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Synthetic Drug Abuse & Addiction: A Mixed Bag of Risks & Dangers

Technological advances, market globalization, and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet is likely to generate a continuing flow of cheap psychoactive synthetic drugs for years to come.  Researchers are only beginning to chip away at the tip of the synthetic drug iceberg, but it is paramount that we continue to support their efforts to better understand its causes, scope, and consequences…

- Nora D. Volkow, M.D. Excerpt from the Caucus on International Narcotics Control

Synthetic drug abuse and addiction is on the rise. As synthesizing new chemical compounds becomes increasingly easier, these drugs become more widely available, more potent, and ultimately more dangerous. 

That’s why it’s absolutely essential that you know the ins and outs of these varied and hazardous substances before they take over, and endanger, your life entirely.

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What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs, in the most basic sense of the phrase, are any manmade substances that are taken or abused for their psychoactive or medical properties.

These substances are usually chemical compounds that are created in order to mimic the effects of natural drugs. Some may also be designed to achieve a certain medical need. Fludrocortisone, for example, is a synthetic steroid that’s used to treat high blood pressure.

These types of drugs, when taken according to a doctor’s prescription, are fully legal substances.

However, some synthetic drugs are also created and abused in order to experience a certain high and, as such, may be outlawed by the government. For example, LSD is one of the most widely known synthetic substances of abuse and is considered a Schedule I drug and carries the highest drug use penalties possible.

Certain synthetic drugs may also be put on the market advertising one purpose while in reality they were created to be used recreationally. Spice, for instance, was once widely used as a legal alternative to marijuana but at the time was marketed as a type of incense and not meant for human consumption.

There are a wide variety of synthetic drugs on the market today, some of which have a completely legal status while others are forbidden in the eyes of the law. In general, these drugs can be broken down into four categories:

  • Synthetic Cannabinoids
  • Synthetic Cathinones
  • Synthetic Phenethylamines
  • Synthetic Opioids

While the term “synthetic drugs” can technically be applied to a number of different substances like prescription opioids and MDMA, it’s generally used to describe just synthetic cannabinoids, cathinones, and phenethylamines.

Here are just a few of the most recognizable ones according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s website and their 2017 Drugs of Abuse report:

  • Synthetic Cannabinoids
    • Joker
    • Green Giant
    • Scooby Snax
    • Spice
    • K2
    • Blaze
    • RedX Dawn
    • Paradise
    • Crazy Clown
  • Synthetic Cathinones
    • Bath Salts
    • Flakka
    • Gravel
    • Bliss
    • Blue Silk
    • Ocean Burst
    • Pure Ivory
    • Red Dove
    • Stardust
  • Synthetic Phenethylamines
    • N-Bomb
    • Smiles

It’s worth noting that while this list does contain some of the most commonly abused synthetic drugs on the market today, it is certainly not a complete list. A staggering number of chemical compounds are being created on an incredibly frequent basis all over the world.

Despite the commonly held belief of many that natural is always safer than synthetic, these two categories of drugs do not necessarily hold any difference in their inherent dangers.

In fact, in many cases a synthetic drug is almost structurally identical to natural substances, giving it the exact same effects as its earth-born counterpart. They can also be structurally similar, and may even improve the effects of the natural version.

The problem with synthetic drugs, however, has to do with two factors: their relatively recent emergence in the field and the lack of regulation surrounding their production.

Many natural drugs have been used and abused by cultures for centuries. Marijuana has been treated as a medicinal herb since 500 BC. Humans have been drinking alcohol for over a dozen millennia. Even opium has a long history with the human race.

This extended time has allowed us to study and somewhat understand the effects that these drugs have on the body.

On the other hand, many synthetic drugs have only been around for a decade or two. This makes it much more difficult to really know the long-term effects that these substances will have on both the body and the mind.

And, as with many other illicit substances, the production of many synthetic drugs is oftentimes entirely unregulated. As such, they frequently contain a variety of additives that contribute to the overall toxicity of the substance, putting you in even further danger.

The Widespread Availability of Synthetic Drugs

Another aspect of these drugs that makes them especially dangerous is the fact that many of them started out being entirely legal. Drugs like K2, Bath Salts, and N-Bomb were all at one point distributed legally in head shops, gas stations, truck stops, and over the internet.

