Synthetic Drugs Overview

Synthetic drug abuse has increased dramatically over the last decade. Common synthetic drugs include synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants that are engineered in laboratories, such as bath salts.

What are Synthetic Drugs?

Whereas many traditional controlled substances are derived from natural sources such as plants, synthetic drugs are created in laboratories, which can make them cheaper and easier to make. They may be more dangerous to consume due to the unpredictable effects of their components. Synthetic drugs are also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), research chemicals, or legal highs.

Synthetic Drugs Vs. Designer Drugs

By definition, synthetic drugs are those manufactured using various chemical processes in a lab. These may include substances that have legitimate research or medical purposes. However, when produced illicitly, their purpose is typically justified for legal use despite being intended for illicit use. For instance, they may hide behind labels such as “For research use only” or “Not for human consumption.” In this way, they avoid restrictions on controlled substances.

Designer drugs are synthetic drugs that are specifically engineered to produce a high similar to other known substances while avoiding being labeled as a controlled substance. For instance, they may emulate or enhance the effects of drugs such as cocaine, but fly under the legal radar because they do not actually contain components of cocaine. Through continual chemical modification, these drugs can circumvent legal government restrictions.

Types of Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic Cathinones

Synthetic cathinones emulate the effects of illicit drugs that are derived from the khat plant, two components of which are considered controlled substances by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Examples of synthetic cathinones are known as bath salts, plant food, or jewelry cleaner. They act much like cocaine, amphetamines, and other stimulants do in the body, which can create side effects like paranoia, panic attacks, delirium, and hallucinations.

One such synthetic cathinone, bath salts, has gained notoriety in recent years for its effects on mood which can induce aggressive and even violent behavior in users.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids mimic the effects of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The physical and psychological effects of the synthetic cannabinoids may be more potent and long-lasting than THC due to the way they work in the brain. This makes them more dangerous and unpredictable than marijuana. A well-known synthetic cannabinoid is K2 or Spice.

Their detrimental effects may include nausea and vomiting, tremors or seizures, severe agitation, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. In some cases, they may lead to delusions or hallucinations.

Synthetic Stimulants

Synthetic stimulants include chemical components that speed up the activity of the human nervous system. Methamphetamine, MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), and bath salts are commonly used types of synthetic stimulants. The illicit production and abuse of these substances has become a serious problem in the US. Small private labs have increased the availability of such substances, and growing trends such as club use of ecstasy (MDMA) have sustained its popularity.

These substances may be ingested, smoked, or injected. They may have several adverse effects including increased heart rate and blood pressure, paranoia and delusions, anxiety, dehydration, and aggressiveness or violent behavior. These effects may be compounded if the drugs are produced with unexpected add-ons like other stimulants or hallucinogens.

​​Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, U-47700 and W-18, include modified prescription painkillers and other medications used to treat heroin addiction. Synthetic opioid drug use has resulted in an increased number of overdose deaths, with over 36,000 reported by the CDC in 2019. These drugs have an analgesic effect on the brain, producing feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and sedation. At high doses, they may dramatically depress the nervous system and lead to coma or death.

Biggest Challenge In Controlling Synthetic Substances

Unlike other illicit substances, synthetic drugs may technically skirt legal control by branding themselves improperly or avoiding the use of ingredients that are considered controlled substances. This makes them difficult to keep off the streets.

One common way manufacturers avoid regulations of controlled substances is by chemically altering the formula used in their product. This is a process that can be done continuously to evade legal restrictions when the DEA becomes aware of a dangerous and addictive substance. Once the chemical formula is altered, it is no longer considered illegal, even if its effects on the brain are the same as illicit substances.

Synthetic substances may also be purposefully mislabeled or marketed as other products that are not for human consumption. In other words, they may be sold under the guise that they’re a household product like incense or a research chemical. Because their “intended use” is not human consumption, authorities may find themselves unable to ban their sale. This can also be accomplished by using chemicals that are legal to use but that can be altered in a way that produces the psychoactive effects of illicit drugs.

Synthetic Drug Risks

Synthetic drugs may be deceptively risky because they may be more powerful and dangerous than the drugs they’re designed to mimic. For instance, users may believe that synthetic cannabinoids are relatively harmless because they’re accustomed to the effects of marijuana. However, since the production of synthetic drugs cannot easily be controlled, synthetic cannabinoids may contain unexpected and harmful components.

The fact that they may be cheaper to produce may also contribute to increased abuse and overdose. Ongoing chemical changes may also lead to emerging risks and side effects. Since these are often created by people without a clinical background, their chemical makeup may largely be unknown with no benchmark available for their potency.

Synthetic Drugs FAQs

Are synthetic drugs the same as their natural counterparts?

Although synthetic drugs mimic the effects of natural compounds like THC, they are not the same. In fact, synthetics may cause more intense reactions even with less of the drug used.

Are synthetic drugs legal?

The DEA has put in place emergency scheduling for several well-known synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, but many substances are still not illegal federally. State laws have independently banned the use of some synthetic drugs.

Will synthetic drugs show up on a drug test?

It’s costly and complex to screen for synthetic drugs because of how frequently their compounds change. This makes synthetic drugs harder to detect. However, some entities requiring drug tests including employers, schools, and hospitals have added synthetic drugs to their screening panels.


NIDA. 2020, July 6. Synthetic Cathinones ("Bath Salts") DrugFacts.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Designer Drugs

Marusich, Julie A et al. “Pharmacology of novel synthetic stimulants structurally related to the "bath salts" constituent 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV).” Neuropharmacology vol. 87 (2014): 206-13. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2014.02.016

Synthetic Drugs Addiction Recovery at Riverwalk Ranch

It can be difficult to determine what substances a person has been regularly taking when they abuse synthetic drugs. This makes treatment more difficult, requiring an individualized approach. Clinical supervised detox can create a safe space for patients to eliminate the drugs while carefully treating the unexpected withdrawal effects that may ensue. Detox combined with mental health treatment can provide a multifaceted system of support meant to help the individual avoid relapse and learn to live without synthetic drugs.

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