Also known as designer drugs, synthetic drugs are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. Although usually marketed as natural, and while there may be some organic ingredients in the formula, the active ingredient(s) in synthetic drugs (which confer the psychoactive effects) are artificial. Synthetic drugs are marketed as safe alternatives to illegal drugs, but nothing could be further from the truth. Taking a synthetic drug is like engaging in a game of Russian roulette; it is usually only a matter of time before the experience becomes very dangerous, and even deadly.

synthetic drugs

Blurred Legal Lines

Synthetic drugs are touted as legal, but that’s not an accurate description. Once law enforcement detects that a synthetic drug is being consumed for recreational purposes, the drug will likely end up listed as a controlled substance. However, as one addiction specialist put it, as soon as the hammer of the law comes down on one drug, another pops up like the game Whac-A-Mole. The proliferation of synthetic drugs is especially hard to control.

There are numerous types of synthetic drugs, but the most common are synthetic marijuana, MDMA, bath salts and krokodil. Depending on the resourcefulness of the user, these can be purchased direct from the Internet from domestic and foreign suppliers, or from dealers on the street. Manufacturers, online vendors, street-level drug dealers, gas stations and headshops sell packages of these drugs under different names. Packaging names and street nicknames include:

  • Synthetic marijuana: Spice, K2, Moon Rocks, Fake Weed, Yucatan Fire and Skunk
  • MDMA: Molly, Ecstasy, Malcom X, Mad Dog and MD
  • Bath salts: Ivory Wave, Bloom, White Lightning, Lunar Wave, Cloud Nine and Vanilla Sky
  • Krokodil: Crocodil, Russian Magic, Cheornaya and Himiya

Ill Health Effects

As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, the active ingredient in synthetic marijuana (cannabis) is laboratory-made cannabinoid. Synthetic marijuana is associated with numerous negative side effects, including rapid heart rate, agitation, confusion, vomiting and hallucinations. This variety of designer drugs can directly affect the heart because the elevated blood pressure it can cause in turn reduces blood supply to the heart, a condition known as myocardial ischemia. In a few cases, users experience a full-blown heart attack. These effects are just from the active ingredients; metallic residues in synthetic marijuana can also be harmful to health. This drug has also been shown to be addictive, and withdrawal can occur in users who discontinue use.

The Synthetic Drug Epidemic

As reported by The Fix, the severe risks associated with synthetic drugs are not deterring Americans or foreigners from initiating into use. According to Drug Enforcement Agency spokesperson Rusty Payne, the agency has identified more than 300 varieties of synthetic drugs in circulation in America. Most of these drugs hail from over 160,000 chemical manufacturing companies in China. It does not appear that the wave of abuse of these drugs is receding. According to Payne, synthetic drugs form the new frontier of the War on Drugs.

To provide a statistical picture of the problem, in 2010, more than 11,000 people landed in emergency rooms due to synthetic marijuana use. Since 2011, synthetic drugs have led to more than 39,000 emergency room visits and 7,000 inquiries with poison control centers. The synthetic drug 25i-NBOMe, which goes by the name “N-bomb” on the streets, has been responsible for the death of 20 Americans. In New York alone, bath salts have led to hundreds of ER admissions, with some users presenting with seizures and heart attacks.

Synthetic drug abuse is not isolated to the US; it is a global issue and disastrous in every country it touches. For instance, in one year alone, 20 citizens of Northern Ireland died after use of a synthetic drug known as “Speckled Cross.” The drug is also reportedly responsible for deaths in Denmark, Finland and Hungary. In 2013, in Japan, 125 criminal matters involved synthetic drugs, which was almost double the number of reports of the prior year.

Some residents of Australia have also fallen under the influence of synthetic drugs. In 2014, in one night, four Australians were hospitalized after consuming an Ecstasy-like pill called “Snapchat.” The drug reportedly made the users confused and aggressive.

US governmental authorities predict that the synthetic drug epidemic will only continue to spread. In view of challenges to regulation of the ever-growing variety of these drugs, public education is one of the greatest measures needed to stem the rising tide of designer drug abuse. Heightened educational efforts targeted to certain demographics, such as teenagers, are advised because synthetic drugs appear to disproportionately affect this segment of the population. When it comes to synthetic drug use, a zero-tolerance policy is necessary, as these drugs are highly unpredictable, exceptionally dangerous, and carry a high risk of fatal poisoning.

