Synthetic drugs are a relative newcomer in the world of substance abuse.
These are drugs that enterprising companies have developed in laboratories to mimic the effects of illegal substances. Because what they create is not the same as the illegal compound, the synthetic drug is not illegal. This doesn’t mean however, that they are not just as dangerous, and possibly even more so.
In recent weeks, with synthetic drugs making headlines for poison control calls, deaths and public face-biting, legislators are taking a tough stand on these designer drugs.
What are synthetic drugs?
Synthetic drugs are made in a laboratory to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. This means that the chemists making them are creating substances that are very similar to illegal ones, but just different enough that they are legal (at least initially). Technically, a synthetic drug is any that is made in a laboratory, which means prescription medications and illegal drugs like ecstasy and crystal meth are also synthetic. The two drugs called bath salts and synthetic marijuana, however, are newer and are posing more problems because their composition changes all the time. When one substance found in the product is banned, the company simply creates a new one to replace it.
- Bath salts — This type of synthetic drug has been very prominent in the news since the incident in Miami in which a man high on bath salts attacked another man in a brutal fashion. The compounds in this product are designed to mimic the effects of amphetamines and cocaine and act like stimulants. Users either eat the crystals labeled as bath salts or they smoke, snort, or even inject them.
- Synthetic marijuana — Largely labeled under the brand names K2 and Spice, synthetic marijuana has been marketed as an herbal smoke mix or incense and is made with a changing mix of substances including synthetic cannabinoids, the active compounds in the cannabis plant. The ingredients on the label can vary quite a bit and are often misleading. Users smoke synthetic marijuana, just as they would with the real substance.
What makes these drugs so dangerous?
The newest synthetic drugs have proven dangerous for several reasons. First of all, they are misleading. Although these products are really potent drugs, the manufacturers took great pains to market them as something safe and legal. They come in brightly-colored packets, some even have cartoon characters on them, and have been labeled as bath salts, incense, herbal smoking blends, and even electronics cleaner. The packages even state on them that they are not for human consumption, although that is clearly the intention.
Along with clever marketing, synthetic drugs have been selling in very innocuous places. Most people have bought their supplies from independent local stores and gas stations. In Europe, these drugs are more often bought and sold online and through drug dealers, which sends a very different message.
Another dangerous aspect of synthetic drugs is their changing nature. For a year or two, some states in the U.S. have been banning these substances, but they have done so one compound at a time. This gives the makers of the drugs the chance to make a new, yet similar substance, repackage their product and sell it legally again. Because the ingredients are always changing, those who are trying to determine how harmful the drugs are have a tough time doing so. Studies cannot be conducted when the product is always changing.
What is the new legislation?
Fortunately, legislators on the state and federal level are finally realizing that more needs to be done to keep these products from being sold to the public. Previously, bans have been put in place on individual compounds as agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, work to determine just what substances are in the latest version of a synthetic drug. Once it is identified, it is banned, and the manufacturers get back to work creating yet another new drug.
In the last few weeks, 40 states have passed more sweeping legislation banning the products outright. A bill also passed both chambers of the U.S. congress to ban over 26 synthetic substances. The bill also put in place a ban on any substances that are similar. This gives law enforcement the ability to stop the sale of a wider variety of products. In spite of this new, more sweeping legislation, however, it is likely that drug manufacturers will come up with yet another new product that is different enough to make it into stores. The packaging, the names and the ingredients labels will change, but the danger will still be there.