Spice, K2, Flakka and Bath Salts. Rave drugs like Molly/Ecstasy. All of these drugs are commonly available, including online or at gas stations and convenience stores. The law can’t keep up with underground labs that make synthetic drugs internationally and in the U.S. The chemicals are sometimes sold as “potpourri,” “glass cleaner,” and “plant food,” according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.1 They are marked “not for human consumption,” which conceals their true purpose and use: intoxication, partying, and getting high.
Some lab-created drugs were placed on Schedule I and declared to be illegal by the 2012 Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act. This means that they are considered potentially addictive, have no valid medical use, and are considered dangerous. Also called designer drugs, new research methods are discovering the spread of lab-made drugs worldwide. In 2019, Australian researchers uncovered 15 different kinds of new lab-created drugs in wastewater in Australian cities and regions, including N-ethylpentylone.2 The Drug Enforcement Agency provisionally placed N-ethylpentylone on Schedule I as an illegal drug in August 2020.3 Over 500 lab-created synthetic drugs had been identified in 2015 and as chemical synthesis becomes more affordable and sophisticated, it’s simple for labs to change a few parts of a chemical’s structure to create new designer drugs that are outside the formal letter of the law, which is based on chemical structure and properties.
These chemical changes can allow new synthetic drugs to mimic the effects of natural drugs. For example, Spice/K2 is a lab-created version of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. There is no way to know the full effects of novel or new synthetic drugs. With so many lab-made drugs entering the market, these drugs can be sold under a number of street names, and are widely available at nightclubs, parties, raves, and bars. For medical and research purposes, synthetic drugs can also be referred to as new psychoactive substances (NPS).
What Are Common Synthetics?
Some synthetic drugs have become famous due to their dangerous and extreme psychoactive effects. Nearly everyone has heard about the “face-eating cannibal” attack in Miami in 2012, where a man under the influence of bath salts attacked and ate the face of a homeless man on a busy highway before being shot and killed.4 Bath salts are one of the most famous (or infamous) synthetic drugs. They are synthetic versions of khat, a natural drug derived from a shrub that grows in East Africa and Southern Arabia.5 The most common types of synthetic drugs include:
Synthetic Cannabinoids (Marijuana-like substances): Although cannabis is legal in Canada, and medical marijuana is legal in many U.S. states, synthetic cannabis that was developed in a lab for research purposes is commonly sold and misused. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), synthetic cannabinoids can be mistaken as potentially safer than the natural drug they are intended to mimic. The truth is that synthetic cannabinoids can be much more powerful than natural cannabis. They can have dangerous, severe, and even potentially life-threatening side effects.6
Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed under names like Black Mamba, Spice, K2, Kush, Kronic, and Joker. They’re easy to obtain in head shops, gas stations, and over the internet, and they can mimic natural products because the chemical compounds can be sprayed onto plant material. If the specific chemical formulation used is officially placed on Schedule I, the makers simply slightly alter the chemical mixture and continue selling. According to NIDA, easy access and a belief these drugs are harmless has led to their increased popularity, especially in young people.
Synthetic cannabinoids can be addictive, and people who’ve been using them can experience withdrawal symptoms, according to NIDA. Withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, headaches, depression, and irritability.
Synthetic cathinones: Also known as bath salts, these lab-created versions of the North African natural drug khat usually come in plastic or foil packages that can be marketed as “plant food,” “jewelry cleaner,” and even “phone screen cleaner” in addition to “bath salts.” They are in no way the same as ordinary bathing salts which soothe the skin or provide a pleasant bathing experience. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) identifies brand names of bath salts, including Cloud Nine, Bliss, Lunar Wave, White Lightning, and Vanilla Sky. Bath salts can be snorted, swallowed, smoked, or injected. They are synthetic versions of the natural cathinones found in khat. Cathinones are stimulants that affect the brain similarly to cocaine, amphetamines, and MDMA (Molly). One of the substances in cathinones, MDPV, has been shown to have a stimulant effect ten times greater than cocaine. According to NIDA, MDPV is the most common synthetic substance leading to emergency department admissions due to side effects that include paranoia, hallucinations, panic attacks, and delirium.6
Other synthetic cathinones include Flakka, or alpha-PHP. Flakka is a pink or white crystal that can be snorted, eaten, injected, or vaped. With effects similar to bath salts, Flakka has been linked to suicide, heart attacks, and dangerously raised body temperature and heart rate.7
Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs: DMT occurs in nature, where it’s known as Ayahuasca, but the lab version, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a crystalline powder that’s usually vaped or smoked. DMT , along with a similar compound AMT, can be sold at raves and clubs as Foxy, the “Businessman’s Trip,” “Fantasia,” or “Dmitri.” DMT produces a “trip,” similar to LSD, that lasts about 45 minutes.8
Other classic hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and peyote (mescaline) can have designer or lab-created versions. One of the best-known types of synthetic LSD is called N-Bomb or Smiles. Ultra-powerful psychedelics can produce trips lasting for 12 hours or longer.
Dissociative synthetic drugs include Ketamine (Special K or K), PCP (phencyclidine) – aka Ozone, Rocket Fuel, Hog, or Embalming Fluid, and DXM – a substance commonly found in cough syrups (Dextromethorphan).8
Club drugs: MDMA (Molly/Ecstasy) is one of the most common rave and club drugs. Also known as X, XTC, Love Drug, E-Bomb, Candy, Vitamin E, and other similar names, the chemical name for Molly is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine). Ravers use Molly because it creates feelings of love, one-ness, and bliss, but it may have addiction potential, and it also has withdrawal symptoms, including depression, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.9
Who Is Misusing Synthetic Drugs?
