Synthetics: The Scary New Drugs Kids Are Abusing

These new drugs are easy to get, look harmless, and teenagers are dying from them.

By Sara Schwartz

In 2010, Elijah Taylor, a 21-year-old student at the University of Kansas, ran onto Interstate 135 in Salina, Kansas, making a beeline for an oncoming car. He died from his injuries—a toxicology screening revealed “Blue Magic” and “potpourri” in his bloodstream.

In December 2014, 15-year-old Danny Silva of Carrollton, Missouri, died of cardiac arrest after smoking "K2" at a neighbor’s house. He was a 9th grader and a promising member of both the football and wrestling teams.

In February 2015, 16-year-old honors student Grant Hobson of Montgomery County, Maryland, spent the night at a friend’s house, where he ingested a tab of "N-Bomb." His body shut down and he was declared brain-dead at a local hospital.

Synthetic drugs are to blame for all of their deaths. And they're coming in many different forms, from synthetic marijuana you can smoke to bath salt crystals you can snort. Health officials are worried.

While the 2014 Monitoring the Future survey reveals that today's teens most commonly abuse alcohol and traditional marijuana, synthetic drugs are creating a scary stir. Poison Control Centers and emergency rooms across the country are experiencing a spike in calls and hospitalizations related to synthetic marijuana (known colloquially as “spice”), bath salts, and other synthetic “designer” drugs. From January 1 to May 17, 2015, the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) reports 3,291 "exposure calls” from people looking for help after ingesting these drugs.

Though nationwide fatality statistics aren’t available, a recent New York Times article says one hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, saw 110 patients in February 2015 alone for spice-related emergencies. April 2015 brought 1,011 spice-related ER visits to Mississippi hospitals. In Lebanon, Missouri, authorities reported two deaths by overdose and multiple injuries related to synthetic drugs in just 11 days this Spring.

The New Drugs in Town

Two types of synthetic drugs are posing a particular danger to kids right now:

synthetic marijuana k2Synthetic marijuana, a.k.a. “K2, “Spice,” or “Genie,” which is made by spraying harmless dried plants with chemical compounds that mimic the effect of cannabis. “It got called synthetic marijuana because initially it was created as an alternative to marijuana for use in research, since marijuana is illegal,” says Eleanor E. Artigiani, M.A., Deputy Director for Policy at the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research. “But because of the way it’s taken off and gotten tweaked, we think it’s really a misnomer to call it synthetic marijuana at this point.”

  • Intended effects: elevated mood, relaxation, altered perception (mimics a marijuana high)
  • Scary side effects: agitation, nausea and vomiting, high blood pressure, shaking and seizures, hallucinations and paranoia, violent behavior, according to Drugabuse.gov.

bath salts vanilla skySynthetic cathinones, or “bath salts,” which are derived from a psychoactive stimulant in the khat plant and are typically sold in powder, pill, or crystal form, meant to be snorted, ingested, or injected. Synthetic cathinones go by dozens of different names depending on the region or source. It’s know as “Flakka” in Florida and “Fubinaka” in Mississippi, while on the Internet, you can purchase bath salts under the monikers “Bali,” “Ivory Wave," "Bloom," "Cloud Nine," "Lunar Wave," "Vanilla Sky," "White Lightning," and “Scarface.”

  • Intended effects: euphoria and increased sociability and sex drive
  • Scary side effects: paranoia, agitation, hallucinatory delirium, and sometimes psychotic or violent behavior, and even death, according to Drugabuse.gov.

Images courtesy of DEA.gov

Where Kids Are Getting Them

Here’s a scary fact: Any substance labeled “Not for human consumption” can be shipped legally into the United States and sold to consumers, says William Banner, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in pediatric intensive care and toxicology in Oklahoma City, and is the President-Elect of the AAPCC. And that includes the synthetic marijuana and synthetic stimulants that have been flooding the country since 2009. "In the new millennia, the number of new compounds and new ways to hurt yourself have just exploded," says Dr. Banner. "We continue to see a lot of prescription abuse and narcotic abuse, but these new drugs have scared us to death.”

Kids don’t have to go to street corners or seedy establishments to procure synthetic drugs. They’re being sold out in the open at convenience stores and gas stations and are readily available on the Internet. “The growth of [synthetic drugs] is because of a misconception that it’s legal,” says Dr. Banner. “When they first came in, they were sold in convenience stores and gas stations as a ‘pick me up.’ Everyone was caught off guard. No could ID them. They were flooding into the country and weren’t illegal—we were way behind.”

The marketing tactics these drug producers employ is also to blame for their escalating popularity, says Artigiani. "It's packaged in a bag [decorated] with cartoon characters or in flavors and colors to attract kids," she says. "They're being created to appeal to young adults — particularly in the party scene and the club scene, where people are looking to be more social and more connected with the people they’re around," she explains. 

Why the Risk is So High

Synthetic drugs are being manufactured in Eastern Europe, China, the former Soviet Union, plus they being produced in the U.S. by people who buy the compounds on the Internet, says Dr. Banner. "The quality is very poor," he says. "You never know what chemicals are being mixed in." The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says 105 different versions of synthetic marijuana were reported in January 2014 and more than 50 derivatives of synthetic cathinones in 2013.

“We've identified a huge rise in the number of patients in the emergency room who said they were using Spice or K2," says Dr. Banner. "The problem is kids don’t know what they’re getting and they have no idea what the ‘correct’ dose is. We’re seeing a lot more kids having a bad trip — getting violent or extremely frightened with elevated heart rate, they may have seizures. There have even been a number of deaths. Its clear there’s been a spike in ICU level care in the last 10 years.”

Artigiani agrees that kids' ignorance and naiveté are propagating a false impression of these dangerous substances. “In 2011 and 2012, synthetic cannabinoids were the most widely used drug after marijuana,” says Artigiani. “One in four teens see these drugs as a risk. Lots of educating needs to be done. Kids can buy the same brand from the same person — it doesn’t matter. These drugs are always changing. You’re really playing Russian roulette with your life.”

Since 2011, every U.S. state has banned synthetic drugs, according to the National Council of State Legislators. But the problem is that their formulas and origin cities are constantly shifting, creating what Dr. Banner calls “a whack-a-mole problem." "To figure these things out you have to have very sophisticated equipment," he says. "The DEA has to know what they’re looking for. They have libraries of chemicals, and the new ones aren’t in there yet. Every week, they find new things. The list of chemical names is huge — some more toxic than others."

Drug Education Resources So You Can Help

If you're worried that your child or grandchild is using drugs, visit the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence website, NCADD.org, to find an overview on this difficult topic, plus prevention tips, what to look for, and more resources.

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