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Headlines in the past few years have noted a surge in the use of synthetic drugs.
Known by various other names – such as research chemicals, legal highs, or new psychoactive substances (NPS) – these drugs are human-made synthetic versions of more commonly known psychoactive substances like cocaine, marijuana, or opioid drugs, but they are designed and engineered to avoid being designated as controlled substances or illicit drugs.
These substances carry a high level of risk because of how they are made, labeled, marketed, and used. Compared with their analogs – that is, the drugs they are designed to resemble – synthetic drugs can result in severe physical and psychological reactions and symptoms that are far more dangerous. They have been labeled by the Office of National Drug Control Policy as a threat to public health and safety.
Synthetic drugs are compounds that, rather than being extracted from plants or other natural sources, are manufactured in laboratories. In many cases, they are created specifically to act like more common drugs, but they cost less to create and can be sold more cheaply as well. They also tend to have a more profound effect on the body. The combination of lower cost and intensity makes these drugs extremely popular.
The manufacturers or distributors of synthetic drugs actively work to avoid their products being labeled outright as illegal; as a result, they often use chemicals that are intended for other uses, such as for scientific research (hence the name research chemicals), or that are not actively illegal and deceptively labeled as not being for human consumption, even though that is how they are meant to be used.
For many of these drugs, the chemical makeup is continually altered slightly to avoid them being designated as controlled substances; this has led to them also being referred to as designer drugs.
One of the most common signs of a designer drug, research chemical, or synthetic drug is the labeling. While they are created specifically as psychoactive substances and meant to be consumed, they often have labels saying “not for human consumption” or “for use in research only.” This false advertising is meant to maintain the presentation of these drugs as legal substances that are being misused, rather than as the drugs they are actually meant to be, thereby keeping their true purpose under the radar legally.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it is even more concerning that, because these substances are marketed in this way, ingredients are not required to be listed or quality controlled in any way, so there is no way to know exactly what chemicals are included in the drugs. As a result, and because the chemical ingredients are constantly being changed to stay ahead of controlled substance laws, people who use these products regularly may be getting different chemical combinations every time, increasing the risk of poisoning or other severe reactions to the drugs.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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
The biggest challenge to getting control of synthetic substances, research chemicals, and designer drugs is the inability to get a legal handle on them. This occurs for several reasons, as detailed by the National Conference of State Legislatures:
Changing formulations: Once a version of the substance comes to the awareness of authorities who attempt to change the legal status, the manufacturers of the substance change its formula. The different formula is technically a different substance, so it is not technically illegal anymore.
Deceptive packaging: K2 and Spice are marketed as incense or potpourri that are “not for human consumption.” Bath salts and plant food are called by those names to imply that they are not meant for human consumption, even though they really are. Drugs referred to as research chemicals are labeled “for research uses only.” In combination with changing formulas, the false advertising and labeling are designed to keep these substances under the radar.
Sourcing chemicals: By purchasing chemicals that are designated specifically for research, distributors are technically not selling a legal substance because it is legal for the intended purpose. Authorities are trying to find ways to curb the illicit use of these chemicals without banning them outright, because of their intended use.
Various governments, including the US, are beginning to enact laws against many of these substances as well as any analogs that arise in order to try to circumvent these issues. Nevertheless, the challenge remains.
The lack of ability to regulate or control these substances means there are a number of risks to using synthetic drugs. SAMHSA reports that, in 2011, hospital emergency room visits due to synthetic cannabinoids increased to more than 28,500. The previous year, there had only been 11,406 ER visits due to these drugs. This could be due in part to increased use by young people who believe that the synthetic drug is as safe as marijuana, leading them to use it because it is cheaper. Labels that use the words organic or natural in the name can contribute to this perception
Lack of regulation of substance ingredients or concentrations means it is impossible to know what exactly is in the substance, or how strong it is, which can result in overdose or toxicity. In addition, changing formulas mean even less knowledge of what is in a product. Even if it has been used before without risk, the new formulation can cause unexpected problems due to the new, experimental chemicals.
Quite simply, experimental drugs that have no research behind them, or that are being researched or used for other purposes, can affect the brain and body in unknown ways. These effects have led to severe reactions, injury, and death.
As described by the Victoria State Government’s Better Health Channel in Australia, one of the biggest concerns about synthetic drugs is that there is little research into how they behave in the body and what their short-term or long-term health effects may be. In addition, there are challenges to the ability to perform this type of research because of the constantly changing formulations of the substances.
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