A Comprehensive Guide to Synthetic Drugs: Types, Effects, and Risks

A Comprehensive Guide to Synthetic Drugs: Types, Effects, and Risks


Synthetic drugs are chemical substances that are created in laboratories for research purposes. These drugs produce intoxicating effects and alter the mental state of a person when ingested. Synthetic drugs are often manufactured illegally in labs to mimic natural illicit substances such as weed, MDMA and cocaine (COC).

Synthetic drugs are also known as designer drugs since it is designed in labs to mimic the effects of a controlled substance pharmacologically. To circumvent the existing drug laws, the molecular structures of the synthetic drugs are often changed and this makes it difficult for the regulatory authorities to monitor or control such drugs. The manufacturers often label these drugs “Not For Human Consumption” in order to ward off Food and Drug Administration regulations.

Consuming synthetic drugs could result in addiction and serious health hazards. Since its molecular structure is frequently altered to escape FDA regulations, it is unsafe to consume synthetic drugs and may pose a serious threat to the physical and mental health of a person.

Table of Contents

  1. Types Of Synthetic Drugs
  2. What are Synthetic Drugs?
  3. Types of Synthetic Drugs
    1. Synthetic Cannabinoids
    2. Synthetic Stimulants
    3. Research Chemicals and Drug Analogs
  4. Most Commonly Used Synthetic Drugs
  5. Effects of Synthetic Drugs
  6. Who Abuses Synthetic Drugs?
  7. Street Names of Synthetic Drugs
  8. Addiction to Synthetic Drugs
  9. Bottom Line

What are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are produced by combining different man-made chemicals to mimic the natural illicit drugs available in the illegal drug market. These chemicals are then sprayed on shredded plant materials to give a natural appearance and then sold in the market as an alternate to natural illicit substances. The synthetic drugs are also sold as crystalline powder and liquids, which are ingested by mixing it with brewed tea or food.

Synthetic drugs are sold as potpourri, herbal incense, plant food, jewelry cleaner, research chemicals, etc. These products are easily accessible through convenience stores, gas stations and online. People tend to regularly use or abuse such types of drugs due to its easy availability and the potentiality to induce euphoric effects.

Most of the synthetic substances are not regulated and are produced illegitimately in clandestine labs to be sold through illicit drug markets globally. These chemicals are also imported from other countries where it may be unregulated. There are numerous synthetic drugs circulating in the illicit drug market as well as new designer drugs entering the market frequently. The safety of these drugs is still unknown and there is very limited data on the effects of these substances.

According to the sources, synthetic drugs are most popular among high school students and teenagers since these substances are low priced and easily available to them. These drugs are sold as alternatives to natural illicit drugs and many people using these substances are unaware of its life-threatening consequences. The chemical compounds present in the new and emerging synthetic substances are also not known and may result in unpredictable side effects.

Types of Synthetic Drugs

Based on the chemical composition present in the synthetic drugs, they are classified into three categories:

  • Synthetic Cannabinoids
  • Synthetic Stimulants (herbal highs or party pills)
  • Research Chemicals and Drug Analogs

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are also called K2, Spice, legal weed, potpourri, etc. The euphoric effect induced by these chemicals is similar to the effect of THC, which is the main psychoactive compound in the traditional weed. These synthetic substances are sold by combining with herbs and purported to mimic the effects of cannabis. These substances are consumed via smoking or by brewing it as a tea and drinking it.

There is very limited data regarding the short-term and long-term effects of synthetic cannabinoids. There are reports stating that people have been experiencing toxic effects after using these substances including rapid heart rate, racing thoughts, hallucinations, seizures, etc., and some cases resulting in death.

Synthetic Stimulants

Synthetic stimulants, commonly known as herbal highs and party pills, are often sold as herbal supplements and pellets. These herbal products are stated to increase the energy and mood. They contain a variety of natural ingredients such as caffeine, geranium extract, Citrus aurantium, etc., as well as active chemical substances that may not be listed on the label. These synthetic stimulants produce effects similar to AMP and MDMA.

