Synthetic designer drugs are substances of abuse that are frequently not under international control but constitute a significant public health threat in the United States. With names like Spice, K2, No More Mr. Nice Guy and hundreds of others, the designer drugs, often called synthetic marijuana, are in reality very different from marijuana. They contain potent chemicals called cannabimimetics and can cause unpredictable, dangerous medical and psychiatric consequences.

What Exactly are Designer Drugs?

To understand synthetic marijuana and other human-made drugs, one has to know what a designer drug is—a synthetic version of an illegal drug. Its chemical composition is slightly altered to avoid classification as unlawful. It is mostly an experiment by an underground chemist to create a new “legal” drug. When law enforcement identifies the synthetic drug and outlaws it, underground chemists create yet another altered version that now escapes “illegal” classification. And so the cycle repeats. Since 2009, U.S. law enforcement officials have encountered more than 240 new synthetic compounds, including 99 synthetic cannabinoids, 52 synthetic cathinones, and 89 other compounds. In 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, banning 26 types of synthetic drugs nationwide. The list included cannabinoids, or marijuana-like downers, including Spice, which is chemically similar to marijuana’s active ingredient THC, and cathinone, methamphetamine-like uppers often called bath salts.

Why are Synthetic Designer Drugs Dangerous?

These drugs are explicitly made to be abused. Like many other illegal drugs, synthetic marijuana is not tested for safety, and users cannot know what chemicals they are putting into their bodies. Two major seizures of synthetic marijuana found that the drugs had been treated with insecticides and rat poison. Public safety officials suspect the poisons are being added to make the spice more potent and to give it hallucinogenic effects, but they are also sending users of the drug to the hospital. The National Institute of Drug Abuse has noted that when individuals take synthetic substances, the drugs capture the critical part of the brain governing essential functions such as temperature control, food intake, perception, memory and problem-solving.   These synthetic drugs can be hazardous and addictive. Health effects of the drugs can be life-threatening and can include:
  • Severe agitation and anxiety.
  • Fast, racing heartbeat and higher blood pressure.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Muscle spasms, seizures, and tremors.
  • Intense hallucinations and psychotic episodes.
  • Suicidal and other harmful thoughts and actions.