many of the laboratory analogues of opioids or other drugs. Instead, they are referring to several different types of synthetic substances that are primarily drugs of abuse.
Difference Between Designer, Synthetic, and Research
Traditionally, the designation between drugs that were considered to be research drugs, synthetic drugs, and designer drugs was clear. But today, these terms are often used interchangeably.
The differences between the three classes of drugs used to be broken down like this:
- Research drugs: These drugs were confined for use or study in laboratories. They were only used to study the effects of certain chemicals or to develop other types of drugs. They were not designed for human consumption.
- Designer drugs: Drugs labeled as designer drugs were often artificially produce substances that resembled some other type of controlled substance. They were designed to mimic the effects of the drug so they could not be easily detected during drug screenings.
- Synthetic drugs: These drugs were produced in the laboratory and designed to resemble natural substances like opium. They did not have the same chemical structure as the natural substance.
Although the drugs that are often designated as research drugs are still confined to laboratory use and not designed for personal consumption, the terms designer drugs and synthetic drugs are used interchangeably.
A List of Synthetic Drugs
The majority of the information that relates to synthetic drugs is focused on several substances that are artificially produced, strictly designed for recreational abuse, and often produced in private laboratories.
Even though there are many different types of synthetic drugs, the following drugs are the ones most often being referenced when the term synthetic drugs is used in the context of drug abuse.
- Bath salts: These drugs are synthetically derived cathinones. Cathinones are stimulants that are similar to ephedrine or cathine and other amphetamines. They are found in the khat plant in the Middle East.Synthetic drugs labeled as bath salts are extremely dangerous. They contain stimulants like MDVP, methylone, or mephedrone.Bath salts are often snorted. They are many times more powerful than cocaine.
- Flakka: Also known as gravel, flakka is a synthetic cathinone that contains the active ingredient alpha-PVP. This substance produces both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, making it extremely dangerous when abused.In Florida, there was a rash of overdose cases of people using this drug that involved people hallucinating, being very aggressive, and confused.
- Molly: Molly is reputed to be a synthetic and more potent type of ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA). Ecstasy has stimulant and hallucinogenic effects.Molly is often adulterated with other potentially dangerous chemicals. It often contains very little MDMA, but it may contain other substances like MDPV, angel dust (PCP), or methylone, making it extremely dangerous.
- K2 or Spice: These drugs are reputed to be synthetic cannabinoids (synthetic alternatives to marijuana). Other names for K2 or Spice are Blaze, Bliss, Skunk, and Yucatán Fire.Although Spice is sold as a synthetic form of cannabis, it has no chemical resemblance to marijuana. It may contain any number of dangerous synthetic drugs that can produce psychosis, stimulation, and depressant effects.
- Smiles: Also known as 2C-I-NBOMe and 2C-C-NBOMe), Smiles is a hallucinogenic drug that is marketed as a synthetic alternative to LSD. Its use has been linked to several cases of overdose, particularly among teens. Its long-term effects are not fully known.
- Crystal meth: This is a synthetically manufactured street version of the stimulant methamphetamine. The drug is manufactured in several different ways, always using potentially toxic substances, such as sulfur, Freon, gasoline, lithium from batteries, and other dangerous ingredients. The methamphetamine used in crystal meth is extracted artificially from over-the-counter medications that contain amphetamines like pseudoephedrine.Crystal meth abuse can lead to a range of serious health effects, such as convulsions, seizures, cardiovascular problems, respiratory trouble, psychosis, depression, and death. The drug is incredibly addictive.
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More on Synthetic Drugs
- How Dangerous Is the Drug Spice?
- The Danger of Taking Molly
- Is Flakka an Addictive Drug?
Dangers of Use
Manufacturers of synthetic drugs are under no authoritative or overseeing body that ensures the quality of the substances they produce. There is no way to know that what you buy is actually what you think it is.
The manufacturers of these drugs are free to include any type of chemical, dangerous or not, that they want. They can sell it as whatever they claim it to be.
Users typically snort, smoke, inject, or orally take synthetic drugs. The consequences will vary according to the specific drug used. Most synthetic drugs have the potential to result in:
- Psychosis. This includes hallucinations and delusions. Most often, the delusions are of a paranoid nature.
- Cardiac issues. This includes increased body temperature, accelerated heartbeat, irregular heartbeat, and other potential cardiovascular risks.
- Physical malaise. Users may experience headache, nausea, stomach pains, and/or vomiting.
- Behavioral issues. Violent reactions and suicidal behaviors are possible.
- Neurological issues. Seizures or stroke could occur.
Many of these effects can be potentially dangerous and even fatal.
Long-term effects of using these drugs can include brain damage, liver failure, kidney failure, and other organ damage. Individuals under the influence of these drugs often make very rash and impulsive decisions that defy logic. This can result in serious injuries.
Most case studies on the abuse of these drugs is still rather isolated and not well known. Since new synthetic drugs pop up often, or existing formulations are altered somewhat, many medical professionals aren’t aware of the specific synthetic drug someone might be on. As a result, data is skewed on the prevalence of overdose and other issues associated with these drugs.
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Who Uses These Drugs?
Reliable statistics on the number of people who use most of these types of synthetic drugs are hard to come by; however, crystal meth is the exception.
Research studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of those who use these substances are under the age of 25. Abuse is more common among men, those in lower income brackets, and people who are single. The drugs are often popular at clubs and raves.
Survey data suggests that an alarming proportion of younger individuals (middle school age) have tried at least one of the substances. Other high-risk groups appear to be people who are homeless and purchase these drugs in an attempt to use inexpensive alternatives to marijuana or similar drugs.
Addiction Potential, Physical Dependence, and Withdrawal
The available data suggest that these drugs do have a significant potential for addiction. Tolerance is likely with repeated use.
The withdrawal syndrome linked with many of these drugs is not well described, except for crystal meth. However, it is suspected that the withdrawal symptoms from these substances include depression, apathy, cravings, and autonomic nervous system effects, such as changes in heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure.
The development of seizures during withdrawal may be possible in some cases. Seizures can be life-threatening, so anyone who is attempting to discontinue any of these synthetic substances should be placed under the care of an addiction medicine physician. This ensures safety and stability throughout the withdrawal process.
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The treatment protocol for any of the above drugs would include the following components:
- Assessment: An initial assessment evaluates functioning across all domains (physical, emotional, cognitive, and social).
- Medical detox: In order to address any withdrawal symptoms, some people are placed in a medical detox program. This can be outpatient or inpatient, depending on the particular situation.
- Medical management: Medications may be used to address other issues like cravings, psychological problems, and physical limitations.
- Behavioral interventions: These interventions are the backbone of long-term recovery. They include therapy, attendance at peer support groups, family involvement, and other interventions.
- Continuing care: An aftercare program will help you avoid relapse and serve as a strong foundation to hold you up in ongoing recovery. A solid support network is a critical part of your success in recovery, so this will be a key part of your aftercare plan. You’ll work with your therapist to create your aftercare plan.
Synthetic drugs are always evolving. For more information on the topic, check out these resources:
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: NIDA outlines major synthetic drugs of abuse and use trends.
- American Psychiatric Association (psychiatry.org)
- National Association of Attorneys General: Read about the major tools being used to address synthetic drug abuse in the U.S., including education and prevention efforts.