Synthetic Drug Abuse and Addiction

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Synthetic drug abuse refers to the misuse and addiction to chemically engineered substances to mimic the effects of illicit drugs. These drugs are created in laboratories and designed to produce similar psychoactive effects as marijuana, cocaine, or hallucinogens.

Common examples of synthetic drugs include synthetic cannabinoids (such as Spice or K2), synthetic cathinones (such as bath salts), and synthetic hallucinogens (such as NBOMe). These substances are often marketed as legal alternatives to illicit drugs and are sold under various brand names.

Synthetic drug abuse can have severe health consequences, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, hallucinations, paranoia, seizures, and even death. Due to their chemical variability and unpredictable effects, synthetic drugs can be particularly dangerous.

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Synthetic Drug Abuse, & Addiction, & Dependence

Synthetic drug abuse involves the misuse of chemically produced substances that mimic the effects of illicit drugs. These drugs are created in labs and marketed as legal alternatives. People abuse synthetic drugs for various reasons, seeking altered states of mind or succumbing to peer pressure.

However, these drugs can have unpredictable and dangerous effects on the body and mind. Addiction to synthetic drugs occurs when individuals develop an uncontrollable pattern of use despite negative consequences, leading to psychological and behavioral dependence. Dependence involves the body’s adaptation to the drug, resulting in tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when use is discontinued or reduced.

What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are chemically engineered substances created in laboratories to mimic the effects of illicit drugs. They are designed to have similar psychoactive properties as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, hallucinogens, or opioids. These substances are often marketed as legal alternatives to illicit drugs and are sold under various names and packaging.

Synthetic drugs are typically created by altering the chemical structures of existing drugs or by developing entirely new compounds. They are manufactured using synthetic chemicals and can have varying compositions and potencies. Due to their synthetic nature, their chemical formulas may need to be more consistent and well-regulated, leading to unpredictable effects and potential health risks.

Some Common Types of Synthetic Drugs Include:

  • Synthetic Cannabinoids – Also known as “spice” or “K2,” these substances are designed to mimic the effects of cannabis. They are sprayed onto plant material and smoked or vaporized. Synthetic cannabinoids can have powerful and unpredictable psychoactive effects.
  • Synthetic Cathinones – Also referred to as “bath salts,” these substances mimic the effects of stimulant drugs like amphetamines or cocaine. They typically come in powder or crystal form and can be snorted, swallowed, or injected.
  • Synthetic Hallucinogens – These substances are created to mimic the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. Examples include substances like NBOMe (N-bomb) or 2C family of drugs. They are often sold as tablets, capsules, or blotter papers.
  • Other Synthetic Drugs – There are various other synthetic drugs on the market, such as synthetic opioids or synthetic stimulants. These substances may be designed to mimic the effects of prescription opioids or amphetamines.

Can Using Synthetic Drugs as Prescribed Cause Dependence?

When used as directed by a healthcare professional, synthetic drugs approved for medical use have a lower risk of causing dependence compared to illicit or improperly used substances. Following the prescribed dosage and duration of use is crucial to minimize the potential for dependence and other negative effects. “Synthetic drugs” encompass all substances, including prescription and illicit ones. Prescription medications undergo rigorous testing, regulation, and monitoring to ensure their safety and effectiveness.

However, some synthetic prescription drugs, such as certain opioids, stimulants, or benzodiazepines, can lead to dependence if used improperly or for prolonged periods. Dependence occurs when the body adjusts to the drug’s presence, resulting in tolerance (requiring higher doses for the same effect) and experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation.

What Are the Addiction Rates From Synthetic Drug Use?

Determining precise addiction rates specifically for synthetic drug use can be challenging due to various factors. Synthetic drugs encompass various substances, each with different properties and risks. Furthermore, the use of synthetic drugs is often associated with polydrug use, where individuals may combine multiple substances, making it difficult to isolate the addiction rates attributed solely to synthetic drugs.

However, it is well-known that synthetic drugs, including synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones (such as bath salts), can be highly addictive. These substances often have potent psychoactive effects and can lead to the rapid development of dependence and addiction.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in the United States in 2019, an estimated 1.6 million individuals aged 12 or older reported using synthetic cannabinoids in the past year.

In a study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2020, it was reported that synthetic cannabinoids were the third most commonly used illicit drug among high school students in the United States.

