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The Long-term Effects of Synthetic Drugs

As the popularity of synthetic drugs continues to rise, researchers are now closely examining the risk factors and dangers associated with these unpredictable substances. Though many of the long-term effects remain largely unknown, research does show that synthetic drugs can result in serious consequences, including psychosis, convulsions and seizures, aggressive behavior, and, in some cases, death.1 There is no safe way to use synthetic drugs; these substances are largely unregulated and produce volatile effects as a result. If you or someone you know abuses synthetic drugs, help is available.

Synthetic Drug Facts

Synthetic drugs, also referred to as “designer drugs,” are artificial, man-made substances with effects that in some cases mimic other commonly abused drugs like marijuana, cocaine, or opioids.1 Because they are created in unregulated labs, there is no real way of knowing the chemical make-up or the potency and safety of these substances.

To date, there are more than 200 kinds of already-identified synthetic drug compounds, many of which are lab-manufactured cannabinoids from China.1,2 Synthetic drugs originate from other foreign countries as well, from where they are then smuggled into the United States or ordered via the Internet. Because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are no safety precautions in place for these substances.

For several years, synthetic drugs have been easily accessible, sometimes sold in gas stations, over the internet, or in head shops along with other drug paraphernalia.3 However, in recent years the government has taken many steps to ban these substances. In 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which placed 26 synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones into Schedule I classification of the Controlled Substances Act.4 Unfortunately, such a classification can only do so much; manufacturers have essentially sidestepped these laws by experimenting with different chemicals and compounds in their synthetic drug mixtures—thereby evading stricter DEA drug scheduling.3

It can be difficult to keep track of the growing number of synthetic drugs available, but some are far more popular than others. Some examples of popular synthetic drugs include:

  • PCP (Angel Dust, Love Boat): A dissociative drug that can cause hallucinations and delusions. PCP has been associated with suicidal thoughts, seizures, and coma.5
  • Synthetic Marijuana (K2, Spice): Often marked as “natural” or “safe” marijuana, synthetic marijuana can be incredibly powerful and dangerous. It is associated with anxiety, psychosis, paranoia, and hallucinations.3
  • MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly): A synthetic amphetamine drug with both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects that is capable of eliciting profound alterations in perception, mood, and energy levels. MDMA is associated with several health risks, including liver, kidney, and heart failure. MDMA is frequently mixed with various additives, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or synthetic cathinones (bath salts).6
  • Ketamine (Special K, Cat Valium): Like PCP, ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that distorts perceptions and can create feelings of detachment and derealization. Ketamine is also associated with inattention to the environment and sedation. For these reasons, ketamine is sometimes used as a date rape drug.7
  • GHB (G, Goop, Liquid Ecstasy): A central nervous system (CNS) depressant that can lower anxiety and inhibitions, as well as induce euphoria, drowsiness, and hallucinations. GHB is also associated with seizures, unconsciousness, and aggressive behavior; it is sometimes used as a date rape drug.7,16
  • Bath salts (Bloom, Flakka, Vanilla Sky): Though formulations may vary, bath salts most commonly contain a type of substance known as synthetic cathinones.  Cathinones have stimulant properties similar to amphetamines and cocaine, and can result in adverse effects, such as paranoia, hallucinations, panic attacks, and violent behavior.8

This is not a complete list of synthetic drugs available world-wide, as new compounds are being covertly developed and distributed all the time. Some that you may not have heard of are marketed on the Internet as “research chemicals.” Despite this misleading designation, these drugs, along with the ones described above, are wholly unregulated and extremely dangerous.

How Dangerous Are They?

As mentioned, synthetic drugs can contain various amounts of different, unknown adulterant ingredients or toxic contaminants. The chemical-makeups of these drugs are constantly evolving as manufacturers attempt to dodge different legal regulations and drug scheduling. As a result, users often have no real way of knowing exactly what they are putting into their bodies when taking these substances.

As with many drugs, people might assume that these substances are safer due to their temporary legal status; however, this is a dangerous myth.2 As we know, even substances as commonplace as alcohol, as well as several legally-prescribed pharmaceuticals such as opioid painkillers and some amphetamine stimulants have their own inherent dangers, such as the propensity for abuse, psychological impairment, and other potentially-severe health consequences.

Similarly, synthetic drugs also present with several major risks, including:1,3-8

  • Psychological risks, such as:
    • Paranoia.
    • Hallucinations.
    • Delirium.
    • Panic attacks.
    • Depression.
    • Anxiety.
    • Irritability.
    • Suicidal thoughts.
    • Violent, irrational behavior.
  • Physical risks, such as:
    • Dehydration.
    • Increased body temperature.
    • Vomiting.
    • Tachycardia.
    • Kidney failure.
    • Heart failure.
    • Seizures.
    • Tremors.
    • Coma.
    • Death.

These adverse side effects can result in unintentional overdose or the need for emergency medical services. Even using synthetic drugs just one time can be incredibly risky, especially for adolescents or young adults who do not fully understand the potential dangers. For example, research shows that synthetic marijuana can be 2–100 times more potent than THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.9 Because of these variables, users face tremendous hazards when using these synthetic drugs.

