What are Synthetic Drugs and Why are they Dangerous?

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

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.

The first synthetic drug to hit the US was spice, which was seized and identified in Dayton, Ohio. Synthetic drugs are easy to obtain, and they’re cheaper than street drugs. 

It is a common misconception that legal highs are not dangerous. In reality, they have caused many people to experience terrifying side effects due to the unknown chemical content of the drugs. One lady drove herself to the hospital thinking she had worms in her legs, and another story made the news of a man who attacked a homeless person then bit his face off.

Many who use synthetic drugs report seeing demons, driving them to smash walls down. 

A common hallucination that synthetic drug users have is of law enforcement. Many people believe they are being pursued by the police which drives them to behave in outlandish ways. 

Where Do Synthetic Drugs Come From?

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. Once the DEA catches up with the laboratory and closes it down, another one opens up elsewhere, and so the trade continues. 

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. The cartels are flooding the streets with street drugs laced with 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 carfentanyl, 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. 

  • Carfentanyl 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. 

Law Enforcement

In 2010 five main cathinones were banned federally in most states and the US. There is concern that manufacturers aim to increase the potency and addictiveness of new cathinones as this generates more business. 

As synthetic drugs are so cheap and can evade the authorities, they are on the rise. Sadly, many people become addicted to synthetic drugs as they are cheap and easy to get.

Synthetic drug manufacturers, cartels, and dealers don’t seem to care that their business will cause deaths as the business is so lucrative. Research has found that fentanyl use increased by 108% in Canada during the pandemic in 2020.

As business is booming for the synthetic drug market, it puts people with a substance use disorder at risk. Synthetic drugs are easy to access and much cheaper.

People are getting addicted to synthetic drugs as they produce a dopamine reward response. Due to its high availability and cheapness, there is a higher likelihood of physical and emotional harm.

Getting Help

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.

For more information on avenues of treatment for substance use disorders contact Renaissance Recovery, a drug rehab program in Huntington Beach.

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Renaissance Recovery Coronavirus Policy Update

As the national pandemic continues to make it increasingly difficult for individuals to receive quality aftercare, The District Recovery Community & Renaissance Recovery has provided a solution to all those seeking long term care. We are proud to announce that we will be offering all aspects of our treatment including intimate groups, one on one therapy, and case management to individuals in all states from the comfort and safety of your home. This is a great option for clients that are in need of continued treatment, but are returning home to be with their families during this time.

The District Recovery Community and Renaissance Recovery will remain in operation during this time and continue to serve our mission of treating those suffering from alcoholism and addiction.

We encourage you all to reach out to learn more about how we can work together to ensure that our clients remain sober, safe, and continue to get the help that they need.