Over the last five years, the production, distribution, and consumption of synthetic drugs have seen a significant increase in the United States due to their accessibility and ambiguous legal nature in the international market place. Synthetic designer drugs are man-made substances that contain extremely dangerous and harmful chemical compounds, usually produced in large-scale operations based in China, India, or Pakistan.
The various types of designer drugs are usually forms of synthetic cannabinoids or cathinones. Synthetic cannabinoids are falsely marketed as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana and are sold under names like K2, Spice, and Yucatan Fire. Like most synthetic drugs, they are sold in large quantities over the Internet to dealers in the United States who repackage them for individual sale in gas stations, smoke shops, convenience stores, or on the street. Synthetic cannabinoids are the second most abused drug by high school students after marijuana. The plant-like substances contain harmful chemical additives that cause rapid heart rate, paranoia, vomiting, hallucinations, and sometimes heart attacks from restricted blood supply to the heart. One Houston teenager suffered several strokes from constricted blood vessels around the brain after using a synthetic cannabinoid for two weeks, nearly killing her.
Synthetic cathinones (commonly known as bath salts) have become a serious and growing public health and safety issue. These crystalline substances chemically resemble amphetamines and cause increased blood pressure, agitation, hallucinations, and excited delirium. They have been linked to multiple deaths, crimes, and injuries across the country. In the Washington, DC, region alone, there have been 43 reported overdoses in Hagerstown since April 11, and 14 reported overdoses in the Northwestern region of Virginia since April 13. In June of this year, 11 people were treated in Washington, DC, suffering from the effects of bath salts.
One particularly dangerous synthetic drug that has emerged recently in the United States is known on the streets as “flakka.” Flakka, similar to bath salts in composition, is sold as a cheap alternative to cocaine or methamphetamines, making it attractive to addicts who cannot afford their habits. Like bath salts, flakka causes a sense of excited delirium in users that triggers severe anxiety and delusional paranoia, leading to a violent psychotic state associated with increased strength and a lost awareness of reality. For example, one flakka user in South Florida broke down the hurricane-proof doors of a police department while under the influence of the drug. Similarly, another user in Melbourne, Florida, ran through the streets screaming she was Satan while on flakka.
Their increasing prevalence is due to suppliers’ ability to alter the drug’s chemical formula so that it doesn’t contain illicit chemicals, allowing suppliers to maintain their drugs legality. In July 2012, President Obama signed a federal ban on synthetic drugs that covered 26 chemicals commonly used in synthetic drug manufacturing. However, many new compounds have emerged in response to the ban, rendering it obsolete. In the last four years, the United States has seen over 300 different synthetic designer drugs enter and plague our communities.
Lawmakers and community leaders are struggling to combat the serious problem of synthetic designer drugs because the substances are constantly taking on new forms and are unregulated in the online market. Urging government action in countries where these drugs are manufactured may be a necessary step in stopping their production and distribution. However, without online regulation the Internet makes these synthetic drugs easily accessible to a majority of the public. Some essential steps community leaders can take to counter synthetic drug use is educating their citizens and children about the life-threatening implications these drugs have, helping current users seek proper addiction and rehabilitation treatment, and heavily prosecuting any person or establishment found selling these illicit substances.