Flasks with chemical reagents

In the last few years, stories have circulated in the news media about drugs known as bath salts, K2, or Spice that result in erratic, violent behavior in those who use them. New types of drugs with similar reactions and stories seem to pop up on a regular basis, making it seem that there is a plethora of new drugs being introduced every day.

This is not so far from the truth as it might seem. However, many of these drugs are simply new versions of natural compounds that have been created in the laboratory. Known as research chemicals or synthetic drugs, these substances have side effects and risks that have led the Office of National Drug Control Policy to declare them as a threat to public health and safety. Understanding more about the origins, risks, and potential solutions to the spread of these drugs may help people who are struggling with synthetic drug abuse to get the help they need and begin the path to recovery.

Designer Drugs: The Definition and Purpose of Synthetic Drugs and Research Chemicals

The term designer drugs is often used to describe synthetic drugs and research chemicals. This is an appropriate name, because these drugs are designed rather than extracted from nature. Quite simply, these drugs are manufactured in labs.

In many cases, research drugs are developed to act like more common drugs, but with the goal of making production less expensive than it is for drugs created from natural sources. As a result, these drugs can make more money for the people who sell them, while still being cheaper for the users to buy.

In addition, many of these drugs have formulaic alterations that make them stronger, offering a more intense high. Because these drugs cost less and often have a higher potency, they can be immensely popular.

People who make and distribute these designer drugs take great pains to avoid these drugs being categorized as illegal. In their effort to produce drugs that are “technically” legal, they often use chemicals that are designed for other purposes, such as for scientific research. This is where the name research chemicals came from. As described by an article from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, these distributors will often label the drugs as “not for human consumption,” even though human consumption is actually the goal, in order to throw off the authorities.

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Types of Research Chemicals and Synthetic Drugs

The following is a brief summary of the types of drugs included in these categories, many of which have been the subject of news reports in recent years.

Synthetic Opiates

Syringe with Narcotic Painkiller, Fentanyl, against White Background

The medical field uses a number of types of synthetic and semisynthetic opiates to treat various types of pain or to help in the treatment of addictions to heroin and other opioids. Fentanyl and tramadol were originally formulated for these purposes. However, these drugs – particularly fentanyl, which has become a popular street drug – cause intense psychoactive effects and result in physical risk.

One variety of fentanyl – acetyl fentanyl – is sometimes used to lace heroin and cocaine to increase their potency. A large number of deaths have occurred as a result of this use of the drug, as the users are often unaware that their heroin or cocaine has been laced with a synthetic opiate.

Synthetic Cathinones

Synthetic cathinones are popularly known as bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food, among other names. These drugs are among the research chemical types of drugs that are often labeled as being not for human consumption. As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the substances mimic a drug from the African/Asian khat plant, and provide a stimulant response that can be more intense than those of cocaine or amphetamines.

Bath salts have been discussed heavily in the news recently, because their effects result in symptoms that can cause erratic and violent behavior, based on:

  • Paranoia and panic attacks
  • Hallucinations and excited delirium
  • Increased sociability
  • Increased sex drive

The delirium and paranoia in individuals who use these drugs can result in attacks on others. Physical symptoms include dehydration, destruction of muscle, nosebleeds, sweating, and nausea.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are made to resemble the psychoactive compound in marijuana, known as THC. Again, however, these drugs – which have street names like Spice and K2 – can cause a far more intense reaction than natural THC. The drugs are often sprayed on herbal blends and used to make tea, smoke, or burn as incense.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that these drugs have an even higher affinity for the cannabinoid receptors in the brain than marijuana does, resulting in a powerful physical and psychological response. This can lead to health effects like:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tremors and seizures
  • Extreme agitation and anxiety
  • Psychosis and hallucinations
  • Self-harm and suicidal behaviors
  • Death

Ecstasy, Molly, and MDMA

Detail of pills of MDMA (Extasy) distributed by drug dealer seized by legal authority

Ecstasy and Molly are drugs that provide both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, and can create a powerful euphoria. According to NIDA, both contain MDMA, a chemical with similarities to amphetamines and to the hallucinogenic drug mescaline.

MDMA is another synthetic that is often combined with other drugs in ways that can be dangerous. Caffeine, the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, ephedrine, methamphetamine, and other stimulants and hallucinogens have been blended in Molly. Bath salts or other synthetic cathinones may also be included. The combinations can lead to a very high heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, paranoia, and violent behavior, among other reactions.

Targets of Research Chemical Abuse and How It Starts

Based on information from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, young people often use these types of drugs. Because of the deceptive marketing, young people are easily fooled into thinking these drugs are safe or won’t cause any ill health effects. The packaging also leads youths to believe that the drugs are legal.

Many of these drugs are also considered club drugs, and they may be used by younger adults who frequent the club scene. The spread of bath salts was attributed to this route, and ecstasy became well known as a club drug in the 1990s.

These misperceptions of safety make it easy for people to start taking these drugs. Continued social pressure to use can quickly lead to individuals regularly abusing the drugs.

Risks of Abuse and Addiction

Woman with yellow and white capsule on tongue

The main risk of these drugs is that the contents are often unregulated and therefore unknown. This can result in chemicals being ingested into the body that may have an unpredictable reaction, leading to physical or mental injury or even death.

As an example, SAMHSA reports that more than 28,500 emergency room visits in 2011 were based on synthetic cannabinoid use – a greater than 150-percent increase from the previous year. This may be because many synthetic cannabinoid drugs are labeled as “organic” or otherwise doctored to seem natural, making people think they are safer than other drugs.

The key is that synthetic drugs are purposefully designed to deceive people into using untested, unsafe substances to get high – a risk that can result in danger to both physical and mental health.

Signs and Symptoms of Research Drug Use

Many of the symptoms described above can indicate that an individual is using synthetic drugs. In general, physical and psychological symptoms to watch for include:

  • Severe agitation and anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and chest pain
  • Tremors and seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Dilated pupils
  • Outwardly violent or suicidal behaviors

In addition, signs that a person could be abusing any type of drugs may co-occur with the above symptoms. These signs include, among others:

  • Losing control of home, work, or school responsibilities
  • Having trouble in relationships
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Being unable to control desire for or use of drugs
  • Using drugs in dangerous situations
  • Cravings for substance use

If multiple of these signs and symptoms occur together, it could indicate a synthetic drug use disorder is present.

Detox from Synthetic Drugs

Medical doctor select detox on virtual screen. Health Care concept

Because of the volatile and unknown content of many of these drugs, and because of the physical and mental risks involved in use, it is a good idea to get professional support with detox and withdrawal from research chemicals and similar drugs. While some of these drugs do not have life-threatening side effects, everyone’s reactions are different, and unexpected circumstances could arise.

In addition, some of the drugs do have more serious effects during use and during withdrawal. Because they are often mixed with other drugs that are unknown, other risks may be present based on those drugs.

Finally, because many of these drugs cause heart problems, it is a good idea to have medical support during the withdrawal process to make sure no other health risks arise.

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Treating Synthetic Drug Abuse and Addiction

Treating addiction to synthetic drugs can be a challenge due to the lack of knowledge about the chemicals involved. When someone is struggling with abuse of these designer substances, the best bet for recovery, and to prevent further risk based on their use, is to get research-based treatment from a certified, reputable treatment center.

These facilities use therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that can help the individual learn to recognize and manage triggers and cravings, learn how to substitute more desirable behaviors in place of substance abuse, and lead toward a better chance of staying abstinent and avoiding future use of these substances. Following this path, individuals who are struggling with substance abuse can start on the path to a new, more satisfying life.