Most times they would be packaged in brightly colored baggies with psychedelic-looking designs.

Synthetic Drug Addiction

While these substances in particular have since been outlawed by the DEA and are now listed as controlled substances, the truth of the matter is that more drugs just like them are being developed quicker than the government can keep up.

As a result, the DEA might finally catch up with producers and ban a single product outright, only to have another drug that mirrors its effects (with a different chemical structure) enter the market a few days later.

The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) reports that in the U.S. alone, 158 different synthetic drugs were identified in 2012 compared to just 6 in 2009.

What’s more, Dr. Simon Thomas, consultant pharmacologist at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in England, reported that more than 500 different synthetic drugs have been found in Europe.

It is an uphill battle, then, to try and regulate such substances. As such, it’s important to note that just because something is legal today doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful or even deadly.

The youth is disproportionately prone to abusing synthetic drugs. In fact, a NIDA report at the Caucus on International Narcotics Control stated that 60% of Emergency Department visits for drugs like Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, involved users that were between 12 and 20 years of age.

In fact, synthetic cannabinoid use among this age group is so common that it is one of the most abused illicit substance among high schoolers, second only to marijuana.

Usage patterns for Bath Salts, a synthetic stimulant, seemed to follow a similar pattern as well. The same NIDA report stated that these products are mostly abused by young adults aged 20 to 29. However, almost 1 out of 100 8th graders report taking bath salts within the past year.

One of the most important contributing factors to abuse among these age groups is undoubtedly the widespread availability of the products.

Similar to how over-the-counter (OTC) medications like cough syrup have become a substance of abuse because they can be purchased at many stores without scrutiny, synthetic drugs can also be easily bought in head shops or online.

The easier it is to get your hands on the drug, the more likely it is to become a substance of abuse.

How Are Synthetic Drugs Made?

According to the DEA’s John Scherbenske in an interview with CNN, the majority of these drugs are actually being produced internationally by suburban laboratories in countries like China.

The manufacturing method of these drugs depends on the specific substance. Some compounds like synthetic cannabinoids are mass produced in a lab and then sprayed onto dried plants in order to mimic the look and functionality of marijuana.

Others, like bath salts, come in a powder or crystalized form and are synthesized by complex chemical processes.

One of the main differences between synthetic drugs and other substances of abuse, though, is the fact that the chemical structure of these drugs is quite readily manipulated in order to stay one step ahead of the law.

If one chemical structure is outlawed, then all manufacturers have to do is change the molecular structure just a bit and it becomes an entirely new compound.

In fact, a Time interview with the DEA chief of operations James Capra stated that many times manufacturers actually anticipate the outlaw of a product and have already prepared a new strain.

“Often they have already created the next variation of a substance and have it ready to hit the streets before the ink on the banning order of its parent drug has dried.”

A synthetic hallucinogen, also known as a synthetic phenethylamine, is one class of synthetic drugs that’s commonly abused today. Similar to substances like LSD and DMT, these drugs (also called psychedelics) interact with the brain in such a way to create auditory, visual, and tactile sensations that only exist in the mind.

Hallucinogens are also known as “party drugs.” These substances are used primarily on the club scene at venues like concerts, raves, and bars and are meant to enhance the visual and auditory ambiance.

Some of the most common synthetic hallucinogens include:

  • LSD
  • PCP
  • MDMA
  • DXM
  • Ketamine

While there’s been much debate on the overall risk of physical dependence of hallucinogens, studies have shown that these drugs can in fact cause psychological addiction and therefore should be avoided at all costs.

As with many other types of synthetic drugs, synthetic hallucinogens are still relatively new in the drug world. As such, there is not a whole lot of information available when it comes to the extent of just how these drugs affect the body.

What’s more, actual addiction to synthetic hallucinogens is still not fully understood either.

To complicate the matter even further, many other hallucinogens do not appear to be physically addictive at all, making physical withdrawal symptoms nonexistent.

Having said that though, synthetic hallucinogens are not like other hallucinogens. As such, the full extent of their addictiveness (and their withdrawals) is not known at this time.

