Teenagers are natural experimenters, but there are some drugs that put them at grave risk even if they try them just once. Although grisly media reports of psychotic episodes and gruesome acts of violence have made it difficult to differentiate horror from hysteria, in the case of “designer drugs” much of the hype is worth heeding.
What Are ‘Designer’ Drugs?
Chemists are always engineering new drugs, some of which are used to save lives by treating cancer and other illnesses; others are designed for less savory purposes, namely to get high. In this context, so-called “designer drugs” are concocted in underground labs to mimic the effects of controlled substances. Consumers of these specially designed drugs are typically youth in their teens to early thirties, who purchase them at raves, clubs, head shops and convenience stores, as well as online.
Most designer drugs are highly addictive and, especially when combined with other drugs or alcohol, can have deadly side effects. Young people assume they must be safe because they are cheap and relatively easy to find, and schools and sports teams don’t routinely test for them, but authorities know otherwise. In response to a sharp increase in drug-related ER visits and calls to poison control, at least 40 states and the federal government have banned a number of chemicals in designer drugs. Still, a number of drug manufacturers and sellers have skirted the ban by modifying the chemical makeup of their products and marking packets “not for human consumption.”
Of the hundreds of different designer drugs, here are the facts on three popular formulations your child may be tempted to try right now:
#1 Synthetic Marijuana
Synthetic pot, often called Spice or K2, is a mixture of plant stems and leaves laced with synthetic chemicals. Although not derived from the marijuana plant, “fake weed” is marketed as having similar effects. In reality, these drugs are quite different from marijuana, and likely even more dangerous. One chemical in Spice was found to be more than 100 times more potent than THC, the primary active chemical in marijuana. Users report feelings of relaxation and mild euphoria, as well as agitation, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, elevated body temperature and blood pressure, paranoia, and seizures.
Synthetic marijuana has been linked to thousands of emergency room visits each year – 11,000 in 2010 alone, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – mostly by young men ages 12 to 29. There were almost 3,000 calls about synthetic marijuana to poison control in 2010 and nearly 7,000 in 2011. In some areas, synthetic marijuana is sold in head shops and convenience stores as “herbal incense,” though the federal ban likely drove more sales online and on the street.
#2 Bath Salts
Bath salts are synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine when snorted, smoked or injected. Typically sold as “plant food” or “insect repellant” under a wide variety of names such as Ivory Wave, Aura and Vanilla Sky, bath salts typically contain mephedrone and MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone).
The appeal of bath salts is the feelings of wakefulness and euphoria the drugs produce. They have made news in recent months because of the laundry list of other side effects, including agitation, panic, paranoia, psychosis and aggressive or suicidal behavior. In addition to horrific attacks, a number of deaths have been attributed to bath salts, yet young people continue to experiment with these drugs. Reports to poison control about bath salts in 2011 were up by 6,000 from 2010.
This potent synthetic hallucinogen and stimulant, also called 2C-I, is a member of the 2C family, all of which were covered in the 2012 ban. Smiles is sold in powder, liquid or pill form. Although the drug reportedly produces feelings of relaxation and giddiness and hallucinations that can last for days, it also causes nausea, dehydration, panic, anxiety and aggressive or violent behavior. Fewer than 2,000 cases of smiles use were reported between 2006 and 2010 but the drug continues to grow in popularity.
Many parents hear news of a federal ban and assume the designer drug abuse problem has been adequately addressed. Unfortunately, the ban is limited in scope and does little to stop demand for a cheap and readily available high. When it comes to synthetic drugs, there is great need to stay vigilant and for parents to educate themselves and their children so they can make good decisions when temptation arises.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Right Step, Clarity Way, Journey Healing Centers and Lucida Treatment Center.
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Last reviewed: 27 Mar 2014