Some of the chemicals used in the manufacture of synthetic stimulants are:

  • Cathinone
  • Methcathinone
  • Mephedrone
  • Phthalimidopropiophenone
  • Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV)

Synthetic stimulants may be manufactured using different chemicals and it is difficult to assess the potential toxicity associated with these substances.

Research Chemicals and Drug Analogs

Research chemicals and drug analogs are chemical substances similar to other types of drugs. Drug derivatives are chemical substances that are produced from another drug. These drug derivatives and analogs are part of cathinones, tryptamines and phenethylamines drug classes. These drugs are marketed and labeled as research chemicals, bath salts and plant food, but labeling on these products can be considered as ambiguous. These products also carry warnings such as “not for human consumption” or “only for research purposes.”

Other new chemical substances found in these products include:

  • Flephedrone
  • Naphyrone
  • MDPV
  • Methylone
  • Methoxetamine

Some of these chemical substances are found to be very active even at very low doses and other chemicals are added along with these substances to produce a similar dose that of an illicit drug that is intended to mimic.

Reported adverse effects that people have experienced from taking these drugs include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscular pain
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired cognition
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Heart issues
  • Headaches
  • Suicidal thoughts

Most Commonly Used Synthetic Drugs

  • K2 or Spice:  K2 is a type of synthetic cannabinoids, which is also known as Spice. K2 also goes by brand names such as Relax, Cloud 9, Yucatan Fire, Black Mamba, Blaze, Scooby Snax, etc. Synthetic cannabinoids have an active element that has potency more than the traditional weed of over 100 times. It binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and creates euphoric effect and altered perceptions.
  • Bath Salts:  These are synthetically derived cathinone. Cathinone drugs are stimulants that are similar to hallucinogenic drugs and COC. These substances are stronger and powerful than COC, and are often snorted. Synthetic drugs that are labeled as bath salts are said to be dangerous. These contain chemical substances such as Methylone (MDMC), MDPV or Mephedrone (4-MMC).
  • Molly:  This is the pure form of MDMA. This substance often contains little amounts of MDMA and other chemical substances such as MDPV, PCP or MDMC are also added. This drug alters the mind by distorting the senses, and has both hallucinogenic and stimulant effects. Molly is often adulterated with other dangerous and effective chemicals.
  • Smiles:  It is a hallucinogenic drug that is sold as an alternative to LSD. Even a very small dose can produce feelings of elation and overdose of the drug can cause long-term effects.
  • Flakka:  It is a synthetic cathinone and contains the active ingredient, alpha-PVP. Flakka is also termed as gravel. This drug produces both hallucinations and stimulating effects when abused. In case of overdose, a person can become aggressive, hallucinate and experience state of confusion.
  • Synthetic LSD:  These drugs are referred to as N-Bomb or Smiles. N-Bomb is sold in powdered or liquid form and this is inhaled or injected as well as used as suppository. These are very powerful drugs and mimic LSD. It causes paranoia and hallucinations. A very little amount of this drug can last for 12 hours or even more.
  • DMT, Blue Mystic, Foxy, AMT and Nexus:  These drugs are termed as tryptamines and phenethylamines. These are psychoactive substances that can produce hallucinogenic effects similar to LSD and mescaline. These drugs are commonly used during rave parties and in clubs.
  • Synthetic PCP:  MXE is a synthetic chemical that can cause a person to dissociate with reality. It can produce effects similar to PCP and cause psychosis, hallucinations or delusions, distorted senses and derealization.

Manufacturers frequently alter and use new chemical compounds to circumvent regulations. The effects of these substances may be difficult to predict since these products may contain different types of chemicals that may produce variable toxicities.

Effects of Synthetic Drugs

The side effects of synthetic drugs are life-threatening and harmful. Symptoms that can be experienced after consuming synthetic drugs include:

  • Anxiousness
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Violent behavior
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Psychosis
  • Inability to speak
  • Excessive sweating and fatigue
  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Coma
  • Even death

The low prices and easy accessibility of synthetic drugs have added to the abuse. It is also misconstrued among people that these drugs are natural and nontoxic, which has furthered addiction. Due to changes in chemical substances to evade existing laws, the long-term effects of the synthetic drugs are not completely known, but are emerging as more powerful and life-threatening drugs. These drugs are habit-forming and can result in symptoms such as nightmares, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cravings, insomnia, loss of interest, etc. The long-term use of these drugs can cause confused state of mind, paralysis, kidney problems, forgetfulness, etc., in chronic abusers.