Causes & Risk Factors for Synthetic Drugs Abuse & Addiction Development

The causes and risk factors for developing synthetic drug abuse and addiction are multifaceted and can vary from person to person. Understanding these factors can help in addressing and preventing synthetic drug abuse.

Common Causes and Risk Factors For Synthetic Drug Abuse:

  • Easy Accessibility – Synthetic drugs are often marketed as legal alternatives to illicit substances and may be easily accessible online and in certain retail locations. These substances’ availability and perceived legality can contribute to their misuse and addiction.
  • Desire for Psychoactive Effects – Many individuals may be drawn to synthetic drugs due to their desire for altered states of consciousness, euphoria, or enhanced experiences. Synthetic drugs’ potent and unpredictable psychoactive effects can make them appealing to some individuals.
  • Lack of Awareness and Education – Insufficient knowledge about the risks and dangers associated with synthetic drugs can contribute to their misuse. Many people may be unaware of the potential adverse effects and addictive properties of these substances.
  • Peer Influence –Peer pressure and influence play a significant role in substance abuse. If an individual’s social circle includes people who use or promote synthetic drugs, the likelihood of experimentation and continued use increases.
  • Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders – Individuals with underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma-related disorders, may be at higher risk for synthetic drug abuse as they may attempt to self-medicate or alleviate their symptoms.
  • Sensation-Seeking or Risk-Taking Personality Traits – People with a higher inclination towards sensation-seeking or engaging in risky behaviors may be more prone to experimenting with and using synthetic drugs.
  • Lack of Social Support – Limited social support systems or a lack of healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress, trauma, or emotional challenges can increase the vulnerability to synthetic drug abuse.
  • Genetics and Family History – Genetic factors can influence an individual’s susceptibility to addiction. If there is a family history of substance abuse or addiction, it may increase the risk of synthetic drug abuse and addiction.

The Effects of Synthetic Drug Use on Mental Health

The use of synthetic drugs can have significant effects on mental health, ranging from acute intoxication to long-term psychiatric and psychological consequences. These effects can vary depending on the specific synthetic drug used, individual factors, and the frequency and dosage of use.

Potential Effects of Synthetic Drug Use on Mental Health:

  • Acute Intoxication – Synthetic drugs can induce intense and unpredictable psychoactive effects, leading to altered perception, hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, panic attacks, confusion, aggression, and delirium. These acute effects can harm mental well-being and increase the risk of dangerous behaviors.
  • Psychiatric Disorders – Synthetic drug use has been associated with developing or exacerbating psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, psychosis, and mood disorders. The substances can disrupt the brain’s chemical balance and lead to mental health conditions.
  • Cognitive Impairment – Prolonged or heavy synthetic drug use can impair cognitive function, including memory, attention, decision-making, and problem-solving abilities. These cognitive impairments can persist even after cessation of drug use and can harm daily functioning and overall mental well-being.
  • Substance-Induced Psychosis – Synthetic drugs, particularly synthetic cannabinoids, and cathinones, have been linked to the development of substance-induced psychosis. Symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking, paranoia, and altered perceptions. Sometimes, these psychotic symptoms may persist even after discontinuing drug use.
  • Increased Risk of Self-Harm and Suicide – Synthetic drug use can increase the risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. The altered mental state, intense emotions, and impaired judgment associated with synthetic drug use can contribute to impulsive and harmful behaviors.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders – Individuals who use synthetic drugs may have higher rates of co-occurring mental health disorders. Synthetic drug abuse can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions or increase the vulnerability to developing new disorders.

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What Demographics Are Most at Risk of Synthetic Drug Abuse?

Synthetic drug abuse can affect individuals from various demographics, but certain populations may be more at risk due to specific factors. It’s important to note that risk factors can vary based on geographical location, cultural context, and other societal factors.

Demographics at Higher Risk of Synthetic Drug Abuse:

  • Adolescents and Young Adults – This group is more susceptible due to experimentation, peer influence, and a desire for intense experiences.
  • Homeless and Marginalized Populations – Limited healthcare access, lack of social support, and coping with poor living conditions increase vulnerability.
  • Club and Party Scenes – Synthetic drugs are prevalent in rave culture and party scenes, where drug use is common.
  • Military Personnel and Veterans – Easy accessibility and unique stressors associated with military service contribute to risk.
  • LGBTQ+ Community – Synthetic drug use, particularly synthetic cannabinoids, is reported more frequently among this population due to social discrimination, stigma, and higher mental health challenges.
  • History of Substance Abuse – Previous substance abuse or addiction, including alcohol and other drugs, increases susceptibility to synthetic drug abuse.

