In 15 seconds, name as many drugs as you can. What did you come up with? Does the list include heroin, marijuana, and meth? Maybe you also thought of cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, alcohol, or the wide variety of prescription drugs. But what about Spice, Molly, Bath Salts, Krokodil, and K2? A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that the manufacture and use of synthetic drugs is skyrocketing – in 2008, about 80 synthetic psychoactive substances had been reported; by 2013 that number had grown to 348. And it’s kids who are widely using these drugs. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2012, 11.3 percent of high school seniors reported using synthetic marijuana (mostly Spice) within the past year.
Often regulations lag behind reality. The UNODC report shows that since 1961, the number of controlled narcotic drugs has stayed nearly even (think heroin). And since 1990, the same is true of psychotropic substances (think LSD). But largely starting in 2009, hundreds of new psychoactive substances have flooded world markets, and many of these substances are yet to be controlled, especially at the international level. This means that even if new synthetic drugs are made illegal in the United States, they may remain uncontrolled in their countries of origin, leading to easy manufacture and distribution via the internet.
For example, synthetic marijuana under names like Spice, K2, Skunk, Moon Rocks and others, has been widely available in head shops and has even been sold alongside vitamins and energy mixtures at convenience stores and gas stations. Often the drug is marketed as a legal, herbal alternative to marijuana and, on first look, appears to be a tea-like mixture of dried plants.
It’s anything but. These herbs are never the cause of the substance’s psychoactive properties, which are instead caused by a range of synthetic chemicals added to the plant mixture. The chemicals in Spice and other synthetic marijuana drugs vary, but most mimic the effects of cannabis in the brain, attaching to the same “receptors” that cause the drug’s feeling of hallucination or euphoria.
Because the chemicals in these mixtures are new and unknown, synthetic drugs like Spice can also have wildly unpredictable effects. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) reports that in 2010, there were an estimated 11,406 emergency room visits due to the use of synthetic cannabinoids. Thirty-three percent of these patients were between the ages of 12-17 (compared with only 12 percent of ER visits related to traditional marijuana in the 12-17 age group). In marijuana-related ER visits, the drug was combined with another drug 69 percent of the time; in synthetic marijuana-related ER visits, it was the synthetic alone that most often sent the patient to the ER, and was combined with other drugs only 31 percent of the time.
Synthetic marijuana is only the tip of a very large iceberg. Hundreds of new, designer, synthetic, club drugs fall into categories like aminoindanes, phencyclidine-type substances, phenethylamines, piperazines, synthetic cathinones, and tryptamines.
Take Molly, which is a purified form of ecstasy also known by the chemical name MDMA (or 3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine). Popularized by Miley Cyrus and the rapper, Tyga (among other celebrities), 7.1 percent of high school seniors have tried the drug. Or consider Bath Salts, commonly a mixture of the stimulants mephedrone and methylone, which in some ways mimic the effects of MDMA. A report by SAMHSA links Bath Salts to 22,904 emergency room visits in 2011.
“Bath salts drugs can cause heart problems, high blood pressure, seizures, addiction, suicidal thoughts, psychosis and, in some cases, death – especially when combined with the use of other drugs,” says Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, SAMHSA’s chief medical officer, in the report.
The overreaching danger of these drugs comes from the collision of three important factors: 1) these drugs are unpredictable; 2) these drugs are dangerous and addictive; 3) these drugs are marketed to young users in a way that makes them seem safe. These factors make young people underestimate the risk, too often with dramatic medical consequences.
Policy and law enforcement are struggling to catch up with what doctors and scientists already know: synthetic drugs are as dangerous (or more so) as traditional drugs like heroin and cocaine. Giving a drug a cute name like Spice or Molly makes it no less damaging to the brains and bodies of the growing population of young people experimenting with or addicted to these drugs.
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.