While you may be aware of common, illegal drugs of abuse, such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and crystal meth, there are several lesser-known, but no less dangerous, contributors to the more recent landscape of drug abuse: synthetic drugs.
Many people believe that these substances are safer alternatives to more well-known drugs, while in fact they pose serious physical, mental, and emotional risks to the user. Synthetic drugs are not regulated and can vary from batch to batch, resulting in unpredictable and dangerous effects. Additionally, manufacturing, possessing, using, and selling certain synthetic drugs carries serious financial and legal consequences.
What Are Synthetic Drugs?
Synthetic drugs are sometimes referred to as designer drugs or as new psychoactive substances (NPS). Some of the more popularly abused lab manufactured synthetics have effects that resemble those of marijuana or cocaine. Dealers sell these drugs over the internet or at convenience stores, gas stations, novelty stores, or tobacco/smoke shops. Manufacturers often packages these substances in shiny plastic bags with eye-catching logos.1
It is a common misconception that synthetic drugs are harmless; they are actually quite dangerous.2 Some of these substances, such as synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids, can in fact be more potent than their naturally occurring counterparts and, as a result, may have more powerful effects on the brain.2,3 Furthermore, because the exact chemical composition of many synthetic drugs is unknown and can change from batch to batch, using these substances may result in significantly different effects than you might be expecting.2
Illegal Synthetic Drugs
Some synthetic drugs, such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana like Spice or K2, are shadily marketed and appear in packaging designed to obscure their origins and potential dangers. Some synthetic drugs are not yet illegal and this gray area exists because they have escaped FDA attention, or because their molecular formulations have not yet landed on a DEA Schedule. That being said, many synthetic or designer drugs are illegal and you may face serious consequences if you manufacture, use, possess, or sell such substances.2
The following are examples of illegal synthetic drugs:
Mephedrone, 3,4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and methylone.
- Synthetic Cathinones (Bath Salts): Bath salts are chemically related to cathinone, a stimulant found in the khat plant, and have effects somewhat similar to other stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine. These drugs are frequently encountered as a white or brown, crystal-like powder and can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or injected. Bath salts increase energy and raise heart rate and blood pressure. They can also cause paranoia, hallucinations, nosebleeds, sweating, nausea, dehydration, panic attacks, extreme agitation, violent behavior, breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue, and kidney failure.3 Three substances commonly used to manufacture bath salts—methylone, mephedrone, and 3,4, methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV)—are Schedule I controlled substances, meaning that they currently do not have any accepted medical use and have a high potential for abuse.13
- Synthetic Marijuana: Synthetic marijuana is manufactured using substances known as synthetic cannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids are molecularly similar to the primary psychoactive compounds found in the marijuana plant. These drugs are sprayed on dried, shredded plant material to be smoked, or sold as a liquid that can be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes or similar devices. When sprayed on plant material, synthetic marijuana can also be brewed as a tea. Some of the side effects of synthetic marijuana include delusions, extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, increased blood pressure, kidney damage, and seizures.2 Because it has no accepted medical value and has a high potential for abuse, synthetic marijuana is a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to sell, buy, or possess.2
- Phencyclidine (PCP): PCP is a white crystal-like powder that has a bitter taste. It may also be dyed a variety of colors. Dealers often sell PCP in tablet, capsule, liquid, or powder form. Users take it by snorting it as powder, swallowing it in tablet or capsule form, or smoking it by applying the powder to a leafy substance. Some users also dip marijuana or tobacco cigarettes in liquid PCP and smoke them. PCP use is associated with compulsive behavior, violent behavior, delusions, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term use of PCP may also lead to memory loss, impaired speech and cognition, depression, and weight loss. PCP was once used as a general anesthetic agent, but this practice was stopped because of serious side effects in patients emerging from surgery.6 It is now Schedule II substance, meaning that despite accepted medical use (in this case, limited use in veterinary medicine), there is a high potential for abuse, and use could potentially lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.4,5 Possession, distribution, or use of PCP for nonmedical reasons is illegal.
