Synthetic drugs, sometimes called club or designer drugs, are created in a lab and are in many cases chemically similar to other drugs of abuse though they may have somewhat different effects. Currently, there are more than 200 unique kinds of synthetic drugs, and there are more being created all the time.1 For example, in 2009 there were just 2 synthetic cannabinoids, but by 2012, that number jumped to 51.2
There are no safety standards involved in the manufacturing of synthetic drugs, being that they are created in illegal labs. The lack of regulation poses a tremendous risk for synthetic drug users.1 The effects of these drugs are both unpredictable and dangerous, and it’s often not clear what chemicals are used to make them.2
Synthetic drug use can cause a variety of adverse effects, including aggression, paranoia, anxiety, seizures, coma, and death.1 It is not uncommon for people to combine synthetic drugs with other substances, which can increase the risk of experiencing dangerous consequences.
The chronic use of synthetic drugs can result in addiction, which is a progressive and debilitating condition. When addicted, the individual will continue to use the drug despite its negative effects and consequences.
When a person who suffers from an addiction to synthetic drugs attempts to quit, the drug user may experience very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms which can diminish their resolve to maintain abstinence and otherwise complicate early recovery. Professional detox programs provide drug users with the support needed to withdraw safely from synthetic drugs and help set a foundation for recovery.
Popular Synthetic Drugs
There are many different types of synthetic drugs. Below are a few of the most commonly abused synthetic substances:1
- PCP: This white powder is a dissociative drug that people use primarily for its hallucinogenic effects. There are many synthetic drugs that mimic its effects, such as methoxamine (MXE). It can produce delusions and psychosis.22
- Synthetic marijuana: It is a mixture of plant material that has been sprayed with psychoactive synthetic chemicals. There are approximately 90 different synthetic marijuana chemical compounds in existence, including Spice and K2. Abusing synthetic marijuana can cause anxiety, paranoia, convulsion, and hallucinations.9
- LSD: It is a powerful hallucinogen that can cause changes in mood and perception. Synthetic LSD, which is often referred to as “Smiles” or “N-bomb,” imitates LSD’s effects.
- Ketamine This drug is a dissociative anesthetic abused for its hallucinogenic effects. Because ketamine causes feelings of detachment and amnesia, it is sometimes used to facilitate sexual assault. Harmful effects can include depression, problems with cognition, agitation, and unresponsiveness to external stimuli.11
- MDMA/MDA: These drugs are just two examples of countless substituted phenethylamine and amphetamine-derived drugs that dominated the designer drug scene in the 90s. MDMA has both stimulant and hallucinogenic properties and can produce adverse effects, such as blurred vision, muscle cramping, teeth clenching, and dangerously high body temperature, leading to kidney, heart, or liver failure.4 MDA is a common adulterant found in ecstasy.
- Ecstasy: This is another name for MDMA. It alters perception and mood and produces both hallucinogenic and stimulant effects but can have fatal consequences.4
- Bath salts: Known as synthetic cathinones, different varieties of drugs in this class mimic the effects of stimulants, like amphetamines and cocaine. Bath salts abuse can cause irritability, paranoia, panic attacks, seizures, and suicidal ideation.12
- GHB: This drug, also referred to as Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, is abused for its sedative and euphoric effects, but it can lead to many detrimental effects, such as confusion, hallucinations, nausea and vomiting, seizures, and coma. Because it also causes amnesia, it is often used to as a date rape drug.13
- Spice/K2: Spice and K2 are popular synthetic marijuana compounds. They mimic THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana. Spice and K2 abuse can cause anxiety, hallucinations, organ damage, and death.9
These are just a few of the more common synthetic drugs. There are hundreds of synthetic drugs, and the chemical makeup of these substances changes frequently, which can result in unpredictable side effects.
Signs and Symptoms of Synthetic Drug Use
Do you have a loved one who you believe might be using synthetic drugs? Although each particular drug has its own effects, any of the following signs could indicate that a person might be using drugs of any kind:3
- Changes in sleeping patterns, including over-sleeping or not sleeping enough.
- Mood changes, such as increased irritability, depression, or euphoria.
- Problems with work, including frequent absences or difficulty fulfilling work obligations.
- Relationship issues.
- Changes in behavior, which may include inappropriate sexual interactions, aggression, and paranoia.
- Memory problems or an inability to concentrate.
If you recognize these signs in a loved one, they may have an issue with synthetic drug abuse and could benefit from a formal detox or substance abuse treatment program.
Long-term Effects of Use
There are a variety of long-term effects of synthetic drug use, and it’s important to understand what you or a loved one is risking when it comes to using synthetic drugs.
Spice has been associated with adverse side effects, including seizures, vomiting, and electrolyte imbalances. Spice can reduce blood flow to the heart, which can cause heart attacks.14
People who use synthetic cathinones, such as bath salts, have experienced delirium, a breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue, dehydration, and kidney failure.5 Below are more effects of long-term synthetic drug use:3,14
- Changes in the brain: Long-term use of drugs can cause changes in the brain, which may affect behavior, learning, and judgment.
- Health problems: Synthetic drugs can cause or exacerbate health problems. Some synthetic drugs have caused seizures, chest pain, coma, and death.
- Termination of employment: Many people that abuse drugs have problems meeting the demands of a job.
- Legal problems: People who use drugs often face various types of legal issues related to use, such as arrest for possessing an illegal substance or driving under the influence.