Synthetic drugs became popular because they use chemical tricks to get around the law and are sold legally. They’re easily available and can be much more affordable than other better-known illicit drugs. Lab chemists can formulate these drugs to be much more powerful than their natural or traditional illicit drug cousins, and some people perceive this as getting “value” for their money.
Overall this combination adds up to a lot of younger users who can’t afford more expensive natural illicit drugs to get high and who can wrongly think that because the drugs are legally sold, though packaged as anything other than what they are, they are safe. According to Houston Behavioral Health Hospital, teens between ages 12 and 17 are the biggest market for synthetic drugs. They’re easy to obtain, often look innocuous, and are usually affordable. People recovering from other types of drug use including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine are also vulnerable to synthetic drug misuse. Addicts can see synthetic drugs as safer or less addictive than the substance they’ve been misusing. Finally, people who are incarcerated can and do misuse synthetic drugs. The chemical formulas of lab-created drugs can and do change, and they support an easy way to get around drug tests. Anyone who needs to drug test for their job can also be at risk of synthetic drug abuse.10 In New York, the state poison control centers report that most cases of synthetic drug poisoning have come from people age 20 to 26, but emergency room admissions range between 18 and 48.11
Can You Be Addicted to Synthetic Drugs?
One of the reasons that some synthetic drug use resources like the National Institute on Drug Abuse say that it’s “unknown” if certain synthetic drugs are addictive is that there isn’t enough research conducted on them. Other drugs, like bath salts, can have such extreme effects that addiction may not be an issue, because they’ve been associated with violent death and suicide. Even though stories like the “face-eating cannibal” and the 2011 suicide of Dickie Sanders after taking Cloud 9 bath salts have been widely reported, people still buy and consume bath salts to get high.12
Although there’s limited scientific research on how synthetic drugs specifically cause addiction, many of them are designed to mimic the chemical structure and effects of drugs that are known to be potentially addictive, from cocaine and heroin to cannabis (marijuana). As one example, NIDA says that K2/Spice, which is chemically manufactured to be similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, is much stronger than naturally-occurring THC. Although K2/Spice can produce the same type of feelings that natural marijuana does, including relaxation and an elevated mood, it can also produce symptoms of psychosis. With withdrawal symptoms identified, synthetic cannabinoids are addictive, according to the NIDA.
Regardless of scientific evidence, if people spend a lot of time trying to obtain a substance, using the substance, finding money to buy the substance, and giving up other activities they formerly enjoyed in order to use the substance, these are all signs of addiction. An especially dangerous aspect of designer drugs created in a lab is the way that chemical changes can lead to other unknown changes in the brains and bodies of people who use them. From the “bad trips” of the 1960s to bath salt horror stories today, the truth is that although they may be marketed and sold as common household products, synthetic drugs are chemical substances that can and do lead to addiction.
Treating Synthetic Drug Addiction
Synthetic drugs can have dangerous side effects, including withdrawal symptoms as well as dangerous altered perceptions, including psychosis and hallucinations. They can also come with physical effects far stronger than the naturally-derived drugs they are based upon. From treating the acute symptoms of intoxication with a synthetic drug, like elevated heart rate in the case of synthetic cathinones like bath salts and Flakka to dealing with hallucinations resulting from altered or adulterated MDMA (Molly), medical monitoring and professional, compassionate support are essential.
Recovery from synthetic drug addiction is possible. Evidence-based therapy like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can help in the recovery and healing process. Comprehensive treatment can help you to recover from synthetic drug addiction, including a continuum of care, from detox that can help address the symptoms of withdrawal to residential treatment, outpatient treatment, and support for your family. You can work with a team of experienced professionals who understand what you’re experiencing and help you to regain your physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health.
Detox and Withdrawal From Synthetic Drugs
Although every detail of the physical effect of all synthetic drugs is still emerging, and new drugs are emerging all the time due to the nature of synthetic drugs and the clandestine labs that make them, several synthetic drugs do have known withdrawal effects, including anxiety, depression, and other physical symptoms. Medical monitoring and ongoing support are needed to successfully detox from synthetic drugs and begin the next step of your recovery.
Recovery From Synthetic Drug Misuse
Ironically, many people see synthetic drugs as “safer” than better-known illicit drugs that some of them are inspired by, from synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and K2 to synthetic cathinones like bath salts and Flakka. The truth is, lab-created synthetic drugs aren’t “plant food” or “research chemicals,” they are powerful substances that can have unknown effects on the mind and body. Each person’s body chemistry is also different, and a substance that may affect one person one way, will have a profoundly different effect on another person.
Synthetic drugs can be misused, and they can lead to physical dependency and addiction. Help is available, and recovery is possible, especially with compassionate, caring, and well-qualified professional help. Learn your options and the treatment plan that is right for you.
1Drug Enforcement Agency. (2020). Designer Drugs
2Science Daily. (2020). Researchers flush out worrying trend of designer drug use.
3Drug Enforcement Agency Diversion Control Division. (2020). Rules – 2020 Placement of N-Ethylpentylone in Schedule I.
5National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”) DrugFacts.
6National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice) DrugFacts
7National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). “Flakka” (alpha-PVP)
8National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). “Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs Research Report.”
9National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020) “MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly)“.
10Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital. (2016). Understanding Synthetic Drugs: Types, Dangers, and Treatment.
11New York State Department of Health. Synthetic Drugs FAQ.
12Warren, Bob. Times-Picayune. (2011). “Snorting bath salts pushed St. Tammany man to suicide.”
13National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice) DrugFacts