However, some hallucinogens like PCP do in fact carry with them withdrawal symptoms and may be helpful in anticipating what to expect when it comes to synthetic drug detox for these types of substances.

Such withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Cravings
  • Sweating
  • Headaches

In addition to the intended effects of synthetic hallucinogens, there are also a number of additional short-term side effects to be aware of. According to NIDA these may include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Changes in perception of time
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Higher breathing rate
  • Increased temperature
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Sleep problems
  • Synesthesia (mixed senses like “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors)
  • Feelings of detachment from the self or the environment
  • Loss of coordination
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis

The long-term effects of these drugs may also include:

  • Speech problems
  • Memory loss
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Ulcers
  • Bladder and kidney problems
  • Mood changes
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Paranoia
  • Flashbacks

When it comes to more recently developed synthetic hallucinogens, the variety and severity of additional effects are hard to predict since they change so frequently. One synthetic hallucinogen in particular nicknamed N-Bomb has at least 6 alternate analogues, each with varying side effects.

One strand of this drug has been linked to seizures, loss of consciousness, dangerous blood pressure, and numerous deaths.

Others, however, don’t pose as much of a health risk.

The takeaway here, though, is that there can be drastic differences between two similar strains of hallucinogens, making it even more important to avoid abusing these substances at all costs.

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Synthetic Hallucinogens Spotlight: N-Bomb

One of the most dangerous synthetic hallucinogens on the market today is 25l-NBOMe, commonly known on the streets as N-Bomb. This exceedingly potent drug can cause trips that last up to 12 hours after using just a surprisingly small dose of the substance.

It first came onto the drug scene around 2010 and offered a technically legal way of experiencing effects similar to LSD. In fact, the NBOMe class of drugs was actually created to help map serotonin receptors in the brain according to ScienceDaily.

This especially deadly drug has been directly connected with 17 deaths already, most of which occurred due to the thickening and thinning of the blood vessels that results from its abuse.

According to Andrew Leibie, National Marketing Director at SafeWork Laboratories, some of the most obvious signs of N-Bomb intoxication are:

  • Violent or frightening hallucinations
  • Facial flushing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Inability to communicate
  • Increased or irregular heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Muscle spasms
  • High body temperatures

Ultimately, N-Bomb is an incredibly dangerous drug with long-lasting effects that make it even riskier to take. If you or anyone you know is suffering from an addiction to synthetic drugs like N-Bomb, it’s important to recognize the signs and get the proper help today.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Similar to cannabis or marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids bind to the exact same brain cell receptors as delat-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC.

However, while the active ingredient in marijuana may stimulate these receptors to some degree, synthetic cannabinoids tend to bind much more strongly and, consequently, produce significantly more powerful effects.

As a result, the overall sensory effects as well as the underlying impacts on the body in general are often unpredictable and could in fact be deadly.

What’s more, part of the danger of these drugs is that they’re often marketed as a “safer” and “legal” alternative to marijuana, leading many people to falsely believe that these substances don’t have any negative side effects.

The truth, however, is often the opposite.

The short-term effects of synthetic cannabinoid abuse can be quite alarming and (despite how the drug is marketed) may not resemble the effects of marijuana at all, depending on the product.

Some brands and strains may, for example, bring about relaxation, slight euphoria, and other results of marijuana use. On the other hand, the DEA points out that other brands may bring about unpleasant effects like:

  • Psychotic episodes
  • Intense hallucinations
  • Severe agitation
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Paranoid delusions
  • Violent behaviors
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Vomiting
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Unconsciousness
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Pallor
  • Numbness
  • Tingling

The long-term effects, however, are a bit harder to pin down, especially since this drug is still relatively new. The risk of adverse cardiac events like heart attack is undoubtedly affected by the spike in blood pressure and heart rate.

NIDA also points out that synthetic cannabinoids have also been connected to kidney damage due to the inherent toxicity of the substances.

And finally, synthetic cannabinoids have also been shown to be both physically and psychologically addictive. As such, continued use can lead to the development of a crippling substance use disorder that can end up changing your life forever.

The withdrawal symptoms of synthetic cannabinoids aren’t especially well-documented. In fact, there has only been a few reports of a withdrawal syndrome from these drugs according to one study.

