Heroin, marijuana and cocaine; these are some of the most infamous drugs. Drugs like heroin, morphine and methadone are called opioids and many of them are illegal to use. Some drugs are prescribed by doctors for patients in severe pain, like terminal-stage cancer patients.
A new group of drugs have come to slowly become more and more dangerous. They pretend to be safe and harmless but are filled with terrifying possibilities. This new division of drugs are called synthetic drugs.
Synthetic drugs often mimic opioids with the alleged promise of a “safe high,” but evidence show that these synthetic drugs are just as dangerous, or possibly more so.
Officer Tom Patton is a Public Information Officer and has worked as a police officer for 22 year. He also taught D.A.R.E., or “Drug Abuse Resistance Education”, for 10 years in the Kingsport City School system.
Synthetic drugs are different from drugs like heroin and morphine.
“Most drugs originate from plants,” Patton said. “Synthetic drugs are illegal drugs that are man-made from chemicals in a laboratory-type environment.”
Synthetic drugs are commonly divided into two groups, cannabinoids and stimulants.
Aaron Metcalf is an osteopathic physician, board-certified in family medicine, and is part of Mountain Region Family Medicine.
“Synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice and K2, mimic the effect of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana,” he said. “Synthetic stimulants include bath salts; these drugs mimic the effects cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine.”
Some synthetic drugs are both stimulants and hallucinogens.
Joshua Adedokun is a 7th grade student. He does not know much about synthetic drugs.
“I have not heard about synthetic drugs like bath salts and spice in particular, but I think they are just common items that are used to feel good,” he said. “I don’t think they are actual drugs nicknamed things such as ‘bath salts’ or ‘spice’.”
Bath Salts and spice are not well-known to many in the community, but they are synthetic drugs and have no medical purpose.
Adedokun isn’t surprised people take these drugs without knowing what they are, since most people eat things with chemicals that they may have never heard of.
Even though many people don’t seem to know what synthetic drugs are or what differentiates them from regular drugs, they are able to understand they are bad.
“I don’t know what they are but they sound bad,” Camyron McDowell, a 7th grade student, said.
He believes the most important danger of synthetic drugs is that the lack of awareness may make youngsters consider them as “innocent fun”.
Even though synthetic drugs seem to be a source of confusion, for many it is easy enough to come to an accurate guess of what they are.
“Synthetic drugs are like drugs but they are not supposed to be drugs,” Mason Tribble, a 7th grade student, said. “They are being unhealthy.”
“You can never be certain about the ingredients of a pill or capsule unless you get them from a pharmacy in the United States,” he said.
One main reason why it is so hard to track them down and control synthetic drugs is because manufacturers keep changing the formula. This makes it hard for the police to do their job. Often, the ingredients are common illegal drugs mixed in with other random chemicals; it is next to impossible to stop their production or find a safe way to save overdose victims quickly and efficiently.
Ever changing combinations and proportions of synthetic drugs can often cause unsafe or even deadly effects through drug interactions.
“Synthetic drugs reared their ugly head in Kingsport in mid-2011,” Patton said. “They were literally being sold right over the counter legally in convenience stores and head shops.”
Since they were not classified as illegal substances, it posed a challenge for law enforcement to stop their spread.
Synthetic drugs, like any other drug, have side effects which can vary from person to person.
“For synthetic cannabinoids, the effects include agitation, anxiety, upset stomach, vomiting, fast heartbeat, seizures, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts,” Metcalf said. “For synthetic stimulants, the effects include fast rate, chest pain, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, and violent behavior.”
MDMA side effects include elevated temperature, dehydration, learning impairment, nausea, chills, sweating, involuntary jaw clenching and teeth grinding, muscle cramps, blurred vision, abnormal heart rhythm, problems sleeping, and depression, according to Metcalf
“MDMA increases the activity of three chemical messengers in the brain: dopamine, which affects energy and activity level, norepinephrine, which affects heart rate and blood pressure, and serotonin, which affects mood, appetite, and sleep,” Metcalf said.
Both police force experts and physicians experienced with patients who have a drug problems agree on one thing.
“Synthetic drugs are typically at least as dangerous, but often more dangerous, than any other types of drugs,” Patton said. “The primary reasons they are so dangerous are that we have no idea exactly what each batch is made from, we have no way to determine potency from batch to batch, and because they are still relatively new in the big scheme of things, we have no idea of the long term effects of use.”
The varying material amounts and added ingredients make the reaction uncertain and leave doctors confused on what they are dealing with.
