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Widespread synthetic drug addiction is a relatively new problem in the United States, but the number of individuals abusing these dangerous drugs keeps increasing, as do the fatalities from their use. Although the term “synthetic drug” can refer to any drug that is manmade, the term is generally used to refer to drugs that are synthesized and released to the public in an attempt to skirt the legal restrictions on older, more established (and hence already regulated) addictive substances. This makes them particularly dangerous as users can never be quite sure what the effects will be, and they often have side effects that are much worse than the more well-known drugs whose effects they seek to mimic.

Attack of the Clones

Many of these synthetic drugs are designed as “clones” of existing illegal drugs that have a slightly altered chemical structure. Synthetic drugs (sometimes also referred to as “designer drugs”) are created in a manner which allows the developer to evade the legal restrictions that prohibit the use of certain compounds. For example, most synthetic drugs are produced to mimic the effects of substances that are controlled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The desired effects of these drugs can be stimulant, opioid, or hallucinogenic in nature – making all types of drug users potentially vulnerable to synthetic drug addiction.

“Entrepreneurs are combing through the scientific and patent literature and picking the substances that aren’t controlled by existing laws. They’re having them manufactured in countries such as China or India, and then ship them to the EU or the USA, where they’re processed and packaged into a legal high”

Michael Evans-Brown, Scientific analyst – European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Source: The Lancet

How Synthetic Drugs Skirt Drug Laws

By slightly altering the chemical make-up of a controlled substance, it is no longer considered to be an illegal substance by the DEA, as the DEA must identify the exact molecular structure of a compound to place it on the controlled substances list. It may take the DEA, and the medical and scientific communities quite some time to realize that a new substance, which is addictive and dangerous has been produced and additional time to identify and classify the substance. Because of their ready availability and low cost, synthetic drugs are most commonly used by younger persons such as teenagers or young adults, making them even more troubling to society at large.

infographic timeline showing how government tried to deal with synthetic drug addiction

Profits Fuel Synthetic Drug Addiction

The development, production, and distribution of synthetic drugs is highly lucrative. Because of this, there will be no decrease in attempts to develop and market new substances for illicit use. And, since these drugs often have a “grace period” of sorts before they are classified as illegal, these profits can be made without the “business expense” of evading law enforcement or competing with existing channels of illegal drug production and distribution. In fact, many of these substances are sold openly on the Internet or in stores (as “incense,” “cleaning products,” or other products) for years on a low-cost/high volume basis.

The Unknown Dangers of Synthetic Drug Addiction

Synthetic drugs can be addictive and can create severe, unwanted side-effects. Because these substances haven’t been tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the scientific community, the harmful effects of these substances are largely unknown. Many of these drugs are so new (as they get constantly “tweaked” in chemical formulation) that even the drug-using community “on the street” has not had time to assess their relatively potency and danger. And, if even the addicts on the corner can’t vouch for something’s safety, everyone needs to be extremely concerned about the proliferation of these dangerous substances.

The Alphabet Soup of Synthetic Drugs

illustration using alphabet soup spelling out different cathinone drugs
illustration using alphabet soup spelling out different cannabinoid drugs
illustration using alphabet soup spelling out different opiate drugs

Common Synthetic Drugs

Common synthetic drugs include bath salts, flakka, and synthetic marijuana, such as K2, Spice, and others. Since these compounds were not illegal when first developed, they were legally and widely sold on the Internet, by convenience stores and on the streets. Cleverly labelled as, “not for human consumption,” the developers and marketers avoided liability for any untoward side-effects. However, each of these drugs has their own unique dangerous mix of side effects and addictive qualities. Unfortunately, due to the rate at which new versions are created, it is difficult to break down the specific dangers of each synthetic drug. Three of the most common drugs contributing to synthetic drug addiction are detailed below.

photo of a type of synthetic drug called bath salts

Bath Salts

Bath salts induce pleasurable effects similar to those caused by stimulants, such as amphetamine and cocaine. However, they also produce grave side-effects that can cause far-reaching morbidity and mortality, as well as cause addicts to commit heinous crimes. These side-effects include increased heart rate and blood pressure, hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, violent behavior and suicidal thoughts and actions. Bath salts can also cause kidney and liver failure.

photo of a type of synthetic drug called flakka


Flakka (gravel) is a highly addictive synthetic cathinone (a-PVP) that produces a euphoria like that of amphetamines. However, the effects of flakka are much greater than those of cocaine or amphetamines. When taken in high quantities, flakka can lead to hallucinations, superhuman strength, suicidal and homicidal behavior and liver and kidney failure. Flakka was first introduced to the U.S. by way of Florida, whose residents import it from China.

photo of synthetic marijuana

Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana creates a high similar to that of naturally grown marijuana, mimicking the chemical structure of THC, the active component in natural marijuana. Side effects include confusion, headache, seizures, agitation, and irritability. Users of synthetic marijuana do not know which exact compound or compounds are in the substance they are using, so the effects may be different each time they use it. Some types of synthetic marijuana can even cause paranoia, and create serious damage to the heart and blood vessels, as well as the brain.

Synthetic Drug Addiction Treatment

Many of the synthetic drugs that create addiction do not require a formal inpatient or residential drug detox, but patients are still placed on the detox unit to treat the severe side-effects of these drugs, such as medical problems, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and bizarre behavior. Abruptly ending use of these drugs for individuals with a synthetic drug addiction can be very dangerous to the addict and those around them if it is not attempted in a professionally supervised environment. After this medical and psychiatric stabilization period is over, the treatment of those addicted to synthetic drugs continues in an inpatient or residential drug and alcohol rehab.

This synthetic drug addiction treatment will have a variety of components, each supported by professionals trained in that area of expertise. These staff members include addiction treatment specialists, psychiatric professionals, nutritionists, personal trainers, social workers, and many others. All of these individuals will work together to help the recovering synthetic drug addict pursue an individualized treatment plan designed specifically for them. This personalized approach is critical for helping the recovering addict to identify their own personal challenges, struggles, and triggers for their drug use. The insights gained during this process will help them to avoid relapse post-treatment and rebuild the personal and family relationships that their synthetic drug addiction may have damaged or destroyed.

Stop Gambling With Your Life

Synthetic drug addiction is like playing Russian roulette with your life, as each use of the dangerous and unpredictable drugs can cause incredibly negative consequences for the addict or their loved ones. If you or a loved one is struggling with synthetic drug addiction, call BWR at 800-683-4457 to get the professional help you need, 24/7.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.

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