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Synthetics (Designer Drugs) Overview

Synthetics, also known as “designer drugs,” are completely man-made drugs created in a laboratory. Many designer drugs are created legally and serve a legitimate medical purpose, in fact most prescription drugs are either semi-synthetic or fully synthetic. In the context of illicit drugs, the term “synthetic” or “designer drug” usually refers to an illegal drug made in a clandestine laboratory.

Natural VS Synthetic VS Semi-Synthetic, What’s the Difference?

All drugs can be classified into one of three categories – natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic.

  • Natural – Natural drugs refer to substances found in nature that have not been chemically modified. Examples of natural drugs include cannabis, opium and magic mushrooms.
  • Synthetic– Synthetic drugs are completely man-made in a laboratory. They are made from scratch by combining several chemicals and involve no natural precursors. Examples of synthetic drugs include fentanyl, K2 spice and bath salts.
  • Semi-Synthetic – Semi-synthetic drugs start with natural products as source material and are chemically modified to produce the final product. Semi-synthetic drugs aren’t considered “natural drugs” since they aren’t found in nature, but they aren’t fully synthetic either because the manufacturing process started with a natural drug.

Designer Drugs – A Matter of Chemistry

Designer drugs are often very similar to legal or illegal controlled substances. This is because many times the production of designer drugs involves slightly tweaking the molecular structure of the already-existing “parent drug” while still retaining its effects. Since designer drugs are technically different from their parent drug, distributors attempt to sell them under the guise of research chemicals, plant food, plant material, glass cleaner, even incense or potpourri.

Where Do They Come From?

The Drug Enforcement Agency has identified the main source of designer drugs to be East Asia, where they are distributed at wholesale throughout Europe and the United States.

Designer drugs can be purchased online, where they are often shipped discretely directly to the buyer’s house. Buying designer drugs online is dangerous, as the authenticity of the manufacturer can rarely be confirmed.

Bath Salts

Unlike cosmetic bath salts that are added to a relaxing bath, illicit bath salts are sold to be consumed for their psychoactive effects. They are often designed to have effects similar to stimulants such as cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines.

Bath salts are easily purchased at gas stations, with common names including Bliss, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Drone, Energy-1, Ivory Wave, Burst, and Pure Ivory. These products are usually sold in 200-500 mg packets. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that many of these products will be labeled not for human consumption, though their manufacturers do indeed intend for them to be consumed.

The active ingredient in bath salts is nearly impossible to determine by the packaging, however they usually contain one or more synthetic cathinones, drugs with a chemical structure similar to amphetamine. The most common ingredients found in bath salts include MDPV, mephedrone and methylone. These drugs have stimulant and hallucinogenic properties while being highly addictive.

Bath Salt Effects

Bath salts can wreak havoc on the user’s physical and mental health. Some side effects are listed below.

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Muscle spasm
  • Severe Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Body temperature increase

Severe psychotic symptoms are common those who present to the emergency department, occurring in up to 40% of cases. Those under the influence of bath salts have an altered perception and can be extremely violent, often harming themselves or others. In one case, a man under the influence of bath salts shot himself after murdering his wife; a toxicology report identified MDPV in his system.

Synthetic Cannabinoids – “Spice”

Synthetic cannabinoids, commonly referred to as “spice,” are man-made drugs designed to resemble THC, the primary psychoactive component in cannabis. Because spice binds to the same receptors as THC, it is sometimes referred to as “synthetic marijuana.” Some common names for synthetic cannabinoids are listed below:

  • Spice, K2 Spice
  • Legal weed
  • Blaze
  • Zoh

Like most designer drugs, spice is manufactured overseas then shipped to the United States and Europe. It is usually dissolved in a solvent, then sprayed onto herbal products where they absorb the psychoactive ingredients. The final product, sold in gas stations or bought online, usually resembles plant material but is sometimes sold as a powder. Standard urine drug tests do not screen for spice.

Effects of Spice

Since it is nearly impossible to determine the actual ingredient in spice, the effects of any given product are difficult to predict. General effects reported include:

  • Psychosis
  • Mood change
  • Memory impairment
  • Seizures
  • Increased heart rate
  • Heart attack

Heart attacks caused by spice are life-threatening. In one in case, a 19-year old who took spice collapsed from a heart attack and later died

Other Designer Drugs

While bath salts and spice remain the most popular designer drugs, there are others as well. Many of the following are sold online through unscrupulous retailers.

  • LSD Derivatives – LSD derivatives are synthetic drugs similar to LSD. They are often sold online, usually shipped from overseas or Canada. Their effects may include long-lasting hallucinations, paranoia and psychosis. Examples include 1B-LSD, 1P-LSD and LSZ.
  • Tryptamines – Tryptamines are compounds similar to psilocybin, the primary psychoactive component in “magic mushrooms.” Like magic mushrooms, tryptamines are hallucinogenic and may cause long-lasting paranoia.
  • Benzodiazepine Derivatives – There is a growing market for benzodiazepine derivative drugs, modified forms of benzodiazepines that carry the same risks and side effects as prescription benzodiazepines. Examples in clonazolam, etizolam and flualprazolam.

The Mask of Legitimacy

Most designer drugs come in packaging that may appear official, even feigning compliance with regulatory authorities by labeling it with statements such “not for human consumption.” Make no mistake though, most designer drugs are created in clandestine laboratories with little to no quality control in the manufacturing process. The actual amount of drug may vary from batch to batch, making it impossible to know how strong the product is.