For many years synthetic drug abuse has become an increasing issue worldwide. This is especially true over the last 10-15 years. The issues surrounding these drugs are actually fairly complex. They present challenges for psychologists, doctors and law enforcement. There have been a few high profile incidents recently that hopefully will help move forward the discussion about the topic. There was a recent 60 Minutes episode about the unfortunate death of a 16 year old that had taken one of these synthetic drugs. He had jumped off a balcony believing he could fly.
What are Synthetic Drugs?
There are several different varieties on the market. Some are designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, LSD, cocaine along with other substances. There is limited information about the potency, safety, side effects etc. of these drugs. There is little to no testing that takes place before they are sold. They have found that some of these substances once tested are several times stronger than the traditional drugs they are designed to mimic which can have toxic and tragic consequences. For example one of the varieties of the drugs that is designed to mimic LSD is actually 60 times stronger than actual LSD.
One of the issues is that the people who are buying these products do not know what the chemical is they are consuming, how strong it is or how it may impact them. Manufactures typically don’t include recommended dosages of these pills, powders etc. so it is up to the consumer to figure that out. The manufactures also frequently change the formulas without notice. So if a person buys a packet of one of these drugs then returns the following week they could actually be purchasing a completely different drug. This becomes especially dangerous if they were to take the same dose as before expecting the same results & it had a drastically different effect.
If it is legal isn’t it safe?
The manufactures frequently change their formulas in part to stay one step ahead of the law. You see these drugs are legal as well as unregulated. What many countries are struggling with is in some places it can take from a few months to a few years to pass a new law to ban a specific substance. Where it may take only a few weeks for the manufactures to tweak their formula slightly so that the molecular structure of the drug they are selling isn’t the same as the specific one that was made illegal. That allows them to sell these drugs legally in stores and online.
Many of these drugs have vague labels, are labelled for research or as other products. These labels are merely another tactic to bypass the legal system. Though they are actually marketed as an option for a “safe” legal high. For example a product sold as bath salts is actually a drug in the amphetamine family (a stimulant aka “speed”). This same product may be labelled as plant food, or jewellery cleaner. A product sold as “Spice” is actually a synthetic version of marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana has been linked to multiple young adults being admitted to hospital from having heart attacks shortly after using the drug. Others have experienced kidney failure. Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. Spice abusers who have been taken to Poison Control Centers report symptoms that include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia). It is worth noting that these life-threatening conditions aren’t effects that occur when using actual marijuana. So the legal synthetic drug may cause more harm than the actual illegal drug.
Some young people get swept away in the claims that it is natural, legal and therefore safe. They may not be aware of the complex game of cat and mouse that is going on between the chemists at the lab and those writing laws to make the latest version of these drugs illegal. They also may not be aware that the bag of dried leaves they purchased from the local “head shop”/ tobacconist is actually sprayed with a heavy cocktail of synthetic chemicals. That makes it very different from the natural substance claimed by their marketing. Especially considering that claim could have been what enticed them to make that particular purchase. So what they actually take home may not be natural at all, only temporarily legal and of questionable safety at best.
How common are synthetic drugs?
Experts in Poland estimate that during the months of July and August 2015 there have been over 1000 people poisoned (at least 2 fatally) by synthetic drugs. In a 2012 study in the USA synthetic marijuana had become the 2nd most abused substance by high schoolers in year 12 with 11% of students overall reporting its use in the last year. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to have used these drugs. The most commonly used substance by US high schoolers remains marijuana at 36% of the student population. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, calls related to exposure to synthetic cannabinoids totaled 16,923 between January 1, 2010, and July 30, 2013. The UK reports that deaths from use of synthetic drugs increased from 29 in 2011 to 60 in 2013. In Australia a 2013 study found the most likely age groups to report having used synthetic cannabis were those aged 14–19 (2.8%), closely followed by 20–29 (2.5%). Over 230,000 Australians reported using synthetic marijuana specifically in the past 12 months. So that would roughly come out to be about 10 people that are on your morning train rides to work. Australia increased its attempts to control these substances in 2013 by adding some new laws aimed at enforcement. However, this sort of product is still available on-line and in stores.
I suppose the main take away message I hope all of you get from this post is that if your children or friends are considering using some version of these synthetic drugs that they look beyond the fact that they may be available legally. There may be a lot of hidden dangers in that packet of legal drugs including fatal results for some. The difficult part is it takes a lab to be able to actually analyse what may actually be in those packages since the labels are often misleading.
If you are interested in learning more about these drugs there are a couple links below.