- D-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD): LSD is a clear or white odorless substance, and it is a very powerful perception-altering chemical.6 It can cause visual and auditory hallucinations, feelings of detachment from your environment and yourself, distortions in time and perception, and flashbacks.7 LSD is an illegal, Schedule I substance.4,7
- 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA): MDMA, or ecstasy, is a substituted methamphetamine drug with both hallucinogenic and stimulant properties. It is sometimes referred to as an empathogen or entactogen, meaning that, in addition to altering mood and perception, it may increase empathy or create a stronger sense of connection among those using the drug. It can be swallowed in tablet, capsule, or liquid form, or it can be snorted in powder form. MDMA can increase heart rate and blood pressure, cause nausea, muscle cramping, teeth clenching, blurred vision, chills, and sweating, as well as impact the body’s ability to regulate temperature, which could potentially lead to liver, kidney, or heart failure.8 MDMA is an illegal, Schedule I substance.4
- Ketamine: Ketamine’s primary use is as a surgical anesthetic for both humans and animals.6 In terms of illicit use, it is most frequently snorted as a powder or taken as a pill, but it can also be injected as a liquid.6 Ketamine is a Schedule III substance, meaning that it has a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.4 However, misuse of the drug, such as by using it without a prescription, not using it as prescribed, or selling it to someone, is illegal. Much of the ketamine that is sold illegally comes from veterinary offices.6
Again, using, possessing, or selling the substances above may result in significant consequences. Not only can they take a serious psychological and physical toll on the user, but they can give rise to serious legal problems, as most of them are either completely illegal or illegal without a prescription.
Penalties for Possession
Possessing such synthetic drugs can come with hefty legal fines and other consequences. The first offense for simple possession could come with a fine of more than $1,000 and up to 1 year of imprisonment.9 The second offense for simple possession could include a fine of more than $2,500 and 15 days to 2 years of imprisonment.9 The third offense for simple possession may come with a fine of greater than $5,000 and 90 days to 3 years of imprisonment.9
Penalties for illegal distribution of these drugs vary depending on the substance in question:9
- Bath Salts: Bath salts carry a fine of up to $1 million and up to 20 years of imprisonment.
- Synthetic Marijuana: Synthetic marijuana carries a fine of up to $1 million and up to 20 years of imprisonment.
- PCP: Depending on the amount you are in possession of (with intent to distribute), PCP could carry $1 to $50 million in fines and up to 40 years of imprisonment.
- LSD: Depending on the amount you are in possession of, LSD could carry a $1 to $50 million fine and up to 40 years of imprisonment.
- MDMA: MDMA carries a fine of up to $5 million and up to 20 years of imprisonment.
- Ketamine: Ketamine has a potential consequence of up to $2.5 million in fines and up to 15 years of imprisonment.
The above information is for first-time offenses with those particular substances. The second and third offenses carry even more significant financial and legal consequences.9
Another potential outcome of getting arrested for possession is having to go to rehab. Substance abuse treatment can be legally mandated through a drug court or as a condition of probation or parole. Research suggests that those who are legally mandated to participate in addiction treatment programs have as good as or even better outcomes that those who are not mandated to attend such programs. Other studies indicate that legal pressure can increase treatment attendance and improve retention, both of which positively impact treatment outcomes.11
Such programs can also be a source of support for those who are re-entering society.12 This is an important factor because this process may cause significant stress for the offender (i.e. finding housing, finding employment, rebuilding relationships with family), which is a risk for relapse.12 However, having support and learning about healthy coping skills, all of which can be obtained through a substance use treatment program, can help reduce the risk of relapse and increase the chances of successful recovery. Therefore, court-ordered treatment is an effective intervention for those struggling with substance use and related legal concerns.
If you or someone you care about struggles with synthetic drug abuse, don’t wait until you get arrested to attend treatment. There are plenty of recovery programs available that can help you get clean and sober and remain abstinent in the long run.
- S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration: Diversion Control Division. (N.D.). About Synthetic Drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Synthetic Cannabinoids.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”).
- United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (N.D.). Drug Scheduling.
- National Drug Intelligence Center. (2006). PCP Fast Facts.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Hallucinogens.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Hallucinogens.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly).
- Yeh, B.T. (2015). Drug Offenses: Maximum Fines and Terms of Imprisonment for Violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act and Related Laws.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations-A Research-Based Guide: Are All Drug Abusers in the Criminal Justice System Good Candidates for Treatment?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations-A Research-Based Guide: Is Legally Mandated Treatment Effective?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations-A Research-Based Guide: Are Relapse Risk Factors Different in Offender Populations? How Should Drug Abuse Treatment Deal with These Risk Factors?
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Drug Fact Sheet: Bath Salts or Designer Cathinones (Synthetic Stimulants).