Who Abuses Synthetic Drugs?

Any individual who has an addiction disorder or drug abuse problems can consume synthetic drugs due to its low price and availability. Synthetic drugs are also abused by the teenage population. Teens in the age group of 12-17 abuse these drugs more than any other people. Drug abuse in this age group is common because of their curiosity to explore and experiment substances. Abuse of synthetic drugs is also increasing because of its easy availability in convenience stores, head shops and smoke shops. Internet has become a boon to drug users to buy online and get delivered at their doorstep.

Teenagers consider these synthetic drugs to be safe and this misconception leads to harmful effects. A study found that there were 10 times more likely cases involved in synthetic drug abuse than any other issues. According to the survey conducted in 2012 and 2015 on youth drug use, the high school seniors most frequently used synthetic drugs after MMJ, but there was a decline in the prevalence rate in 2015.

Street Names of Synthetic Drugs

  • Aroma
  • Algerian blend
  • Bonsai-18
  • Bombay blue
  • Bliss
  • Blaze
  • Black Mamba
  • Chill
  • Chaos
  • Dream
  • Fake pot
  • Fake weed
  • Genie
  • K2
  • Lava
  • Mr. Smiley
  • Mojo
  • Mr. Happy
  • Phantom Wicked
  • Red X Dawn
  • Scooby Snacks
  • Spike 99
  • Spicy XXX
  • Skunk
  • Smoke
  • Silent Black
  • Space Diamond
  • Sensation Serenity
  • Sence
  • Tai Fun
  • Wicked X
  • Yucatan Fire
  • Zen

Addiction to Synthetic Drugs

When synthetic drugs are abused, chemical changes occur in the brain and disrupts the way it works. This impairs the ability to make decisions, mental health, impulse control and pleasure. Any substances that alter the mental status after consumption (smoked, inhaled, injected, swallowed or snorted) should be regarded as drugs even if they are legally marketed.

Synthetic drugs can cause hallucinations and psychotic side effects by interfering with the brain receptors. Drugs like bath salts increase noradrenaline levels by stimulating the central nervous system and increase heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. A person taking bath salt may not desire to eat or sleep because of increased energy and excitement. K2 may induce opposite effects and slow down these functions to make individuals calm and elated.

In chronic users, the synthetic drugs may negatively disrupt the neurotransmitters that flow through the brain and the brain function gets altered due to the dependence on these drugs. If the drugs are stopped, the brain may not work normally leading to depression, anxiousness, restlessness and irritability without the drug. Symptoms of withdrawal as well as drug cravings may also occur.

Bottom Line

Synthetic drugs have different chemical structures compared to the traditional illicit substances, and they are marketed as a legal and safe alternative to illicit substances. However, their legal standards can vary and their safety is not verified.

Synthetic drugs could be addictive and these can pose a serious threat to individuals. It has been difficult for the regulatory authorities to control or track synthetic drugs due to its altered chemical compositions. In general, manufacturers slightly modify the molecular structures of synthetic chemicals to dodge the existing drug laws and standards.

Synthetic drugs are available at low prices and can be purchased through online stores or gas stations. Due to the misconception that synthetic drugs are natural and harmless, it adds further towards drug abuse. Standard drug tests cannot detect most of the synthetic chemical compounds furthering drug abuse.

Addiction is considered as a disease caused by compulsive drug-use behavior and individuals may not be able to control the amount of drugs they use each time. Relationships may suffer and individuals combating drug abuse are likely to be secretive and prone to arrogant behavior and mood swings. Individuals addicted to the synthetic drugs may have drastic changes in weight, appearance and negligent about their personal hygiene. Despite the fact that synthetic drugs may not surface on the drug test, behavioral and social changes may warrant addiction treatment.

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