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Synthetic Drugs Pose an Unprecedented Overdose Threat

An increasing number of people are checking into hospitals and poison control centres as a result of consuming synthetic drugs, which can cause such terrifying symptoms as psychotic behaviour, extreme hallucinations, heart attack and sudden death.  What are synthetics and why are they so dangerous?



Synthetic drug use is on the rise, and with devastating effects.  This year’s World Drug Report states that people are at increased health risk from taking synthetic drugs, leading many to hospitalisation and death.  According to the report, “Synthetic cannabinoids more likely to lead to emergency medical treatment than any other drug,” and “1 in 8 of those using weekly or more often reported seeking emergency medical treatment (3.5% of all users).”

Bath salts were estimated to have resulted in over 22,000 hospital visits in 2015, and the same year saw a 229 percent increase in calls to poison control centres.

Just this June, 25-year-old Australian Rye Hunt drowned to death while swimming two kilometres off the coast of Copacabana in a psychotic episode after taking the synthetic drug NBOMe, which he believed to be MDMA.

Just what are these mysterious chemical substances, and why are they causing sweeping public health concern?

What are Synthetic Drugs, and Why are They so Dangerous?

The term ‘synthetic drugs’ mainly refers to amphetamine-type substances (ATS), ecstasy-type substances, and new psychoactive substances (NPS).  The most popular of these are:

Synthetic cannabinoids

Drugs like K2 and Spice are plant matter sprayed with chemical substances designed to mimic the effects of THC.  Synthetic cannabinoids can produce agitation, high blood pressure and seizures, and reduce blood supply to the heart, which can lead to heart attack.  More than 90 people were hospitalised after using K2 in Austin, Texas earlier this month.

‘Bath salts’

Otherwise known as cathinones, these chemical substances are designed to mimic the effects of cocaine or meth.  (These were the drugs complicit in the infamous Miami Cannibal Attack.)

Many synthetic drugs can be even more powerful than the drugs whose highs they are purportedly designed to reproduce.  There are large numbers of NPS available on the market globally, and their chemical composition can vary widely from batch to batch, meaning users never know the actual content or potency of what they are consuming.  The dangers are so great, experts are now saying it is “safer taking ‘traditional’ illicit drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy than they are using synthetic cannabis and other newer, novel psychoactive substances.”

Commonly reported negative symptoms of synthetics include increased heart rate, hallucinations, vomiting, agitation – even strokes and heart attacks.

Are Synthetic Cannabinoids and Bath Salts Addictive?

In short, yes.

While the rising wave of synthetic drugs on the global market is a relatively recent phenomenon that warrants further medical investigation, there is indeed evidence that they are addictive.  People who use them regularly report withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability and headaches when they try to quit.

When it comes to highs, addiction, and accessibility, synthetic drugs are on a whole new level.  They affect more chemical systems in the brain than just the dopamine system, as experienced with ‘traditional’ illicit drugs.  According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Bath salts have the potential to combine the addictive properties of stimulants like cocaine with the mood and perception altering properties of hallucinogens like LSD in one, readily accessible drug.”


Legal Highs

Synthetic drugs only started to appear within the last decade, but their popularity has since soared to unprecedented levels, chiefly due to the fact that they are often technically legal when they first appear.

One of the biggest problems with synthetics is how difficult they are to outlaw, meaning their popularity could potentially continue to surge. Their chemical formulas can be altered at an alarming rate and consequently, law enforcement agencies are forced to go through a long and arduous process to make them illegal.

The Future of Synthetic Drugs

Because the popularity of synthetics is still growing rapidly, government agencies are working hard not only to outlaw these substances as quickly as possible, but also to raise awareness about the potential risks.

The manufacture, sale and consumption of synthetic drugs is projected to continue to rise.  According to the UN World Drug Report, “The market for synthetic drugs is expanding and is becoming increasingly interconnected. Moreover, the synthetic drugs market has become increasingly diversified with a growing number of NPS available worldwide.”

It is crucial to spread awareness and treat addiction for these potentially instantaneously lethal substances.  If you or someone you know is struggling with synthetic drug abuse, seek professional addiction treatment as soon as possible.



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