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What are Synthetic Drugs and Why are They Dangerous?

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

The rise of drug overdose deaths in the United States can be traced to a number of things, one of the most deadly is the emergence of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.

From May 2019 to May 2020, there were 81,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in the US. This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 12 months.

Although rates of overdose deaths were rising due to the increase in fentanyl on the streets, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

Between 2019 and 2020:

  • In 10 states in the west synthetic-opioid deaths increased by 98%
  • 18 jurisdictions synthetic-opioid deaths increased by over 50%
  • Synthetic opioid-deaths increased in 37 jurisdictions

Despite the problems associated with the emergence of synthetic drugs, help is still available. There are many drug treatment centers across the country with the ability to help with these problems. Synthetic drug rehabs like Renaissance Recovery can help anyone dealing with this disease get back on their feet and put their addiction behind them.

Before we take a look at treatment options, though, let’s first get a better understanding of synthetic drugs as a whole.

What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are drugs made from manmade chemicals rather than natural chemicals. Sometimes called designer drugs or new psychoactive substances, these synthetic drugs are unregulated and uncontrolled 

Manufacturers produce experiments to recreate a chemical version of an illegal drug to evade the authorities. But as soon as the law catches up with the manufacturers, and outlaws the new chemical, the manufacturers have already developed a new version with a slightly different molecular structure.

Where Do Synthetic Drugs Come From?

Synthetic drugs can come from anywhere but a large proportion of the chemicals used to manufacture synthetic drugs come from China. China has hundreds of thousands of illegal laboratories that produce these chemicals for export to the US and Europe.

In 2016, the manufacture of chemicals for synthetic drugs comprised 3% of China’s economy. Low levels of regulation mean there are chemical manufacturers everywhere.

Drug distributors can make huge profits on selling street fentanyl, so high the risk of causing countless deaths fades in importance.

A spate of fentanyl overdoses in the 2000s led to a single lab in Mexico. Illicit labs buy the chemicals from China and then manufacture a batch of fentanyl which gets sold on the streets by cartels.

Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs are now sold predominantly online and physically delivered via the postal service. The volume of synthetic drugs that flow through the system makes it impossible to track them down.

Buyers can switch between multiple manufacturers in China to avoid detection, which makes it even more impossible to meaningfully monitor. This is becoming a serious problem, and manufacturers are working to increase the potency and addictiveness of fentanyl to cater to users’ increased tolerance.

The Dangers of Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs are dangerous because they are highly addictive and are so hazardous to health they can cause death due to psychotic episodes, heatstroke, heart attack, and poisoning.

Many people have died from taking synthetic drugs because of what they contain, which is always a mystery. As manufacturers change the molecular structure of synthetic drugs so often, it’s impossible to know what’s in them.

Synthetic Opioids

In 2018 65% of the 31,000 drug overdose deaths in the US involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Fentanyl

Fentanyl is becoming the US’s deadliest drug. This synthetic opioid is similar to methadone but is 50 to 100 times as strong.

It’s legally prescribed as an anesthetic or painkiller for post-surgical pain to people who are tolerant to opioids, under the names Sublimaze, Duragesic, and Actiq. On the street, fentanyl is referred to as Apache, Goodfellas, Tango and Cash, Murder 8, Dance Fever, and Friend.

Illicitly manufactured fentanyl comes in a white powder or a liquid that is dripped onto blotters or put in eye drops, nasal sprays, or pills.

Many street versions of the opioid painkiller Oxycontin and other street drugs such as ecstasy contain fentanyl. Many people take fentanyl without realizing it and end up overdosing.

Prescription fentanyl was first abused during the 1970s. Then between 2005 and 2007 a surge in fentanyl deaths was traced to a lab in Mexico. When the lab was shut down, the overdose deaths declined.

Now, fentanyl is mainly imported from Mexico, China, and Canada.

Since it has been illicitly manufactured, fentanyl tripled overdose deaths between 2013 and 2015 from 3,105 deaths to 9,580 deaths. There is a direct correlation between the uptick in fentanyl deaths and fentanyl seizures by law enforcement.

Fentanyl Analogues

Fentanyl analogs are molecular variants of fentanyl such as carfentanil, furanylfentanyl, and acetylfentanyl. These analogs are similar in chemical structure to fentanyl but are not as easily detected by law enforcers.

Fentanyl analogs vary in potency but are typically much stronger than methadone. 

  • Carfentanil is the most potent synthetic opioid as it is 10,000 times as strong as methadone.
  • Butyrfentanyl is 30 times stronger than methadone
  • U-4770 is 12 times stronger than methadone

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids such as K2 and Spice mimic the effects of THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high. There is a very common misconception that synthetic cannabinoids are safe as they are sold as legal marijuana in head shops, tobacco shops, and even convenience stores and gas stations.

The Drug Enforcement Agency classified 15 variations of synthetic cannabis as Schedule I drugs, the same category as heroin and cocaine in 2015.

  • Synthetic marijuana is the 2nd most abused drug by high school students after marijuana
  • There were 11,406 emergency room visits in 2010 due to synthetic marijuana
  • 75% of those emergency room visits were people aged between 12 and 29

There are now hundreds of brands of synthetic cannabinoids with names such as Black Mamba, Joker, Kronik, and Kush. Manufacturers use misleading marketing tactics to give the impression that synthetic marijuana is safe and natural. But, synthetic weed can cause terrible mental health episodes that can lead to death. 

