A Rundown on Common Synthetic Drugs

by | Jul 22, 2015 | Addiction | 4 comments

Home » Addiction » A Rundown on Common Synthetic Drugs

An Oklahoma State Trooper with about $40,000 worth of synthetic drugs, found and confiscated after a routine traffic stop. (KWTV)

An Oklahoma State Trooper with about $40,000 worth of synthetic drugs, found and confiscated after a routine traffic stop. (KWTV)

Drugs are enough of a problem in the United States as it is, but synthetic drugs are making the problem much, much worse. People flock to synthetic drugs because they are more difficult to regulate, granting easier access to the general public. The problem is, while they may experience some of the same symptoms of their drug of choice, they are exposed to side effects that are arguably much worse than any they might have experienced with their drug of choice.

This means that addiction to synthetic drugs can be much more dangerous than drug addiction in general, and that’s saying something. If you know anyone who is addicted to synthetic drugs, then you may wish to recommend they try our programs before it is too late. In the meantime, we’d like to educate you on the dangers of three of the most common synthetic drugs around: spice (or K2), flakka, and kratom. We will also make brief mention of a few synthetics and niche drugs, such as bath salts, meow meow, and krokodil.


Spice, also known as K2 or “mojo” among other names, looks a lot like marijuana; however, it is actually a very different substance. (Patricia Beck/DFP)

Spice, also known as K2 or “mojo” among other names, looks a lot like marijuana; however, it is actually a very different substance. (Patricia Beck/DFP)

Spice, also known as K2 (amongst other names), is synthetic marijuana. It is made by combining a number of natural substances before treating them with a chemical that mimics the effects THC. Due to its smell, which more closely resembles potpourri than marijuana smoke, spice is generally marketed as an incense. Many of the bags may even say “do not inhale,” despite graphic designs on the packaging which indicate that the product is most certainly not meant to be use as an incense. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, it is usually consumed in the same fashion as marijuana, through either smoke or tea.

Since spice can be pretty strong, it isn’t too difficult to tell when someone has been using it. Aside from the smell (most people don’t walk around smelling like potpourri), the use of synthetic drugs such as spice has many telltale signs. And many of these are actually the same as the most common signs of addiction, or of drug use in general. Much like marijuana, the use of spice will often result in reddish, greyish, or generally glazed eyes. It might also result in slurred speech, hallucinations, and generally uncharacteristic behaviors.

Let’s go back to hallucinations for a second, because that seems a little too frightening to just be sandwiched in there. But sure enough, they are one of the many side effects caused by the use of synthetic marijuana. When spice abuse became a problem in New Orleans, it was noted by the director of the Louisiana Poison Center that users tend to experience paranoid delusions as well. “The recurring theme is monsters, demons and aliens,” he said. “A lot of them had suicidal thoughts.”

Sure enough, there are multiple accounts of teens who have either committed or attempted suicide after smoking spice. The drug has a major effect on the mind, and has been linked to brain damage as well as psychosis, not to mention causing strokes and seizures. It has also been linked to kidney failure. In fact, spice is so dangerous that a recent report on the increase in spice-related deaths this year made no mention of suicide whatsoever. Many users believe that, as an analogue for pot, spice must be harmless. But this is one of the primary dangers of synthetic drugs; you think you know what you’re in for, but you have no idea what you’re actually getting.

So, what are you getting? Well, that’s a much more complicated question than you might think. The chemical compound you’ll most often see linked to synthetic marijuana is JWH-018. But in most places, that won’t be the primary compound anymore. Many local authorities have started banning it due to the more extreme side effects of synthetic drugs. In an article by Forbes, ER doctor and toxicologist Jeff Lapoint talks about the effects of this ban: “The next week incense blends with another compound, JWH-073, came out. They already had it ready to go—and they’re making something that’s not even illegal yet. Since we started the conversation 10 minutes ago, we’re already behind.”

