Synthetic, or man-made, designer drug abuse has exploded since first appearing on the scene in the United States around 2009.
Products are marked as “herbal incense,” “potpourri,” “bath salts,” “jewelry cleaner,” or “plant food,” and they are sold in head shops, gas stations and on the Internet. CNN estimates that over 200 of these drug compounds have been identified in America.
These drugs are often made in a clandestine lab containing a mixture of dangerous materials, and buyers may have no idea what is actually contained in the drugs they purchase. There are two main types of synthetic drugs: synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.
Who’s Abusing Synthetic Drugs
These drugs are highly popular among young adults and adolescents. Synthetic cannabinoids were the second most abused drug by high school seniors in 2012 as one in nine 12th graders admitted to using them, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that emergency department (ED) visits related to synthetic cannabinoids more than doubled from 2010 to 2011, from 11,406 to 28,531 ED visits. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) published that 75 percent of the ED visits in 2010 were young adults between the ages of 12 and 29, while 77.5 percent of these visits were males and 22.5 percent were female.
In 2012, the federal government passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 in order to control the rising epidemic and place the active chemical ingredients used in synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids onto Schedule I of the controlled substances lists. Per the National Conference of State Legislatures, all 50 states have banned synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones in an attempt to curb abuse and circumvent the dangerous and often tragic consequences. Unfortunately, as regulations are put in place for one type of designer drug, illicit labs produce new and different unregulated forms.
The Houston Chronicle reported that 19 deaths of young adults aged 12 to 29 were related to the abuse of synthetic LSD, via another designer drug called 241-NBOMe, in a 17-month period ending in August 2013. It’s clear that designer, or synthetic, drugs are highly dangerous and continue to evolve.
Health Risks of Cannabinoids and Synthetic Marijuana
Often made from plant materials dried and shredded, and then laced with psychoactive chemicals, synthetic cannabinoids mimic the effects of delta-9-deltahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the active component in marijuana. THC binds to cannabis receptor sites in the brain.
It is considered a partial agonist while synthetic cannabinoids are much more effective as full agonists. This means they produce much larger mind-altering effects and increase the risk for an unintentional overdose. Synthetic cannabinoids can also be over 100 times more powerful than actual marijuana, according to Forbes.
This increases the wide range of potential health risks that may include:
- Irregular heart rate
- Tremors or seizures
- Cardiac arrest or heart problems
- Kidney damage
- Brain damage
Synthetic cannabinoids may go by many names, such as Spice, K2, fake weed, Moon Rocks, Skunk, Bliss, Blaze, JWH-018 (or several other different numerical suffixes) and Yucatan Fire. Synthetic cannabinoids are often smoked, and they are sometimes also infused in drinks or other edibles. They can make users feel pleasant and relaxed as well as alter perceptions.
Health Risks of Bath Salts and Cathinones
Synthetic cathinones often have similar effects to stimulant drugs like amphetamines or cocaine. Called bath salts, Ivory Wave, White Lightning, Vanilla Sky, Lunar Wave, Bloom, Cloud Nine and Scarface, these drugs often contain 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MPVD, methylone or mephedrone. They are usually in a white or brown crystalline powder form, and they can be snorted, inhaled, swallowed, or injected.
Like other stimulant drugs, cathinones can increase energy levels and produce a euphoric effect. NIDA estimates that they are at least 10 times as potent as cocaine.
Health risks from cathinones may include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure and body temperature
- Chest pain
- Panic attack
- Kidney failure
- Breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue
- Intense drug cravings
- Violent behaviors
Bath salts, or cathinones, not only stimulate dopamine production in the brain – dopamine being one of the brain’s chemical messengers responsible for pleasure – but also serotonin, which regulates moods and emotions. Thus, synthetic cathinones can be very addictive and desirable to abuse. Calls to the U.S. Poison Control Centers regarding adverse reactions to bath salts topped 9,000 between 2010 and 2013, according to NIDA. Since these drugs are fairly new, long-term effects may not be fully understood either.
How to Spot Synthetic Drug Abuse
As with any psychoactive drug, synthetic drugs carry the risk of users becoming physically and psychologically dependent on them. Drug abuse alters the reward center in the brain, making it more difficult for the body to produce its natural “happy cells,” or neurotransmitters like dopamine. Users will begin to rely on the chemical substance instead and may experience drug cravings and engage in drug-seeking behavior as well as suffer from withdrawal symptoms when it is removed.
Someone who is addicted to drugs, either synthetic or other illicit substances, will likely be obsessed with obtaining them and much of their time is spent trying to get them, using them, and recovering from them. Work and school performance may start to slip, and users may notice they begin to withdraw from social situations or activities they previously enjoyed.
Personality shifts, appetite chances, differences in sleep patterns and rapid mood changes may be signs of abuse and addiction. Addicts may continue to abuse substances despite negative interpersonal or physical health hazards, and they may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors as well.
Be on the lookout for suspicious packages as many designer drugs are ordered off the Internet and mailed through the postal system. Many of these drugs may come from China. When it comes to synthetic drug abuse, education is key. The more you know and share with your loved ones about the dangers of designer drug abuse, the less likely they are to suffer a tragic consequence.
Dangers of Synthetic Drugs
The most dangerous aspect of synthetic drug abuse may be that you actually will have no idea what is in the drug you are ingesting. Combinations of chemicals can have toxic and dangerous interactions with each other, increasing all the potential risk factors.
Since many of the abusers of synthetic drugs are adolescents or young adults whose brains have not fully developed, the likelihood of developing an addiction is very high. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for mood and emotional regulation as well as decision-making processes. If you damage these areas of the brain with drug abuse before they are fully developed, you may have an increased chance of developing a substance abuse disorder later in life.
For example, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) of 2013 reported that in those who abused marijuana before age 14 or younger, 11.5 percent were classified with a illicit drug abuse or dependency issue when they were over age 18 while only 2.6 percent of their peers who waited to try marijuana until after age 18 had such an issue.
Around half of all drug abusers also suffer from mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports, which can further complicate treatment for both mental illness symptoms and substance abuse disorders. Dual diagnosis treatment identifies both disorders as primarily.
Using evidence-based treatment models, symptoms are managed in an integrated and simultaneous fashion. Substance abuse can exacerbate mental illness symptoms and interfere with medications. Drug abuse may even bring about the mental illness symptoms for the first time. Sometimes abusing drugs may be a way to cope with mental illness as well and numb the pain at least temporarily. Long-term, this can have very detrimental consequences, both to physical and psychological health.
Get Real Help for Synthetic Drug Abuse
Thankfully, addiction is a disease that can be treated successfully. Behavioral therapies and counseling are effective tools for modifying negative behavior and thought patterns that may encourage or increase instances of substance abuse. By identifying what triggers may set off self-destructive mannerisms, you can learn new and healthier ways to manage these stressors that don’t involve abusing drugs.
We have admissions coordinators standing by to help guide you through a confidential assessment in order to determine what level of care will best suit your circumstances. With the right treatment, recovery is within your grasp. Call us today at 844-768-1248.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton