What are synthetic drugs?
The term “synthetic drugs” covers a wide range of chemicals and substances that are meant to replicate the effects of illicit drugs and skirt the law. Contrary to popular opinion, synthetic drugs are not organic or natural. In fact, they are artificial and laced with chemicals. A variety of synthetic cannabinoids have been manufactured and sold in an attempt to avoid laws that make marijuana illegal. Until state and federal laws stepped in, they were sold over the counter at convenience stores, gas stations, head shops, herbal stores, and tobacco shops throughout the country. Synthetic cannabinoids were first detected in the United States in November 2008. Today, they can be found online, sold as “herbal incense” and “plant food,” and are marketed toward young people as a “legal” high.
Synthetic drugs are commonly divided into two categories:
- Cannabinoids (known as Spice or K2) are chemical versions of synthetic marijuana that consist of lab-manufactured THC. Some consider the term “synthetic cannabis” to be misleading because the ingredients are imitations, not copies, of THC.
- Cathinones (known as bath salts) contain manmade chemical compounds that mimic the effects of cocaine, meth, or amphetamines.
Why aren’t synthetic drugs illegal?
Many synthetic drugs are illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has designated the five active chemicals most frequently found in synthetic drugs as Schedule I controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, buy, or possess them. In addition, many states have implemented bans on specific formulas of synthetic marijuana and bath salts. However, drug makers can easily sidestep these regulations. Manufacturers adapt simply by replacing the chemical compound of one banned synthetic cannabinoid or cathinone with another that is not yet known to authorities. Users unaware of the bad side effects the new chemicals may cause are put at risk.
Can synthetic drugs affect co-occurring mental health disorders?
Co-occurring disorders, or dual disorders, occur when a mental health disorder, like depression or schizophrenia, is present along with addiction, alcoholism, or other substance use disorders. Screening for co-occurring disorders should be part of any good assessment or treatment plan.
Research on the effects of synthetic cannabis is only now becoming available. Initial studies focus on the role of synthetic cannabis and psychosis. It seems likely that synthetic cannabis can bring on a psychosis and in some unusual cases may trigger a chronic (long-term) psychotic disorder among vulnerable individuals (such as those with a family history of severe mental illness). Anyone taking medications for a mental health disorder should be especially careful to avoid synthetic or designer drugs sold under the guise of being a natural and safe herb.
Are synthetic drugs dangerous?
Use of synthetic marijuana and bath salts has increased dramatically in recent years, despite health warnings from the states, public health authorities, and poison control centers. One reason that synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous is that buyers don’t know what chemicals they are ingesting. Even dealers often don’t know what ingredients are in the drugs they sell. Individual products can contain a vast range of different chemicals and potencies, some of which can be 2 to 500 times stronger than THC. Similar to the adverse effects of cocaine, LSD, and methamphetamine, bath salt use is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, and violent behavior.
Poison control centers throughout the country are reporting a dramatic increase in the number of calls relating to synthetic marijuana and bath salts. Spice can raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart. In a few cases, it has been associated with heart attacks. Regular users may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms. Researchers still do not know all the ways Spice may affect human health or how toxic it may be, but one public health concern is that there may be harmful metal residues in Spice mixtures. Without further analyses, it is difficult to determine whether this concern is justified.
How common is synthetic drug abuse?
Synthetic drugs are popular, especially among young people. Data from the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey of youth drug-use trends reports that 11.4 percent of twelfth graders used Spice or K2 in the prior year, making it the second most commonly used illicit drug among high school seniors. Young adults also use the drug.
Easy access and the misperception that synthetic drugs are natural and therefore harmless have likely contributed to their popularity. Another selling point is that the chemicals used in synthetic drugs are not easily detected in standard drug tests, but new drug tests have now been developed.
How does synthetic drug use affect the brain?
Synthetic drug users report experiences similar to those produced by marijuana— elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception—and in some cases the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.
So far, there have been no scientific studies of the effects of synthetic drugs on the human brain, but we do know that the cannabinoid compounds found in Spice products act on the same cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. However, some of the compounds found in Spice bind more strongly to those receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Like the drugs they tend to emulate, synthetic drug use can lead to addiction.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) uses the term “substance use disorder” to define a pattern of substance use that leads to significant physical, interpersonal, medical, or work problems. Substance use disorder is further broken down into categories based on the substance and its effects (such as stimulant use disorder, cannabis use disorder, etc.). In the case of synthetic drugs, it’s often classified based on the drug/effect being replicated. Substance use dis- orders are rated as mild, moderate, or severe based on how many criteria are met. A person diagnosed with a substance use disorder can also be classified as in remission, or what is commonly referred to as “in recovery.” Those with substance use disorder should receive treatment, and those who identify themselves as ad- dicts often find the skills and support to stay sober through peer support groups like Narcotics Anonymous.
Addiction is considered a brain-based disease characterized by abnormal drug-seeking behavior that leads to impaired control over one’s drug use. Addiction means a person will continue using alcohol or other drugs despite the harm it does to their health, family, work or school, and relationships. An addict may experience withdrawal symptoms (physical pain, fatigue, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability) if he or she stops using, and may need to keep using just to feel normal. “Curing” addiction is not a matter of willpower or moral strength any more than is curing diabetes or cancer. Like diabetes and cancer, addiction is considered a chronic disease which is beyond one’s control and fatal if left untreated.
Addiction won’t go away, like a cold or the flu. It is a chronic disease, mean- ing you have it all your life. However, by staying sober and getting ongoing support, recovering people can live normal, healthy, productive lives.
There are many resources out there. The websites for the following organizations were chosen for their usefulness and user friendliness.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): This government organization is dedicated to addiction research and education. Through its website you can access up-to-date publications about many different drugs of abuse as well as emerging trends.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Its website offers information and resources about preventing and treating addiction and mental illness.