The same article linked above points to many other problems with synthetic drugs such as spice. One of the reasons that spice is so effective is that the brain has a ton of receptors for it, and they interact with the drug really well. So well, in fact, that they hardly know how to stop interacting. In other words, our bodies don’t really know how to deal with synthetic drugs. We usually metabolize them naturally, leading into the detoxification process. This makes a toxic drug such as spice even more dangerous.

Evolutions in the formula for spice, whether derived for the purposes of skirting the law or for other reasons, have resulted in a drug with very unpredictable side effects. Some users will simply be irritable or stand-offish. Others may be both physically and mentally impaired. Yet others may cross the line from “impaired” to “catatonic.” With spice becoming one of the more popular synthetic drugs around, this lack of predictability is especially dangerous. There is always a chance of addiction when using any drug. But with spice, it may not take as long for that addiction to yield some very tragic consequences.


Flakka is one of the more dangerous synthetic drugs around. These rocks are usually crushed and then smoked or snorted, although some users have been reported to simply eat them. (DEA)

Flakka is one of the more dangerous synthetic drugs around. These rocks are usually crushed and then smoked or snorted, although some users have been reported to simply eat them. (DEA)

We’re going to start this section by talking a bit about bath salts, to which flakka (also known as gravel) has been compared. Many people are already aware of the existence of bath salts, due to the widely reported “zombie attack” of 2012, in which the attacker was suspected of using the drug. This was at a time when widespread spice abuse was already putting synthetic drugs on the map, and bath salts helped to drive home the possible dangers of using synthetic drugs in general.

Bath salts are a type of synthetic cathinone, which is similar to amphetamine. Bath salts have also been compared to LSD. Much like spice, bath salts are easily acquired and often bear “not for human consumption” warnings on their packaging. The name “bath salts” is related less to the drug’s crystalline appearance and more to a desire to keep sales discrete. Other names have been used for this purpose as well, such as “jewelry cleaner,” “phone screen cleaner,” and “plant food.” In addition to LSD and amphetamine, bath salts have been compared to MDMA, a comparison similar to that of the less common niche drug “meow meow.”

Synthetic drugs such as bath salts, meow meow, and flakka, all received mention in a somewhat flippant article by Gawker. While the article appears to be written for comedic effect, the information contained within it is highly accurate. It explains that “flakka” is merely a street name for alpha-PVP. Like many synthetic drugs, alpha-PVP can cause extreme hallucinations but has still not been banned on any truly effective level as of yet. This is especially surprising given some of the physical symptoms, which include radical raises in body temperature (to the point of hyperthermia) as well as adrenaline-fueled strength and a severe lack of judgment brought on by psychosis.

The aforementioned article by Gawker draws attention to the fact that the psychosis caused by flakka can also lead many users to wind up facing extreme legal troubles. The article includes a list of flakka-related headlines pertaining to the insane lack of inhibitions which appears to accompany the drug’s use. And a few of the crimes committed seem to indicate that, much like spice, one of the major side effects of using flakka is extreme paranoia. Both James West and Matthew Kenney of Fort Lauderdale were arrested after using flakka. Kenney was arrested for streaking, while West was arrested for trying to break down the door of the police station. Both men believed that multiple people were following them.

Flakka can be ingested a number of ways, such as smoking or snorting. Along with spice, it also showcases one of the things that makes synthetic drugs especially dangerous: they’re usually pretty cheap. Flakka is estimated to cost about a third as much as crystal meth, and is often used by the impoverished as a result. While crystal meth wouldn’t have been much better for them, flakka leads to muscular decomposition and (again, like spice) can result in kidney failure.

The drug is definitely more common in some places than others. When it became common in Kentucky, USA Today told the story of one woman’s addiction to the substance. They said that in the span of only half a year, she “lost 50 pounds, blew through $15,000 of a settlement and sold her house for $700.” They also talked about how her hands changed color and turned scaly, symptoms also associated with the dangerous drug krokodil. The woman mentioned by USA Today also told them that she found it difficult to eat or drink, never felt clean, and did not sleep for nine days. And she’s just one example. Last year, when there were over 2700 flakka-induced seizures across the United States, police in Kentucky’s Lewis County found over $200,000 worth of the stuff in just one stash.