In 2011 alone, there were 28,531 emergency department visits for synthetic marijuana-related incidents (about 2.5 times more than in 2010).2 These figures suggest that more people are using synthetic drugs, such as K2 or Spice. A study examining synthetic drugs in 2015 showed that nearly 90% of emergency physicians reported witnessing acts of violence and aggression in association with synthetic drug-related admissions, including those for synthetic marijuana and bath salts.10 In light of this and other findings, one should consider that, even if they intend to casually use synthetic drugs, they may place themselves at great risk of overdosing or experiencing other dangerous adverse consequences.

Effects of Chronic Use

Because many of these substances are relatively new and constantly evolving to evade legal ramifications, research into the long-term effects of synthetic drugs has not been exhaustive, to date. That being said, every time someone uses a synthetic drug, they run the risk of experiencing potentially-catastrophic immediate effects that could impact them in the long-term. Some effects that can permanently harm the user include:3,5,6,7

  • Hallucinations and paranoia, which can lead to unpredictable and violent behaviors and potential accidental injuries or assaults.
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts, which can lead to attempts and completed suicides.
  • Seizures, which can lead to brain damage or death.
  • Memory loss.
  • Coma, which can lead to brain damage or death.
  • Liver, kidney, or heart failure, all of which can be fatal.
  • The contraction of STDs, such as HIV, due to date rape or risky sexual behavior.

Other general long-term effects of using synthetic drugs can include:11

  • Social/ interpersonal impairments: Users of synthetic drugs might devote a lot of time, energy, and money to using, which, in combination with erratic behaviors, can impair the quality of their interpersonal relationships with family and loved ones.
  • Financial problems: Synthetic drugs may be expensive to obtain and chronic use can lead to significant financial hardships.
  • Legal problems: Synthetic drug users risk facing legal confrontations pertaining to possession, displaying violent and erratic behavior when under the influence, driving under the influence, and disorderly conduct. These legal problems often impact work and finances, which can contribute to a downward spiral for the user.
  • Addiction: The rewarding effects of psychoactive drugs help to reinforce their continued, problematic use. Consistent drug use may lead to the development of addiction and addiction-related phenomena such as physiological dependence. In some cases, even if the user wants to quit synthetic drugs, they might find it extremely difficult to because of cravings and a desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

While there still is a need for more research examining the withdrawal effects of all of the synthetic drugs, studies show that these some of these substances can be physically addictive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that users attempting to quit synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice, may experience headaches, anxiety, depression, and irritability.3 MDMA users report withdrawal symptoms, including concentration problems, depression, loss of appetite, and fatigue.6 Users of synthetic cathinones, or bath salts, report experiencing depression, anxiety, paranoia, sleep disturbances, and tremors when they attempt to quit.8

Detox and Rehab

Professional detoxification programs can help stabilize synthetic drug users as they withdraw from the drug as safely and comfortably as possible. Detox helps acutely manage any potentially-dangerous physiological symptoms to arise when a user attempts to quit. However, detox alone cannot substitute for comprehensive substance abuse treatment. While detox provides stabilization and removes the immediate toxic influence of the abused substance, it does not address the underlying issues associated with drug abuse and addiction. For a successful and sustainable recovery, detox often just represents the first step.

The detox types and levels of care are:14

  • Outpatient detox (without extensive onsite monitoring): This takes place in a physician’s office or home healthcare agency. This can be beneficial for people with mild-to-moderate substance use disorders who have strong support systems at home.
  • Inpatient or residential detox: This occurs in freestanding detox centers or as part of a substance abuse treatment program. These types of detox programs provide the 24-hour supervised care often required by people with moderate-to-severe substance use disorders or co-occurring disorders.
  • Intensive, medically-managed detox: People experiencing severe psychiatric or physical issues in association with their drug use and/or acute withdrawal may be candidates for this level of care.

After successfully detoxing from synthetic drugs, most clients receive referrals for continued addiction treatment to address the behavioral and psychological components of drug use. As mentioned, detox alone is rarely sufficient when it comes to promoting long-term recovery; formal substance abuse treatment helps people understand relapse prevention and learn healthy coping skills to manage distress tolerance and life stressors.

Addiction treatment options include:

  • Residential/Inpatient Treatment: This provides 24/7 monitoring, support, and care. Residential treatment can take place in hospital settings or freestanding privately- or publicly-funded addiction treatment centers. Clients typically receive individual and group counseling in a highly structured setting.
  • Intensive Outpatient/Outpatient Treatment: Though relatively less intensive than inpatient or residential care, this treatment can also occur in hospital settings or freestanding privately or publicly funded treatment centers. Clients typically attend group and individual counseling sessions for a portion of the day, but can return to home or work outside of treatment hours.
  • Holistic Treatment: This treatment uses all-natural approaches to improve the entire person—mind, body, and spirit—without focusing only on a specific ailment. It often integrates meditation, yoga, and good nutrition.
  • Executive Treatment: A variety of residential treatment designed for working professionals who need to also manage their careers while receiving addiction care.
  • Luxury Treatment: This treatment specializes in high-end amenities, such as private chefs, private rooms, and access to more recreational-based treatment, such as art therapy and equine therapy.
  • Population-Specific Treatment: Many treatment centers offer specific programs or tracks for different populations. Examples include pregnant woman, veterans, the LGBTQ community, teenagers, and those with co-occurring disorders.

Furthermore, many clients sustain their recovery efforts by staying involved in individual or group counseling and support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or SMART Recovery.

While synthetic drug use can be life-threatening, securing detox and appropriate addiction treatment can give you the tools and support you need to turn your life around. No matter how bad things have gotten, professional help is always available

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