Synthetic drugs can be frightening. They take lives, alter reality, ruin families. And many of them have no use other than to corrupt and hurt, for profit. It’s no wonder that when something like that enters society, it’s treated as a malicious entity, a problem we need to fight with all our might.
But drugs aren’t easy to fight. There is no way to go to war against them and win. Winning against drugs means creating a world where people never need them, and before we can do that, we have a lot work to do within our households, communities and governments.
So, for now, we all seek to do our best to help those affected by drugs, and help our families stay whole and survive. To help with that, drugs are made illegal, and we teach our children what they look like and how to avoid them.
But that’s becoming harder and harder. Synthetic drugs have been hitting the streets for years, and not just through clubs or street corners, but through gas stations, boutique stores, and dubiously-legal brand names.
With innocent-sounding names for products like bath salts, potpourri and spice, it’s easy to mistake what could be one of the most dangerous drugs in the world for nothing more than herbal incense. And it’s behind labels like these that the world of synthetic drugs flourishes, and grows.
What Are Synthetic Drugs?
Synthetic drugs are, for the most part, self-explanatory. They’re man-made chemical compounds that largely mimic the chemical composition of natural drugs (or, to be more precise, drugs that are extracted from plant material). Where pure cocaine is a product of the coca plant and heroin is a product of opium poppy, drugs like fentanyl and synthetic cannabinoids are made in laboratories, designed and formulated to give a much more potent, much more powerful, and much more dangerous high.
Unlike drugs that require entire plantations to produce en masse, synthetic drugs can be made with a much smaller footprint, as part of a much smaller operation. They’re sold online as chemical components or research material, and sold under a semi-legal status because labs keep coming up with new chemical combinations, making it harder and harder for law enforcement to keep track and figure out what’s just hit the market.
Very prominent and unfortunately common examples include synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic opioids, and synthetic cathinones. These drugs are also commonly known as spice, K2, Mr. Smiley, bath salts, Joker, Black Mamba, and hundreds of other names. Synthetic cannabis is sold as plant material sprayed unevenly with a coating of cannabinoids. Synthetic opioids are commonly sold as prescription drugs, but are also coming out of laboratories in China and Mexico, as fentanyl and carfentanil, the latter of which has recently been described to be so deadly that it classifies as a chemical weapon.
Explaining the Explosion in Synthetic Drugs Today
Synthetic drugs have existed for decades, and are part and parcel of chemistry. The discovery of early synthetic psychedelics like LSD, and the popularity of MDMA (ecstasy) paved the way for other drugs to be created in labs rather than fields.
Fentanyl in the 80s, the re-emergence of meth in the 90s. While prescription drugs and methamphetamine are seen separate from the more recently troubling synthetic drugs, they’re the same basic thing.
Synthetic Drugs vs. Designer Drugs
Technically, synthetic drugs and designer drugs are two sides of the same coin – a distinction between the two wouldn’t be much more than pure semantics. But in common terms, synthetic drugs refer to the wave of drugs that in recent years have been causing accidental overdoses and poisoning. Designer drugs are analogous to controlled substances, or simply designed to get the user high, and they include all synthetic drugs including ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamine.
Nowadays, the materials for many designer drugs make it throughout the world under the guise of research material, freely sold and illegally used to manufacture drug analogues to existing controlled substances. Although laws exist to prohibit the sale of these drug analogues, it’s not illegal to sell research chemicals.
This isn’t just a problem with cannabinoids and cathinones. Stimulants, anabolic steroids, psychedelics, benzodiazepines and nootropics are all being synthetically manufactured and sold online, or through small stores locally. These drugs are often untested, incredibly potent, and potentially toxic or ridden with side-effects.
Measures have been taken in some countries to stem the issue, such as introducing new laws to regulate any psychoactive compounds or create a new class for unidentified or poorly studied controlled substances, to more quickly institute legal means with which to prohibit their sale and use.
Why Synthetic Drugs Are Even Worse
Fighting against these drugs isn’t just a tough job – it’s getting harder in a world that’s growing ever smaller with modern-day technology. That’s why it’s even more important, now than ever, to get clean and stay clean. Drug overdoses from heroin are growing in number not only because of an increased number of heroin addicts, but because what’s hitting the street is stronger and deadlier than before, and too often, someone takes a hit of something they couldn’t handle.
Synthetic cannabis, which is sold as a fake or legal weed, is several times more potent and far deadlier than the real thing, inducing vomiting, hallucinations and sometimes death. And bath salts have made headlines several times over the past few years for inducing psychosis.
Beyond their capacity to do much more damage to the human body than their counterparts, synthetic drugs are also troubling to fight on a legal basis since new drugs are hitting the streets at a rapid pace. Law enforcement has had trouble playing catch-up to the point that several dollar store businesses have tried suing over damages from synthetic drug raids, due to their dubious legal status.
The first step to getting ahead of the game is education and elucidation. Parents and kids need to understand what these drugs are, what they often look like, and how they’re marketed. They need to check ingredients and be informed of chemical analogues to dangerous drugs. And active drug users need to understand that these drugs can be life-ending, and extremely dangerous to them.