The term “synthetic drug” has become more popular over the past few years, with growing awareness of the fact that new drugs are being developed in labs around the world, sometimes for illegal profit, and at other times for benign research, misused and sold on the black market. Synthetic drugs differ from the more common illicit substances that the public is commonly aware of, like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. However, the distinction is neither immediately apparent, nor is it emphasized enough.
Understanding the dangers of synthetic drugs – and what they are – can help you identify them, report them, and warn your friends and family to stay away from them. While all drugs are dangerous in their own way, there are certain factors that specifically make synthetic drugs much more potent.
What is a Synthetic Drug?
Synthetic drugs, as opposed to other psychoactive and addictive drugs, are specifically designed to function like other drugs while evading the law. These so-called designer drugs are built in laboratories from an assortment of entirely legal and mundane chemicals available globally as research material. Because of their synthetic nature, they are often far more potent than their “natural” or original counterparts and come with a bevy of extremely dangerous side effects.
The biggest danger in synthetic drugs is the fact that they are often complete unknowns. These are drugs built to be chemically like popular illicit drugs whose side effects are known, sold under the guise of being a legal alternative. Legal, because due to the speed at which these drugs are developed and sold, it is difficult to catch up and regulate each iteration.
Instead, awareness is needed. Not only are these drugs dangerous in general, but their nature as knockoffs makes them dangerous to addicts with preexisting drug use, and an intimate knowledge of their own limits and tolerance. Because these drugs are often more potent than their counterparts, synthetic drugs have caused countless ER visits and several tragic overdose deaths – a figure that is unfortunately rising, in no small part due to these drugs.
Synthetic drugs have existed for decades, termed after the fact that they are completely synthesized in a laboratory without the use of “natural” ingredients. To process cocaine, you need to harvest the coca plant. To make heroin, you need poppy. To sell cannabis, you need a cannabis plant. Alcohol is made from fields of hops, barley, grapes and more. But drugs like fentanyl, LSD, MDMA, and synthetic cannabinoids can be made anywhere with the right equipment and the right chemical compounds, cutting out the logistics of growing and transporting plant matter for drug production – a fact that allows synthetic drugs to grow unhinged across the world, aided by faster delivery systems and online black markets.
Commonly Known Synthetic Drugs and Their Effects
Synthetic drugs come in many forms, but the most popular have been around for years. These include:
Methamphetamine: Known also as meth or crystal meth, this drug mimics the euphoric and empowering effects of amphetamines, together with numerous side effects including tooth decay, skin irritation, open sores, and rapid cognitive decline.
Synthetic Cannabinoids: While these drugs bind to the same receptors as THC, a drug that is debatably harmful, synthetic cannabinoids are much more powerful than their natural counterparts and can cause severe side effects such as nausea, hallucinations, psychosis, and organ damage.
Synthetic Cathinones: Known also as “bath salts”, these drugs are powerful hallucinogens and highly addictive, mimicking the psychoactive compound present in the Middle Eastern khat plant. An amphetamine-like substance in these drugs gives the same feeling of euphoria as ecstasy and meth, furthering its addictiveness. It acts as a stimulant.
LSD: While not addictive and rarely the cause of an overdose, LSD is potentially dangerous due to its nature as a powerful hallucinogen, and it is a synthetic drug, accidentally conceived by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the 30s. It is illegal due to its nature as a powerful mind-altering substance, rather than severe side-effects or addictive properties.
Krokodil: A notorious albeit rare drug used in Eastern Europe and more recently in the US, Krokodil is a mixture of several substances for the explicit purpose of a very powerful high, at the cost of poisoning, tissue necrosis (tissue death), and death. Known as desomorphine, it is made by mixing codeine with household items including paint thinner and petrol.
MDMA: Also known as Molly or Ecstasy, MDMA is a “euphoric stimulant” much like cathinones, popularized through rave culture and dance festivals for years – and in other circles, more recently. Abundantly available as colorful tabs and tablets, MDMA is a common party drug, known for altering perception, and causing long-term negative side effects such as depression and addiction. Like LSD, the medical and psychological potential for MDMA is under research, but recreational use of the drug is very dangerous.
One or two positive experiences with these drugs does not negate their dangers. Side effects are a possibility, rather than a guarantee, but they are often more severe and more common with synthetic drugs due to manufacturing mistakes, bad mixes, and other elements of human error. Synthetic cannabinoids, for example, are mixed and sprayed onto desiccated plant material. Sometimes, this spotty application can result in plant pieces with a much higher – and much more dangerous – concentration of the active drug.
Why Synthetic Drugs are a Growing Issue
Synthetic drugs like meth, LSD and ecstasy have been around for decades, but the recent explosion in their use and popularity has several factors. For one, they’re part of a growing trend among teens. MDMA, and to a lesser degree, synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, have become popular at parties and gatherings. Furthermore, meth production has increased as the number of meth users continues to grow. It’s a matter of supply and demand.
Beyond that, these drugs are relatively easy to produce from a logistical standpoint and by continuously changing their makeup, labs can keep them dubiously legal, marketing them as harmless household items like jewelry cleaners or potpourri, while catering to a clientele that knows where to find these drugs.
Over the last decade, synthetic drugs have left in their wake countless deaths, long-term injuries, hospitalizations, poisonings and even comas. Staying away from them is an important priority for parents and teens alike.
All Drugs Have Potential for Abuse
There is little doubt about the dangers of synthetic drugs – we’ve gone over their death tolls and injury statistics, the potential side effects and the growing popularity – but it’s important to remember that this does not make other illicit drugs any better, or substantially safer. A “clean” cocaine or heroin addiction is going to land you in the ER and kill you at a statistically slower pace, but regardless of what you’re addicted to, not seeking treatment means accepting the risk of death from every high.
That, and with the flooding of synthetic drugs in the market, many “plant-grown” drugs are being sold laced with synthetic drugs and cut with dangerous and cheap fillers to drive up profitability. Street-level heroin in particular has often been notably laced with fentanyl, a far more potent synthetic opioid. If mixed badly, one hit can cause an overdose.
Stories about new and powerful drugs don’t make the other ones any less dangerous, and it’s important to remember that all addictive drugs can easily lead a person to a life of struggle and possible overdose.
Addiction to Synthetic Drugs Can Be Treated
An addiction to these types of drugs is more dangerous because we don’t really know what it might entail. While unpredictable side effects, violent physical reactions, poisonings and even comas caused by badly mixed drugs are part of a growing list of worries, the long-term effects of many synthetic drugs are virtually unknowable, especially drugs like synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, because studies were never organized to research just how the body reacts to long-term use. Speculation includes potential heavy metal poisoning due to the heavy metal content in drugs like K2/Spice, among other dangers.
Yet aside from these factors, an addiction to synthetic drugs is similar to an addiction to other illicit substances – which means it can be treated in much the same way. While the risk of death or overdose from a relapse is higher with synthetic drugs, treatment does exist – and an addiction to these new drugs can be overcome. Sober living homes can help individuals completely distance themselves from these substances and take the time they need for their bodies and minds to recover.
Outside of treatment, family involvement and a strong support system of friends is important to maintain abstinence and stay strong in the face of stress. It may take months or years to cravings to completely subside, but as with other addictions, it does get easier with time and accumulated experience.