Visible Signs Someone May Be Addicted to Synthetic Drugs

Detecting addiction to synthetic drugs can be challenging as the signs and symptoms can vary depending on the specific drug, individual factors, and the stage of addiction. However, some visible signs may indicate someone is struggling with synthetic drug addiction.

Signs of Synthetic Drug Addiction: 

  • Changes in physical appearance.
  • Behavioral changes include increased secrecy, withdrawal from social activities and hobbies, frequent mood swings, irritability, agitation, sudden financial difficulties, engaging in risky behaviors, and neglecting personal responsibilities.
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and appearance.
  • Financial issues and behaviors such as borrowing or stealing money.
  • Relationship and social problems include conflicts, withdrawal from social interactions, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and a decline in overall social functioning.
  • Changes in sleep patterns to either excessive sleepiness or insomnia.
  • Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, depression, restlessness, insomnia, irritability, cravings, and physical discomfort.

Common Symptoms & Side Effects of Synthetic Drug Dependence

Synthetic drug dependence is when an individual becomes reliant on synthetic drugs and experiences withdrawal symptoms and cravings when attempting to stop or reduce their use. Synthetic drug dependence’s symptoms and side effects can vary depending on the specific drug and individual factors.

Common Symptoms and Side Effects Associated With Synthetic Drug Dependence:

  • Tolerance – Developing tolerance means that higher doses of the synthetic drug are required to achieve the desired effect. Over time, the body adapts to the drug’s presence, and the initial dosage becomes less effective.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms – When individuals dependent on synthetic drugs stop using or significantly reduce their dosage, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can include anxiety, restlessness, irritability, insomnia, depression, mood swings, cravings, physical discomfort, tremors, sweating, and flu-like symptoms.
  • Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences – Despite experiencing adverse consequences in various areas of life, such as strained relationships, declining physical and mental health, financial difficulties, or legal problems, individuals with synthetic drug dependence continue to use the drug.
  • Loss of Control – A hallmark of dependence is the inability to control or limit drug use. Individuals may desire to cut down or quit but find it difficult to do so, often relapsing even after periods of abstinence.
  • Neglecting Responsibilities and Activities – Synthetic drug dependence can lead to a neglect of personal, social, and professional responsibilities. Individuals may prioritize drug use over work, school, family obligations, and hobbies or activities previously enjoyed.
  • Psychological and Emotional Changes – Dependence on synthetic drugs can cause psychological and emotional changes. These may include mood swings, anxiety, depression, increased irritability, paranoia, and changes in motivation and cognitive function.
  • Physical Health Problems – Chronic use of synthetic drugs can contribute to various physical health issues. These may include cardiovascular problems, respiratory issues, gastrointestinal disturbances, seizures, organ damage, and an increased risk of infectious diseases (if drugs are injected).
  • Social Isolation – Individuals with synthetic drug dependence may withdraw from social activities, isolate themselves from loved ones, and experience strained relationships. This isolation can perpetuate the cycle of drug use and hinder their support network.

What to Do if Someone Overdoses on Synthetic Drugs

If someone overdoses on synthetic drugs, it is crucial to take immediate action.

Steps to Follow if Someone Overdoses on Synthetic Drugs: 

  • Call emergency services.
  • Stay with the person.
  • Do not leave them alone.
  • Provide information.
  • Follow instructions.

Synthetic Drugs Overdose Statistics

Specific statistics may vary depending on the region, period, and the particular synthetic drugs being referred to. Synthetic drugs encompass various substances, each with unique effects and risks.

Synthetic Drug Overdose Statistics: 

  • Synthetic Opioids – Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, have been associated with a significant increase in overdose deaths in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, synthetic opioids were involved in over 60% of all opioid-related overdose deaths in 2019.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids – Synthetic cannabinoids, often called “Spice” or “K2,” have been linked to numerous emergency department visits and overdose incidents. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported over 28,000 calls related to synthetic cannabinoid exposures in 2019.
  • Synthetic Cathinones – Synthetic cathinones, commonly known as “bath salts,” have also been associated with overdose incidents. However, specific overdose statistics for synthetic cathinones may be more challenging due to their illicit and clandestine production and use.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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