It’s also become popular in Florida. Aside from the Fort Lauderdale incidents, Florida police have also encountered a user back in April who “thought he was God or Thor, and had sex with a tree.” Synthetic drugs such as flakka are actually becoming an international concern. Flakka is manufactured in China, which means that even if we managed to shut down American distribution, the manufactured stock would still wind up somewhere.


Kratom is one of the most popular synthetic drugs for those who are addicted to opiates. (Kratom Online)

Kratom is one of the most popular synthetic drugs for those who are addicted to opiates. (Kratom Online)

Kratom is something of an anomaly on this list. It isn’t technically synthetic; in fact, it comes from a tree in Southeast Asia that is related to the coffee plant. The reason that we include it in this article, however, is that it is often used as a substitute for opiates. Since its widespread distribution is somewhat recent (even though it has been around for quite some time), it is not commonly included in most drug screens. This makes it especially dangerous compared to some synthetic drugs that have been around longer, as some addicts might use it while staying in sober living facilities (or when being monitored, as is often the case with medical professionals). In fact, one person has already died from using it.

Now, to be fair, the death mentioned in the article linked above was not necessarily due to the use of kratom, or even of synthetic drugs in general. The deceased user had been taking prescription anxiety medication at the same time. This opens the floor for more questions. Was it an overdose of benzos, or of kratom? Or does kratom interact badly when used with certain drugs, making it deadly to those who are currently treating co-occurring disorders such as anxiety or depression? Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of answers right now.

In fact, people aren’t even entirely sure how kratom affects the user. For instance, take this article on the conflicting side effects experienced by many people. While some of the accounts quoted in that article are clearly made up (many are taken from internet users rather than credible sources and appear to be comedic in nature), it is true that different people seem to experience different side effects. Some of the side effects include gastric distress, itching, blurred vision, decreased heart rate, low sex drive, and tremors. One person even reported that they had developed a stutter since they began using.

Some of the accounts in that article are by people who seem to think that kratom is the best thing in the world, but that isn’t really too shocking. After all, most addicts would not become addicts if they did not feel that way about their drug of choice at one point or another. This is one of the reasons that it is so important to stage an intervention when a loved one has fallen off the deep end. Many addicts simply do not understand how their use is affecting those around them until they hear about it from the people whose lives have been impacted.

In the case of kratom, however, it might be addictive whether the person enjoys using it or not. Many opiate users consider kratom to be a poor substitute for their drug of choice, but one case study involves a man who quit using Dilaudid only to begin taking kratom at a rate of $15,000 per annum. And worse, as mentioned above, we still don’t understand precisely how people are affected by it. All we know for sure is that drugs like OxyContin and even heroin have driven people’s lives into the ground, and those were both meant to be non-addictive and intended for medicinal use.

As with other synthetic drugs on this list, there has been some debate as to whether or not kratom should be legal. The reasons for legalizing certain opiates have traditionally been medical in nature. For instance, both heroin and OxyContin were believed to be non-addictive, and were used for therapeutic reasons. However, the DEA Office of Diversion Control believes there to be “no legitimate medical use for kratom.” If kratom could be used as a form of therapy, that would be one thing. But if there is no legitimate use for kratom, then it could be time to criminalize it. Unfortunately, banning kratom would only be successful in controlling it to a limited extent. As is often the case with synthetic drugs, many users buy kratom from online retailers who use very discrete shipping labels.

Kratom has been made illegal in four states, but it isn’t exactly outlawed across the nation. Recently, Florida was set to begin a new initiative to cut down and control the use of kratom within the state, but the necessary legislation was not passed. With the number of people who are expressing blind love for the new drug (just look at the comments on this article), it needs to be tested and controlled as soon as possible while research is performed in order to gauge its effects on the brain and body. Otherwise, chronic users could be endangered in ways that we do not yet fully understand.