The Epidemic

In response to the significant public health threat that synthetic drugs present, CNN produced an exceptionally informative special report, “Deadly High.” CNN covered the tragic story of two teen deaths in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in June 2010 that directly stemmed from a single use of synthetic drugs. These deaths exposed a criminal chain of events that ultimately led to the prosecution of at least 15 involved individuals.

Victim Elijah Stai, 17 years of age, was attending a sleepover when the host offered him and another person chocolates laced with what the host believed to be the extract of psychedelic mushrooms. Shortly after consuming the chocolates, which reportedly tasted like regular chocolate, Stai went into cardiac arrest. As a result of the acute deprivation of oxygen to Stai’s brain, he was pronounced brain dead and removed from life support three days later. At this point, Stai’s family, the individuals who attended the sleepover, and local law enforcement knew Stai had consumed the laced chocolates but were clueless as to the specific cause of death. Only lab analysis could reveal the chemical culprit – synthetic drugs known as 2CI-NBOMe and 2CC-NBOMe that reportedly mimic the effects of LSD. Most tragically, Stai’s death was not an isolated incident. Teen Christian Bjerk had died earlier that week after consuming these drugs at a local party.

The deaths of Stai and Bjerk created a public health emergency in Grand Forks. Both the community and law enforcement were entirely unfamiliar with 2CI-NBOMe and 2CC-NBOMe, which only elevated the danger of these drugs. However, an investigation would reveal that a long chain of events, involving players in China, Texas and the local community led up to the deaths.

As CNN reported, the drugs had been lawfully manufactured in China, and then sold to an online broker in Texas, who then sold the compounds to a drug dealer in Grand Forks. In an unexpected twist, law enforcement uncovered that the host of the sleepover Stai attended, the individual who made the chocolates, had actually stolen the drugs from the local drug dealer’s house. The sleepover host did not have an accurate understanding of the potency of the synthetic drugs when he mixed them into the chocolates. It appears that the host did not intend to harm Stai or anyone else at the sleepover.

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In Texas, the online outlet Motion Resources that sold the drugs to the Grand Forks drug dealer involved was operating at the edge of the law. Motion Resources was legally allowed to sell Chinese synthetic drugs, provided the drugs were labeled and marketed to Americans as “not for human consumption” and “for research purposes only.” The owner of Motion Resources admitted that his intent was to facilitate psychedelic experiences, despite his company’s labels, and he ultimately received a sentence of 20 years in prison. The local drug dealer and the sleepover host who made the laced chocolates were also convicted. However, the chemical factory that manufactured the drug in China was not criminally liable under international law.

Today, both 2CI-NBOMe and 2CC-NBOMe are banned substances. Synthetic drug manufacturers are able to stay ahead of the law because they create and distribute drugs faster than law enforcement can detect them.

At present, US drug and customs laws are designed to prohibit specific formulations, and as a result, new – and extremely dangerous – synthetic drugs are able to enter and circulate throughout the US market.

This story of Stai and Bjerk demonstrates the complexity of the synthetic drug epidemic in America. Although known drugs, like LSD, are illegal, a smattering of even more dangerous synthetic copies are available. The proliferation of lethal synthetic drugs is a vicious unintended consequence of drug prohibition in the US. An added danger is that users, be they teens or adults, do not know the potency of the drugs they are consuming. A similarly packaged and advertised synthetic drug could lead to a high one time and a fatal poisoning the next time. It’s clear that one of the greatest threats synthetic drugs present is that they are totally unknowable outside of lab analysis.

Help for Synthetic Drug Abuse

Support Group to help youThe care a client receives at Black Bear Lodge is designed to serve his or her particular needs. Our treatment team is composed of addiction and mental health professionals who rank at the top of their field in providing exemplary drug rehab services. Just as importantly, we are committed to providing our clients with compassionate care.

We understand that synthetic drug abuse, or any drug abuse, is devastating on multiple levels. For this reason, we provide a full continuum of evidence-based rehab treatments designed to maximize our clients’ opportunity to make a lasting recovery. Call us to learn more.