What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Chemists making medicine in a lab

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What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are chemical drugs made in laboratories. While some of them are produced for medicinal reasons, many have no medicinal use and only exist because of their psychedelic and psychoactive effects.

Many synthetic drugs simulate the feeling you get when you use illegal drugs, such as cocaine or marijuana.

Synthetic drugs can be very potent and often contain unknown chemicals that could be dangerous for you, even though they are marketed as legal and safe for you. They can make you feel euphoric, which is why they are often abused.

Here's what you should know about synthetic drugs and why using them can pose a threat to your overall well-being. 

History of Synthetic Drugs 

Synthetic drugs are made to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. Unlike some illegal drugs, such as marijuana, they are entirely created in laboratories.  Manufacturers do this to prevent the drugs from being classified as illegal and enable the makers to sell the drug legally. However, they have the same damaging and, sometimes, even worse effects than the drugs they mimic.

While some of these drugs have been made illegal, it’s hard to stay on top of them. Makers of synthetic drugs keep altering their chemical makeup to avoid being clamped down on by law enforcement. What results is highly unstable and potentially dangerous drugs.

Some of these drugs might also be marketed under other uses to avoid illegality. For instance, bath salts are specifically labeled “not suitable for human consumption." However, this doesn’t stop it from being used and abused. 

The chemical makeup of most synthetic drugs isn’t even identifiable. This also makes it difficult for some drug tests to identify them. So far, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has only been able to identify and declare a few of these drugs as illegal. When a synthetic drug is flagged and made illegal, manufacturers will alter the chemical composition slightly to circumvent this.

In 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was passed, and a long list of synthetic drugs was declared addictive, potentially dangerous, and illegal. 

Types of Synthetic Drugs 

There are two major categories of synthetic drugs. There are synthetic stimulants, which include drugs like bath salts, synthetic opioids, and ecstasy. There are also synthetic cannabinoids, which are designed to mimic the psychoactive effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. 

Synthetic Cannabinoids 

The most common name for synthetic cannabinoids is "spice." Cannabinoids are typically created by spraying chemical substances onto dried herbs, which can be smoked or ingested. They can also be made into liquid form to be vaped or added into tea and food to be consumed.

Before making their way into the mainstream market, cannabinoids were initially produced to study their effects on the brain. These days they are marketed as herbal incense and can be bought at convenience stores and gas stations.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a link between the use of synthetic cannabinoids and acute kidney injury. Cannabinoids are typically sold under the following brand names: 

  • Spice
  • Blaze
  • Dawn
  • Genie
  • K2
  • Kronic
  • Skunk

It’s challenging to stay on top of all the types of synthetic cannabinoids currently on the market. Manufacturers are constantly changing the chemical makeup to circumvent regulatory agencies, labeling them as illegal.

In 2016, a study revealed that synthetic cannabinoids were the second most used illicit drug in that year, with the first being marijuana. While it might seem like synthetic cannabinoids affect the body in the same way that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, does, it doesn’t.

The effects synthetic cannabinoids have on the human body can be dangerous and unpredictable. Using synthetic cannabinoids can cause harmful health effects like: 

  • Suicidal ideation
  • Vomiting
  • Violence
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Nausea
  • Kidney injury
  • High blood pressure 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Synthetic Stimulants 

Synthetic stimulants are also called synthetic cathinones or new psychoactive substances (NPS). These drugs elicit similar highs as drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. They are also cheaper and sometimes more readily available.

Synthetic stimulants could be snorted, injected, swallowed, or smoked. You’ll typically find synthetic stimulants labeled “not suitable for human consumption,” they do this to prevent regulatory bodies from labeling these drugs as illegal.

As a result, they are readily available to be bought. They are usually manufactured as powders and sold in small plastic bags or foil packages. Research shows that bath salts, one of the most common synthetic stimulants, are ten times more potent than cocaine. The most common synthetic stimulants are ecstasy and bath salts:

  • Ecstasy: This is also commonly referred to as MDMA or Molly. It’s often called a party drug because of its popularity at concerts, festivals, and clubs. The danger with ecstasy is that there’s no single way of making it. Manufacturers are constantly tweaking its composition to make theirs more potent, potentially making it fatal for some people.
  • Bath Salts: Bath salts mimic the psychoactive effects of LSD and cocaine. They are made to look like the regular baths salts you might use in your bath but cannot be used for that purpose. Bath salts could either be inhaled, swallowed, or injected. They are legally sold at gas stations, head shops, convenience stores, or truck stops and are often marketed under names like Vanilla Sky, Snow Day, Cotton Cloud, and Red Dove.

Synthetic stimulants are highly addictive and can produce dangerous adverse effects such as: 

  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia 
  • Agitation
  • Violent behavior
  • Chest pain 
  • High blood pressure

Who Is Using Synthetic Drugs?

The most significant danger of synthetic drugs being so readily accessible is that people in younger demographics can access them.

Some research shows that the primary users of synthetic drugs in the United States are teenagers. In 2014, the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a survey and found that synthetic marijuana was the third most abused drug amongst kids in 8th and 12th grade.

It doesn’t help that these drugs are marketed as legal and safe. Some kids consuming these drugs are acting under the false belief that they aren’t harmful. Synthetic stimulants are also notoriously used in clubs and music festivals.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that 36% of concertgoers had used one or more types of synthetic stimulants.

Impact of Synthetic Drugs 

Using synthetic drugs can be harmful. Very little research has been done into many of the synthetic drugs currently available on the market. Taking these drugs alongside other substances or prescription drugs could also be fatal.

These drugs are also continuously being tweaked to increase their potency. Their potential for addictiveness and abuse is very high.

Using synthetic drugs could cause varying health complications and could cause the following health effects: 

  • Hallucinations
  • High blood pressure 
  • Tremors 
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia 
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Tachycardia (i.e., rapid heartbeat)
  • Delusions 
  • Nausea
  • Agitation
  • Violent behavior
  • Psychosis

A Word from Verywell 

Although synthetic drugs are often marketed as legal and safe, it’s best to avoid consuming them. They are often potent and have a high potential for abuse and addiction. They also usually contain unidentifiable chemicals that could be dangerous.

Regulatory agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are working hard to identify and clamp down on dangerous synthetic drugs. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to synthetic drugs, you should contact your nearest healthcare provider for help as soon as you can. 

14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.