Synthetics

Synthetics: Facts, Statistics, and Treatment

The drug trade is ever evolving with manufacturers constantly thinking of ways to give their market new experiences. And while drugs used to be made from natural ingredients like poppy plants, coca plants, and cannabis plants, many of the drugs of today are synthetic or completely man-made.

The roster of synthetics includes notorious names like methamphetamine, LSD, and ecstasy, all of which cause significant effects on both mind and body. But while some of these drugs are well-known and thus predictable, there are hundreds of ‘designer drugs’ that showcase chemistry, effects, and content that experts have yet to fully understand. And the danger behind these strange concoctions is that there’s no way to tell how they affect the body.

The History of Synthetic Drugs

Realizing the effect that drugs have on the body, the US government has cracked down hard on illicit substances. Throughout the years, especially during the Bush presidency, drug laws became stricter, making it difficult for manufacturers and distributors to sell their product.

However, in 2008, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported its first ever intercepted shipment of synthetics. These drugs, which were labelled ‘Spice’, were seized and analyzed in Dayton, Ohio, only to find that they were a form of synthetic illicit substance.

Since then, many other kinds of synthetics have been discovered, including K2 and Bath Salts. The difficulty with these types of substances is that they’re typically labelled as something completely different – thus their quirky names – in order to avoid piquing the interest of law enforcement agencies.

Fast Facts: Synthetics in Numbers

  • Spice – the synthetic form of marijuana – is said to be 100 times stronger than the natural herb
  • In 2011, 28,531 individuals were brought to the emergency room for the use of spice
  • 2% of 12th graders report having used spice at least once
  • Spice is the second most used drug by high school seniors, next to marijuana
  • 50% of synthetic cannabis users are also marijuana users
  • 70% of those admitted into the emergency room for synthetic use are male
  • In 2012, there were 2,654 reports of bath salt poisoning

The Different Types of Synthetics

Technically, any drug that uses man-made chemicals can be considered synthetic. That’s why meth, LSD, and ecstasy are loosely associated with the drug class. But in the drug market, synthetics refer to a more specific group of drugs that mimic the chemistry of other illicit substances.

  • Spice or K2 is what’s called synthetic marijuana. Synthesized in labs, these drugs are a replica of cannabis chemistry, but mix in other synthetic substances to change their overall chemical footprint. In doing so, manufacturers can make it difficult for law enforcement to identify the substance as a drug.
  • Bath salts are synthetic hallucinogens that resemble bath salts, thus the name. They usually contain stimulant chemicals like mephedrone which is known to produce psychotic symptoms among other things. Delirium and over excitation are also commonly associated with the substance.
  • Smiles or 2C-I is both a hallucinogen and a stimulant. The substance gets its name from the fact that it can induce a strong sense of euphoria and elation that comes hand in hand with psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.
  • Ecstasy or 3,4-methyenedioxymethamphetamine contains a mixture of a variety of drugs, including methamphetamine, LSD, cocaine, heroine, and even in some cases, rat poison. The synthetic drug produces harsh effects and may even lead to heart failure and death with a single overdose.

How and Where are Synthetics Sold?

What makes synthetics particularly tricky for law enforcement is that these products are usually sold legally. Marketed as completely different substances, only those who truly know the business they’re dealing with will know that the products aren’t what they’re said to be. Some of the common products that synthetics are legally sold as include:

  • Plant food
  • Jewelry cleaner
  • Phone screen cleaner
  • Herbal incense
  • Potpourri

As law enforcement agencies are able to identify one drug, manufacturers alter the chemistry once again. So, while drug enforcement agencies seize shipments in search of a specific chemistry, manufacturers have already produced an entirely different substance. This cat and mouse chase has made it possible for the synthetic drug market to thrive over just a short period of time.

Most of the known synthetics are popular among the youth. That’s because they’re found and sold legally through convenience stores, gas stations, smokes shops, and head shops. They’re also particularly cheap, making them accessible to teenagers willing to experiment with their effects. Unfortunately, this ‘legality’ in combination with the prices of these products lead many teenagers and adolescents to believe that synthetics are a ‘safer’ alternative to hard drugs.

Known as party drugs, synthetics also play a role in the occurrence of rape. Many of these substances can incapacitate an individual or reduce their will and strength to fight an attacker. Used in ‘date rape’, these drugs can be dangerous not only to those who use them, but to unsuspecting teens who are targeted as rape victims.

Many of those who sell these products also include labels that indicate “not for human consumption” which helps to make it even more difficult for law enforcement to identify the products. But while this can help drug dealers conceal the true nature of their product, it poses a major threat to those who use them.

Synthesized illegally in labs mainly in China, there is no standard practice that goes into the production of synthetics. This means that the synthetics that a person uses today might be completely or slightly different in chemistry from synthetics that they buy tomorrow. And this is what also helps ensure that people stay addicted, because tolerances are harder to establish when the chemistry is constantly changing.

That said, the treatment of synthetics can also be a challenge since experts have yet to fully understand how these chemicals impact the brain. And because the composition of synthetics isn’t completely understood just yet, the challenge of determining their long term effects on the brain remains.

Symptoms of Synthetic Abuse

The symptoms of synthetic drug use vary depending on the substance. And because the chemistry of each drug also tends to fluctuate, there can also be slight differences in their effects between batches and labs. However, there are some tell-tale signs that seem to be consistent across cases.

For synthetic cannabis abuse:

  • Severe agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tachycardia
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Dilated pupils
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Violent thoughts or actions
  • Aggression

For synthetic stimulants:

  • Tachycardia
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Chest pain and tightness
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Violent behavior
  • Self-injury or harm
  • Aggression
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Personality changes

For ecstasy:

  • Hyperthermia
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Decreased inhibitions
  • Profuse sweating
  • Involuntary jaw clenching
  • Muscle cramping
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased libido
  • Elevated energy levels
  • Euphoric mood

Treatment of Synthetic Drug Abuse

Because of the nature of these substance, it’s highly likely for individuals to get hooked and addicted to their use. Unfortunately, many of the victims of synthetic drug abuse belong to the youth because of their accessibility and the false idea that these substances are ‘toned down’ versions of hard, illicit drugs.

The ideal treatment for synthetic drug abuse is a residential treatment set-up in which a patient is sent to live in a facility for the duration of the process. This is because synthetics can take many forms, and caretakers at a private home setting might not be able to identify whether the patient is using synthetics or not.

In these set-ups, patients are provided 24/7 monitoring and care to guarantee their safety and security. Individuals undergoing detox – which lasts 5 to 7 days for synthetics – will also have the necessary support and monitoring to prevent suicide attempts which is common during withdrawal. For those with advanced addictions, doctors will need to be present for most of the detox period because of the delicate nature of weaning the body off of the substance.

Motivational interviewing becomes a necessary tool during the synthetic drug abuse treatment process especially in the case of teens. It’s common among the youth to feel unwilling and unmotivated to receive treatment, and motivational interviewing helps stir their desire to complete the process.

It’s MI’s goal to help patients understand that change is necessary by improving self-esteem and addressing repressed traumas and hurt that could be urging the individual to seek refuge in synthetics and drugs.

Synthetic Drug Abuse is Treatable

Although the ever changing nature of synthetics can make it a challenge to understand the drug, how it works, and its effects on the human body, the abuse of these substance is treatable. Common among the youth, synthetic abuse can become the precursor for a range of other substance abuse disorders if allowed to persist without resolve. Fortunately, personalized treatment plans are available for those willing to seek help, allowing young abusers a better chance at a brighter future far from the dangers of synthetics and other illicit substances.

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