“One of the many problems with synthetic drugs is that the user cannot be certain of the ingredients or the amounts of those ingredients,” Metcalf said. “Since these drugs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no standard amount of the ingredients. This can lead to the user experiencing different effects from one pill to another and this uncertainty also results in increased fatality as a user may get a different amount of a drug than they are used to receiving.”
Synthetic drugs have taken a backseat to opioids in the media for quite some time, yet there is evidence that synthetic drugs might be worse than opioids.
”There are several reasons why synthetic drugs are more dangerous,” Metcalf said. “First, they are more dangerous because these drugs are not regulated; a user could buy Ecstasy one week, then buy Ecstasy a week later, and end up with two very different drugs due to different amounts of ingredients in the two pills. Makers of Ecstasy often mix other drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and bath salts, resulting in dangerous combinations.”
Synthetic drugs’ popularity in Kingsport has gone down for some time as a recreational drug due to the efforts of anti-drug associations and the police force.
“As a gateway or experimental drug, I don’t think that synthetic drugs in particular still have the appeal that they initially had, primarily because the community has done such an effective job educating people about their dangers,” Patton said. “The community came together. Police, Fire, EMS, district attorneys, legislators, doctors, hospitals, schools and community leaders all worked together to attack the epidemic head-on.”
Teenagers are at particular risk. It is commonly believedd that teenagers can act rebellious and often drugs are a way of acting out. Misleading drug dealers can cause especially susceptible teens to take drugs, which in turn can cause many problems.
“Teenagers have limited life experience and are inherently short-sighted,” Patton said. “They typically have trouble seeing the big picture and the effect that today’s choices can have on tomorrow’s future. Teenagers also like to experiment with new things and can often be rebellious. Teenagers also tend to think that they are invincible and that bad things only happen to other people.”
Adult role models can also have a negative effect on teenagers.
“There is an entire generation of drug abusing parents who are modeling drug use for their children,” Patton said.
One of the main steps in avoiding any drug is to be able to identify what it looks like. For synthetic drugs, that is a very complicated matter.
“Typically, synthetic drugs are powdery or granular in nature and can be just about any color,” Patton said. “Because they are made in a lab, there is a great deal of variety in what they look like and how they are packaged. A great deal of synthetic drugs come from overseas.”
Due to the fact that synthetic drugs are hard to identify, it is easy for drug dealers to avoid detection and to trick people into buying a product without knowing how dangerous it can be.
Another major problem with synthetic drugs like bath salts is their effect on the developing fetus. If a pregnant woman take them, it can affect the baby.
“Synthetic drugs can certainly affect an unborn child,” Metcalf said. “Use by the mother can lead to the baby going into withdrawal soon after delivery from not having the drug. A synthetic drug can adversely affect the baby’s appetite, heart rate, blood pressure, temperament, sleep, etc.”
Some of the many agents added to the drugs could cause developmental defects, too. Not only do synthetic drugs destroy their recipient’s life, they can also destroy the lives of their children.
“Undoubtedly, the use of synthetic drugs during pregnancy increases the risk of numerous health concerns, including learning disabilities and abnormalities in other brain function,” Metcalf said.
“Anything, drugs or otherwise, ingested by the mother gets passed along to the unborn child,” Patton said. “So, any harm it causes to the mother, it causes to the child, as well. Neonatal abstinence syndrome happens when a baby is exposed to drugs in the womb before birth. If the baby survives until childbirth, it can then go through drug withdrawal after birth.”
The best way to avoid synthetic drugs is to avoid them completely.
“Never try a synthetic drug; they are highly addictive and there’s no way for you to know what you are actually taking,” Metcalf said. “In addition, the use of synthetic drugs can limit your ability to reason, which can lead to you making choices that you normally would not.”
According to ABC 7 News in Chicago, a young woman was recently found dead in a hotel freezer she walked into, probably suffering from “hyperthermia,” or increased body temperature, as a side effect of the drugs and alcohol she had taken. Drugs can prevent a person from saving themselves in a dangerous situation.
“Students should be aware of the highly addictive nature of synthetic drugs and should help and support each other in resisting the use of synthetic drugs if they are ever confronted by someone trying to get them to use a synthetic drug,” says Metcalf. “While we need to educate school staff on the presenting symptoms of children affected by synthetic drugs, our society needs to put our efforts into prevention through educating teenagers. In addition, I feel that we need to punish distributors of synthetic drugs and provide treatment for those who are already addicted.”
The government has been trying to regulate drugs like opioids for a long time. Even though some want to regulate synthetic drugs, others believe that the drugs should be completely eliminated.
“The government should not try to regulate synthetic drugs,” Metcalf said. “These are very potent, very dangerous drugs and I doubt there is any use for them in treating any current medical conditions.”