Given that these drugs typically interact with the same receptors as marijuana, you might jump to the conclusion that withdrawals are probably similar to those of this commonly used drug.  

However, the list of synthetic cannabinoid withdrawal symptoms is actually much more extensive (and severe). It includes:

  • Depression
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Intense cravings
  • Tremors
  • Palpitations
  • Nightmares
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Confusion
  • Extreme sweating
  • Paranoia
  • Loss of motivation
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to sleep
  • Apathy
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

The severity of these symptoms generally varies between use cases and depends in large part on how long the drug was abused and how much was abused at a time.

However, most users can expect many of these symptoms at least to some degree for several weeks with the peak symptoms appearing after about four to seven days.

Synthetic Cannabinoids Spotlight: Spice & K2

Spice and K2 are two of the biggest brand names for synthetic cannabinoids. While these substances are currently outlawed in the United States, they once enjoyed a fully legal status. What’s more, there are also countless analogues and imitators on the market today.

These drugs, though touted as safe alternatives to marijuana, are actually quite dangerous. Below are a few statistics from NIDA to help put the dangers of this drug into perspective.

  • There were 2,695 calls to poison control centers in 2016 involving the harmful exposure to synthetic cannabinoids like Spice.
  • 28,531 ER visits in 2011 directly involved synthetic cannabinoids like K2.
  • 78% of these were in young adults aged 12 to 29 years.

What’s more, a recent study reported on by LiveScience found that the number of Spice and other synthetic cannabinoid overdoses is on the rise and has been reported 456 times from 2010 to 2015.

This is one drug that’s definitely not worth the risks.

Also called simulated cathinones, synthetic stimulants are chemically similar to the compound cathinone, a stimulant that is naturally found in the khat plant. As with other synthetic drugs of abuse, synthetic cathinones can be much more powerful than their natural counterpart and, as such, can be incredibly dangerous.

These substances are also referred to as “bath salts” given their generally similar physical appearance to Epsom salts and other bathing products.

While they may create an effect similar to other stimulants, these substances are notorious for leading to an intense state of psychosis in many people. The results of this state can range from self-inflicted harm to outwardly violent behaviors, all without any warning whatsoever.

They also have a powerful addictive potential with intense cravings, similar to those of methamphetamine even.

As such, bath salts are undoubtedly one drug you should avoid at all costs.

Some of the most notable short-term effects of bath salts according to NIDA include:

  • Nosebleeds
  • Paranoia
  • Increased sociability
  • Increased sex drive
  • Hallucinations
  • Panic attacks

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also notes that bath salt abuse can additionally lead to symptoms like:

  • Aggression
  • Violent behavior
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Delusions
  • Acute psychosis
  • Agitation

In the long-term, abuse of this drug has also been shown to lead to:

  • Tachycardia
  • Hypertension
  • Overactive or overresponsive reflexes
  • Seizures
  • Teeth grinding
  • Headaches

However, long-term studies on this drug are still few and far between given just how relatively new of a substance of abuse it is. As such, there may be a variety of other detrimental health effects when it comes to bath salts that we still have yet to discover.

Synthetic Stimulants Withdrawals

Withdrawals for synthetic drugs like simulated cathinones are similar to those of other stimulants.

According to addiction and recovery publication The Fix, withdrawals from Bath Salts and other substituted cathinones include:

  • Decreased memory
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Intense cravings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Nasal congestion
  • Amnesia
  • Violent behavior
  • Sleep disturbances 

While these symptoms are incredibly uncomfortable at times, they generally are not life-threatening. Having said that, successfully withstanding the effects that this synthetic drug detox can bring depends heavily on the help of qualified professionals.

The more knowledge and expertise a medical staff and facility has, the greater your chances for eventual recovery will be. What’s more, it will also likely be a much more comfortable process. 

Synthetic Drugs: A Mixed Bag of Risks & Dangers

Synthetic drugs, including synthetic phenethylamines, cannabinoids, and cathinones, are all much more dangerous than most people may think. While they may enjoy a completely legal status in some areas, these drugs have far-reaching effects that may lead to permanent health problems and even death.

As such, it’s incredibly important that if you have a synthetic drug abuse problem, you get the help you need to conquer it.

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