The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can be very different from natural marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids can cause:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Nausea
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Suicidal thoughts

Synthetic cannabinoids can also cause excessive bleeding as some versions contain a blood thinner in rat poison. Synthetics such as K2 and Spice can cause life-threatening side-effects such as: 

  • Heart attack
  • Kidney failure
  • Rhabdomyolysis, a condition that breaks muscle fibers down which releases them into the bloodstream

Despite the many attempts by law enforcers to make synthetic marijuana legal manufacturers continue to evade the authorities by adjusting the chemical composition. 

If taken regularly over time, a person can become dependent on synthetic marijuana.

Synthetic Stimulants

Synthetic stimulants are synthetic cathinones designed to mimic the effects of amphetamine and cocaine. They’re often sold in stores as ‘bath salts,’ due to their white/brown crystalline powder appearance. It’s also known as Ivory Wave, Red Dove, Zoom, Hurricane Charlie, and Vanilla Sky among many others.

When taken in low doses, synthetic cathinones can produce a sense of euphoria and increased alertness, similar to amphetamines. But, when taken in higher doses synthetic stimulants can cause:

  • Agitation
  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia
  • Hyperthermia
  • Raised heart rate
  • Hallucinations

Types of synthetic stimulants include:

Mephedrone (also called Drone and Meow Meow)

How Do Cathinones Work?

Cathinones stimulate the pre-production of the feel-good chemical dopamine. It also reduces the reuptake of dopamine which produces higher than normal levels of dopamine. It’s the dopamine production that produces the high from amphetamines and cocaine. 

Synthetic cathinones are marketed as harmless and cheap versions of cocaine and amphetamines when in reality they have terrible side effects. They work in the same way but they have added unknown chemicals that can cause a person to experience distressing side effects such as:

  • Tachycardia (racing heartbeat)
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Cardiotoxicity
  • Death

Cathinones can raise the body temperature to above 105 degrees, which is why so many people strip off. Many people die from heatstroke or kidney failure after taking synthetic cathinones.

Bath Salts

Bath Salts were originally developed as an antidepressant in France in 1928 and were abused in the 1930s in the former Soviet Union.

Throughout the 90s Bath Salts became popular with the nicknames Cat and Jeff.

Bath Salts are also used to make Ecstasy, tests found that over half of ecstasy pills seized in the Netherlands in 2008 contained Bath Salts 

When Bath Salts first came on the scene in the early 2000s, many offbeat stories of people doing irrational things while under the influence.

Bath Salts are synthetic stimulants that are not sold as a drug but as a group of chemicals.  It is a synthetic drug that aims to mimic the effects of cathinones, the psychoactive part of the Khat plant which grows from East Africa to Arabia. The leaves of the Khat plant are chewed regularly by people for their stimulant effect.

As synthetic stimulants are unpredictable and harmful, they get banned, so manufacturers avoid detection by the law by selling them under the guise of “plant food,” “phone screen cleaner,” and “jewelry cleaner.”

Bath Salts typically come in liquid form or powdered form in capsules or small plastic packages. The powder has a white, grey-white, brown appearance. To take Bath Salts. people either ingest it, snort it, inhale it, or take it rectally.

Flakka (Alpha PVP)

Flakka is similar to Bath Salts and comes in a pink/white crystalline powder form. Flakka is either vaped, ingested, snorted, or injected.  It causes intense paranoia and psychotic episodes. Police and health professionals are very concerned about this type of synthetic drug, saying it’s worse than heroin and crack cocaine.

This synthetic stimulant can cause death due to overdose or incidents related to being under the influence.

Flakka and Bath Salts are popular with people in poorer neighborhoods as it is cheap and easy to access. 

How a Synthetic Drug Addiction Rehab Center Can Help

If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering: Well, what is the solution? When it comes to synthetic drug addiction, and addiction in general, there are treatment programs and rehabs in place to help those who are struggling.

At a synthetic drug rehab, clients will likely go through a number of different treatment programs according to their individualized care plan developed in coordination with their addiction and underlying problems that may be contributing to addiction.

Some of these treatment programs can include things like medication-assisted treatment to help clients overcome the uncomfortable early stages of sobriety that cause withdrawal. Other aspects of treatment include psychotherapy treatment like cogntive behavioral treatment can help clients rewire their brain to help them respond better when exposed to stimuli that may cause them to feel urges to use.

Everything a client is exposed to during intentsive outpatient rehab is in place to help them learn about their addiction, conquer substance abuse, learn relapse prevention techniques, and develop a plan for long-term sobriety.

Synthetic Drug Addiction Treatment Program at Renaissance

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to synthetic drugs, or they use synthetic drugs regularly, help is available.

A quality treatment problem delivered by expert and skilled staff can help a person to understand why they use substances and learn to live a healthier and more productive life. Renaissance Recovery is one synthetic drug addiction rehab center that can help you or your loved one fight back against this oppressive disease. 

For more information on avenues of treatment for substance use disorders, please give us a call today to learn more about a drug rehab program in Huntington Beach.866.330.9449

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Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country