What are Synthetic Drugs?

The most recognized drugs of abuse include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. These drugs cause profound physical and emotional health problems because of their addictive properties. Research organizations and advocacy groups spend millions of dollars each year pursuing drug use prevention strategies and treatment options for individuals who abuse these substances. However, a newer class of substances called synthetic drugs is gaining traction in the United States. Synthetic drugs have gained national media attention for their potency and potential for abuse.

Unlike other drugs of abuse, which are commonly produced from plants and other naturally-occurring compounds, synthetic drugs are created in labs. These synthetic compounds mimic the chemical structure of naturally-derived substances. In many cases, they are even more potent than naturally-derived street drugs, which may be cut with other substances.

What is a Synthetic Drug?

In the summer of 2012, synthetic drugs gained national attention with the high-profile case of a man, allegedly high on bath salts, eating the face of another man on the side of a busy causeway. Bath salts are synthetic drugs manufactured to be chemically similar to cocaine and amphetamine. This white crystalline substance resembles bathing salts, although they do not share a similar chemical structure. Another common drug is synthetic marijuana, often known by its street names “K2” or “spice.”

Synthetic drugs are especially dangerous because they are difficult to regulate. Synthetic marijuana is often sold legally as herbal incense marked “not safe for human consumption.” Other synthetic drugs are sold as “plant food” to prevent regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. Because the bureaucratic process regulating substances is somewhat slow, it has been challenging for law enforcement officials to combat the use of these synthetic drugs.

A 2011 survey of drug use trends found that over 10% of high school seniors had used spice or K2 in the past year. This made it the second most popular drug after marijuana. Use of bath salts is also growing, with the American Association of Poison Control Centers reporting 20 times as many calls related to bath salt use from 2010 to 2011. With several recent high-profile cases involving bath salt use, this number is expected to rise even further.

How do Synthetic Drugs Affect the Brain?

Synthetic drugs affect the brain in similar ways to the naturally-occurring compounds they mimic. Sometimes these effects are even more potent because synthetic drugs are purer forms of the psychoactive substance. For example, K2 and spice contain inactive plant material with added synthetic THC, the primary ingredient in marijuana that produces its psychological effects. THC rapidly passes into the brain, activating a type of brain signaling protein called cannabinoid receptors. These receptors affect brain activity in regions related to memory, thinking, perception of time and sensation, coordinated movement, and pleasure.

Bath salts contain synthetic amphetamine-like chemicals called substituted cathinones. These chemicals pass into the brain and stimulate activity of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These brain neurotransmitters are highly involved with reward pathways that reinforce feelings of pleasure after taking the drug. This change in brain reward circuitry is what makes bath salts so addictive. Some researchers believe bath salts may be as addictive as cocaine.

What are the Effects of Synthetic Drugs?

Because of its high THC content, spice or K2 causes feelings of pleasure, detachment from normal sensation and perception, increased introspection, feelings of altered consciousness, and calmness. However, it can also induce unwanted effects, including the following:

  •  Anxiety
  •  Paranoia
  •  Hallucinations or delusions
  •  Panic attacks
  •  Dissociation, such as feelings of lack of awareness of reality
  •  Agitation
  •  Nervousness
  •  Vomiting
  •  Nausea
  •  Racing heartbeat or arrhythmia
  •  High blood pressure
  •  Dilated pupils


Use of spice or K2 can also induce seizures, tremors, severe psychotic symptoms, heart attack, stroke, or other fatal conditions.

Using bath salts induces feelings of euphoria and extreme rushes of pleasure. However, it also may cause rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, hallucinations, violent behavior, paranoia, stroke, heart attacks, or other serious health problems. In some cases, individuals under the influence of bath salts lose touch with reality. This, combined with the increased aggression, may cause severe harm to self or others.

Because use of synthetic marijuana and bath salts has been increasing in recent years, researchers are just beginning to explore the effects of these compounds on long-term health. Chronic use of synthetic drugs can cause drug addiction. Frequent drug users must use more and more of the substance to get the same effects. Trying to quit drug use may cause irritability, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and other serious medical symptoms.

Treatment is Available

Although accurate statistics about the prevalence of synthetic drug use are limited, abuse of these substances appears to be on the rise. Fortunately, qualified treatment facilities such as Best Drug Rehabilitation have the resources to help those addicted to bath salts, K2, and other synthetic drugs. Seeking immediate help for synthetic substance abuse is essential before these drugs cause permanent physical or emotional damage.

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