They are sold out in the open in places like online retailers and convenience stores, and at first glance, they seem like harmless products intended for home use – herbal incense, bath salts, plant food, and various spices.
In reality, they are dangerous man-made “synthetic drugs” with chemical formulas that are constantly reworked to circumvent drug laws.
Because they are easy to obtain, synthetic drugs are rapidly emerging as a new way to get high, especially among young people. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, synthetic marijuana is the second-most used illicit drug among high school seniors, trailing only marijuana.
12th-grade boys reported using synthetic marijuana within the past year twice as often as 12th-grade girls, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
John Scherbenske, who oversees the DEA’s Synthetic Drugs and Chemicals section, says, “The biggest user population of these drugs are 12-to 17-year-olds, because they are easily accessible.”
The popularity of synthetic drugs has resulted in an explosion of varieties. For example, in 2012, there were only two identified synthetic cannabinoids, but by 2012, there were at least 51.
Likewise for so-called “bath salts”, which are a type of cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant. In 2009, there were only four identified synthetic cathinones, but by 2012, there were at least 31.
All told, there are well over 300 synthetic substances specifically manufactured for the purposes of illicit use, with more coming every day.
Scherbenske says, “These drugs are being marketed and sold as legal alternatives to marijuana, cocaine, meth, and heroin.”
Man-Made Does Not Equal Safe
In order to keep ahead of law enforcement and drug policy makers, manufacturers use a constantly-changing variety of chemicals, and are seemingly indifferent to quality control or safety.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, and since then, dozens of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones have been designated as Schedule I substances, and the vast majority of states have taken action to control synthetic drugs.
This does not hamper the manufacturers as much as one might think. All they have to do is slightly tweak the formula, and they are back in business.
“The chemical companies are altering the compound ever-so-slightly to avoid our laws here in the United States. Once they alter that chemical, it is no longer a ‘controlled substance’,” said Scherbenske.
Although synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes marketed as “legal marijuana”, the effects are much more powerful and dangerous than marijuana.
Across the country, there has been a surge in the number of hospitalizations linked to the use of synthetic cannabinoid products. Just over a week ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a public health alert after more than 160 patients were hospitalized after using synthetic cannabinoids in just under a two-week period in mid-April.
In 2011, the US substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported 28,531 emergency-room visits due to the use of synthetic cannabinoids, double the previous year.
The adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids include – heightened anxiety or agitation, nausea and vomiting, a racing heartbeat, increased blood pressure, hallucinations, the dilation of pupils, seizures, and paranoid or suicidal thoughts.
The harmful effects of synthetic cathinones are comparable to those of methamphetamines, cocaine, and LSD – increased blood pressure and heart rate, chest pains, violent paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and aggressive/violent behavior.
How to Protect Your Loved Ones
One inherent difficulty in trying to deal with a loved one who is using synthetic drugs is the fact that there is no single test that can check for all of the possible ingredients. Even when one is developed, the compounds used in designer drugs are always changing.
So what can be done?
As with any situation involving possible substance abuse, communication and active involvement are the keys to prevention.
Experts recommend for parents to be observant and to question their children. Usually, there are tell-tale signs that an individual is abusing alcohol or drugs, and the important thing is not to ignore those signs.
It is also important for parents to have a frank and open discussion with their children about the dangers of using synthetic drugs, and this discussion needs to be calm and non-judgmental. The company’s marketing synthetic drugs list them as “laboratory-tested” and “legal”, and the only way to combat this is with honesty and real facts.
One teenager who shared his experiences of using synthetic drugs with the Emporia Gazette, said “Parents have to be in their kid’s business all the time. My parents were always in my business, and it made me mad, but eventually, it’s what got me clean.”