  1. Joan

    Most of these drugs are not detectable on drug tests….please do an article on Ketamine, which is also very poweful, easy to get and abuse!

    • Kieran Hair

      That’s certainly not a bad idea. In this particular article, I wanted to cover three of the big synthetic drugs that many people might not know too much about. Unfortunately, the inability to screen for them is wrapped up in the need for more research. There are drug screens for spice, although most of the ones I’ve looked up only work for 1-3 days. That’s one of the things that makes these drugs particularly dangerous is that we don’t always know when people are using them. A lot of my friends have been kicked out of sober living homes for spice and kratom, and it usually surfaced that they’d been using them longer than any of us knew.

      In any case, the information on the above three drugs was pretty easy to keep succinct. But there’s enough on ketamine that I could see it warranting its own article in the near future. It could easily be part of a larger series, covering several major drugs and their side effects, methods of use, withdrawal symptoms, etc.

  2. Racheal

    I saw a clip of this new K-2 drug on the news tonight. The one that they are calling Spice. And the people they had interviewed for the clip looked like they were under the influence of heroin. Its pretty scary that these drugs are so easily available to purchase and use in plain sight of people and the police with no repercussions. They need to bring these synthetic drugs to light and start making them illegal to purchase and use. Treat them just like the real thing. Because if not, sadly they will start to fall into the wrong hands and before we know it we’ll start loosing our family and friends to this also. Start making it come up on drug tests. But this really needs more light shed on it, before its too late.

    • Kieran Hair

      Racheal, I could not have said it better myself. I actually have first-hand experience with this stuff, and it is indeed highly treacherous. I first started smoking it right before it was made illegal in many places. Back then, it really was akin to a very weak marijuana high. Although even then, I noticed that mixing it with alcohol produced a much more potent effect that I did not consider enjoyable. My actions regarding it during that time were deplorable. Not only did I smoke it in plain sight, but even at work. Because let’s face it, I didn’t wind up in treatment as a result of using drugs responsibly.

      After they made it illegal, it came back with a new formula. I was excited. Even though my drinking was already getting me into massive amounts of trouble by then (I had dropped out of college twice and was living with my mother), I still thought the concept of a legal drug was something worth celebrating. Two hits in, my heart started racing. I could actually feel it going, beat by agonizing beat. My vision became warped, like looking through a funhouse mirror. My mind was so thrown off that I didn’t even recognize my dogs. I was supposed to watch a family friend’s band play that night with my mom, and I cancelled on her because I knew that I was in no position to be seen. And soon, within minutes, I began contemplating suicide.

      I was fortunate in some ways. This occurred late in my active addiction, so I’d had some experience with bad highs and knew that my thoughts were not entirely my own. Plus, I had already seen a story about a kid who slit his throat from ear to ear after smoking the same brand. He miraculously survived, but smoked it again the next day and shot himself with a rifle (I have no idea why he had been left alone). In a very sick way, his story was what inspired me to try the new formula. That’s the thinking of an addict. “That kid killed himself after smoking this…must be strong stuff.” In any case, I understood what was happening and had the presence of mind to simply lie down until it wore off. I then threw away the rest of what I’d bought. I was a drug addict through and through, but not hardcore enough to risk feeling like that again.

      The thing is, this stuff is getting into the hands of teenagers. They don’t have the experience that I had back then. Some of them might not understand that they wouldn’t be entertaining those suicidal thoughts if they were sober. It does show up in drug tests, but those are usually specified tests that only detect traces within 1-3 days. And even if there were a better test, what’s to stop them from making a new formula with potentially worse side effects? If making it illegal doesn’t stop it, and testing for it doesn’t stop it, then our only real weapon against it right now is good old-fashioned awareness. I’m glad to know that we have people like you on our side to spread the word.


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