- Addiction: Addiction is a risk for those who abuse drugs. The drug user will continue to use the substance despite its negative consequences.
- Violent behavior: Some people become violent while under the influence of synthetic drugs.
It’s important to understand that many of the long-term effects of synthetic drugs are unknown; these are only the effects we do know about, and some of them can be fatal.
Withdrawal Symptoms and Duration
Another serious side effect that often plagues users of synthetic drugs is withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms emerge when a person who is dependent on a substance suddenly stops or dramatically reduces drug use. Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the substance used but can include a variety of adverse physical and mental effects, such as:4,5
- Loss of appetite.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Unusual sleep patterns.
The physical symptoms can last for days, but the psychological effects, such as depression, may last for weeks. The effects of withdrawal will be different for everyone.15,16
Such factors that affect the type of withdrawal symptoms experienced include:
- The substance and dosage used.
- The presence of polydrug use.
- Psychological conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
- Individual factors, such as age and physiology.
Synthetic Drug Detox Options
Drug detox is the first step on the continuum of care for synthetic drug use. During drug detox, medical and psychiatric staff members utilize several interventions to effectively manage withdrawal. Detox can occur in a number of settings, such as:17
- Hospital: Treatment is often provided in a hospital setting when a patient is in need of critical care or is acutely intoxicated. They will typically be transitioned to a lower level of detox treatment care once stabilized.
- Inpatient detox: Inpatient or residential detox involves 24-hour support and monitoring in order to prevent and treat any complications that may arise.
- Outpatient detox: Outpatient detox takes place in a treatment center at regular intervals and pre-determined times while the drug user lives at home. Therefore, they can continue with their daily work, school, or family responsibilities.
- Doctor’s office: Detox can also take place in a doctor’s office or clinic. The patient will meet with their doctor on a regular basis to receive detox care and may even receive medication to assist with withdrawal symptoms.
Inpatient treatment may be appropriate for someone with a more severe addiction to synthetic drugs whereas outpatient treatment is suitable for those with less severe addictions who can cope with receiving treatment while continuing to work or attend school.17
Addiction Treatment Programs
Although detox is the first step in seeking professional help for synthetic drug use, it is not a substitute for comprehensive substance abuse treatment. Detox manages withdrawal safely and comfortably but does not provide a person with the foundation for long-term sobriety. Once the detoxification process is complete, it is essential to continue with treatment to address the underlying causes of drug use and learn relapse prevention strategies. Follow-up addiction treatment leads to a greater likelihood of sustained abstinence from drugs.18
There are many types of addiction treatment programs available, including:
- Inpatient treatment: Inpatient treatment involves 24-hour care by a team of medical and mental health professionals. Patients live at the facility for the duration of the treatment program and receive a combination of interventions, such as individual therapy, group counseling, peer support groups, and family therapy.
- Outpatient treatment: There are numerous levels of outpatient treatment, all of which allow the person to live at home while receiving addiction treatment services. Some require a commitment of 5 days a week for several hours each day while others meet 1-2 days per week for 1-2 hours each day.
- Luxury treatment: These programs typically offer many of the same therapies found in a residential treatment program, such as individual therapy, group counseling, medication management, and skills training; however, they usually offer a variety of upscale amenities and services. These added benefits may include gourmet meals, private rooms, spa treatments, and massage therapy.
- Executive treatment: Executive treatment programs are geared toward business professionals and executives who need to continue with work obligations during the treatment process. Amenities include internet access, private phones, and private work rooms.
- Holistic treatment: Holistic programs help people overcome substance issues through alternative and complementary therapies. Often, the focus is on wellness, nutrition, and exercise.
- Faith-based treatment: These programs pair substance abuse treatment with spirituality.
- Population-specific programs: These are programs geared towards specific ages, genders or cultures. Examples include men-only, women-only, veterans, LGBT, and teens.
- 12-step programs: These programs help individuals achieve a drug-free lifestyle through social and peer support, specifically focusing on the 12 steps of recovery. One of the most well-known 12-step programs for drug use is Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
- Non 12-step programs: These programs, such as SMART Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), are alternatives to 12-step programs that often have an evidence-based approach to addiction recovery.
If you or a loved one is using synthetic drugs, it is important to seek immediate help. Take the first step today towards a healthy future and look to enroll in a detox or treatment program.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Just Think Twice: Facts About Synthetic Drugs.
- Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2017). Synthetic Drugs (a.k.a. K2, Spice, Bath Salts, etc.)
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly)
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”)
- Surgeon General. (2016). Facing Addiction in America: Chapter 2. The Neurobiology of Substance Abuse and Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2013). Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa korth).
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Just Think Twice: Spice/ K2, Synthetic Marijuana.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Drug Fact Sheet: LSD.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drug Fact Sheet: Ketamine.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Just Think Twice: Bath Salts.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drug Fact Sheet: GHB.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Dangerous Synthetic Drugs.
- World Health Organization. (2017). Management of Substance Abuse: Withdrawal State.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Frequently Asked Questions
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). A Treatment Improvement Protocol – TIP 45. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.
- Frydrych LM, Greene BJ, Blondell RD, Purdy CH. (2009). Self-Help Program Components and Linkage to Aftercare Following Inpatient Detoxification. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 28(1), 21-27.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. Treatment Improvement Protocol Series. No. 51: Chapter 6.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What To Ask.
- National Drug Intelligence Center (n.d.). PCP Fast Facts.