Legal highs – a look at the growing use of synthetic drugs

In recent years, hundreds of new synthetic recreational drugs have emerged – drugs that neither the general public nor the scientific community are very familiar with. Many of these new synthetic drugs — often called “legal highs” — are dangerous and continue to cause poisoning in the United States and around the world.

These drugs provide similar effects to other more popular drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine. Many are still legal and others have only recently become illegal.

So why would people use these potentially harmful new drugs?

Drug addicts in the United States have much to fear. Users of various drugs must be concerned that the products they use may be adulterated. Many have to worry about unintentional poisonings and (depending on the drug) addiction.

But one of the biggest fears has nothing to do with safety or addiction. With illegal drugs, you risk being arrested. A drug-related arrest can prevent a person from getting a good job or getting school loans or housing. The stigma associated with being a drug user can also be a major life disruption. Many people want to use or sell drugs, but fear the repercussions. And that makes using or selling “legal highs” as a more appealing option.

But “legal,” in this case, does not mean safe or regulated. Legal synthetic drugs are usually so new that laws banning their use simply don’t exist (yet). While they may be “legal,” these drugs haven’t been tested for safety, and it’s hard to know what you’re getting, or even where it came from.

Spice, K2 and Scooby Doo – synthetic marijuana

Synthetic cannabinoids (hereafter simply referred to as “synthetic marijuana”) are the most common of these new drugs in the United States. Cannabinoids are natural compounds in marijuana that act on specific receptors in the brain. THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, is the cannabinoid largely responsible for users’ highs. Synthetic cannabinoids mimic the effects of natural marijuana cannabinoids, but have been reported to be much more potent and much more unpleasant than real marijuana.

Synthetic marijuana.
Schorle, CC BY-SA

Synthetic marijuana users rarely know what to expect, as the products consist of untested research chemicals sprayed over an herbal blend. It can be difficult to know exactly where these drugs come from – but at least some come from unregulated labs overseas. There are many compounds, blends and brands available and they are not very hard to find. They are widely available on the internet and also sold in some major stores in the United States. The products come in eye-catching packaging under popular names like Spice, K2 and Scooby Doo, and can be especially appealing to young people. Although some compounds are now illegal, they remain available and new synthetic (legal) compounds are rapidly emerging to take their place.

Synthetic marijuana use has been linked to tens of thousands of poisonings in the United States. Alarmingly, my study results released earlier this week suggest that between 2011 and 2013, one in ten American high school students reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year. In fact, a few years ago, synthetic marijuana was the second most used drug by teenagers (after real marijuana). However, usage has started to decline since 2014.

Synthetic marijuana isn’t the only new drug on the market

New synthetic drugs are beginning to appear everywhere. You may have heard of “bath salts,” which are compounds or mixtures of synthetic drugs like the stimulants mephedrone and methylone. New medicines such as bath salts are often sold on the Internet and users are told that they are “not for human consumption”. Despite extensive media coverage, the (intentional) use is not widespread.

Currently, only about 1 in 100 high school students report using it in the past two years. However, unlike synthetic marijuana, which is usually used intentionally, bath salts are often used unintentionally. In recent years, bath salts have appeared frequently in the drug Molly, which is said to be pure MDMA (ecstasy).

As I have explained in The Conversation and The Independent, many Molly users in the United States are unaware of the purity of the product they are using. Many batches of Molly contain little or no MDMA and users should be concerned that their Molly contains more dangerous synthetic chemicals such as methylone. Despite the decline in prevalence of use, poisonings and deaths related to ‘ecstasy’ have increased in recent years, and it seems that this is partly due to the fact that Molly has been so adulterated with new synthetic drugs. .

Difficult to test synthetic drugs

It is difficult for users to test their drugs to ensure their purity. Special tests are needed to determine which drug is which, and the tests tend to be very expensive. In fact, testing is so expensive and time-consuming that some autopsies of deaths related to new drug use are late or do not include testing for all new synthetic drugs. To make things more dangerous for users, pill and powder testing at rave parties and festivals is discouraged as promoters fear it will be seen as condoning drug use or admitting that use occurs during the party. Thus, those who are likely to try these new drugs are often caught in the game of their lives as it is difficult to test their products.

These new drugs are created in response to our drug policy and new drugs will continue to emerge. It seems that each time we are able to reduce a drug, a newer and more dangerous synthetic drug appears to take its place.

Alvin J. Chase