Substance Use

Synthetic Drug Use Disorder Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Dr. David Hu, MD on 11/03/2022
Dr. Hu is a nationally licensed psychiatrist with 21 years of experience treating mental and behavioral health.

Dr. David Hu
Medically Reviewed InfoBox

TABLE OF CONTENTSTable of Contents

white powder spilling out of vial

Synthetic Drug Abuse and Addiction Treatment Options

Synthetic drugs can include any drug made in a laboratory instead of occurring naturally. However, the word “laboratory” doesn’t always mean a professional, clean place where scientists work. It can also refer to home-based setups where people without scientific knowledge combine chemicals.

In many cases, synthetic drugs have few regulations. Drugs made underground don’t have any regulatory oversight. Even worse, they might exist in legal “gray zones” that make it easy for people, including minors, to buy them anywhere from smoke shops to convenience stores.

Common Types of Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs often have properties similar to drugs found in nature. For example, synthetic cannabinoids might mimic the effects of THC naturally found in marijuana. These designer drugs can also have unique effects with unknown, unexpected side effects.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids bind with the same brain cell receptors as chemicals in marijuana. Gas stations and online stores often sell them under names like:

  • K2
  • Herbal incense
  • Potpourri
  • Spice

Sellers might even advertise the products as “fake marijuana” or “synthetic marijuana.”

Some types of synthetic cannabinoids are available as plant material that users smoke. Others are vaped, eaten, or drank.

Synthetic cannabinoids often create stronger highs than chemicals found in cannabis plant material. Although cannabis is a Schedule I drug banned by the federal government, synthetic alternatives could pose more dangers.

Users rarely know the active ingredients in these products. Additionally, researchers have not studied the health effects of these new compounds. Even if one package contains relatively safe ingredients, others could contain chemicals that cause psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and other side effects, including:

  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Paranoia
  • Violent behavioral
  • Confusion
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Hallucinations

Users never really know what they’re consuming when using so-called synthetic marijuana.

Synthetic Cathinones

Synthetic cathinones mimic the chemicals found in khat, a shrub used for its mild stimulant effects. Using khat can also lead to addiction and adverse health issues. However, synthetic cathinones are often much stronger, making them even more dangerous.

Retailers commonly sell synthetic cathinones as “bath salts” and “plant food.” Packages might say the products aren’t intended for human consumption. This is an attempt to avoid FDA regulations. Synthetic cathinones are also sold as “flakka.”

Buyers who plan to smoke, snort, swallow, or inject the products expect to experience a high. They might not expect adverse effects like:

  • Panic attacks
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Excited delirium, which can lead to violent behavior
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Problems sleeping

Some of these side effects can last long after the user comes down from the high.

Synthetic Stimulants

Synthetic stimulants include a broad range of amphetamines, phenethylamines, and other chemicals that make users energetic and excited. Products sold as synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones can also act like stimulants.

Synthetic stimulants are often sold as:

  • Methamphetamine
  • MDMA
  • Ecstasy
  • MDPV

Using synthetic stimulants can lead to severe short-term and long-term abuse. Long-term effects can include:

  • Psychosis
  • Memory loss
  • Aggressive, violent behavior
  • Weight loss
  • Severe dental problems
  • Changes in brain structure
  • Poor thinking and motor skills

People who take synthetic stimulants often want to experience increased wakefulness, attention, and energy. The drugs can also cause rushes of euphoria. Adversely, using the illicit drugs can cause:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Abnormally high body temperatures (hyperthermia)
  • Chest pains
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks

Prescription stimulants, such as Adderall, can cause addiction, mental health, and physical health problems. Researchers understand the effects of those controlled substances, though. Doctors can prescribe the drugs in appropriate dosages to address issues like ADHD. With synthetic stimulants sold without prescriptions, users never know what they will get.

Synthetic Hallucinogens

Synthetic hallucinogens interfere with neurotransmitters in ways similar to chemicals found in peyote, salvia, and psychedelic “magic” mushrooms. Some synthetic hallucinogens, such as LSD, have been used for decades. Others, such as 25I-NBOMe (N-BOMB), have only existed since the beginning of the 21st century.

Hallucinogens can have diverse effects on users. For example, ketamine is often used as an aesthetic during surgery. It has dissociative properties that cause pain relief, amnesia, and sedation. However, N-BOMB can cause an excited, euphoric state. It doesn’t have any known medical uses.

Ideally, synthetic hallucinogens seek to mimic the effects of natural hallucinogens. In reality, no one oversees manufacturers, so ingredients and quality can vary significantly from one product to the next. Buyers may not even know what chemical compounds they’re purchasing. Even the people selling drugs might not know what they have. It’s easy for a drug like N-BOMB to get sold as LSD and other substances.

The Dangers of Synthetic Drug Use

Lack of regulation is one of the biggest dangers associated with synthetic drug use. All mind-altering substances come with risks. The risks become much larger when drug users don’t know what they’re consuming.

For example, people using alcohol or cannabis purchased from licensed retailers know what to expect when they consume a drug. Regulators ensure that consumers have the information they need to make knowledgeable decisions. Drinking alcohol isn’t necessarily safe, but drinkers know the strength of their preferred drinks. They can use this information to manage their drug use to enjoy the effects while remaining relatively healthy.

No one has that option when using synthetic drugs. The LSD that someone buys from a dealer one day could differ radically from the LSD they buy from the same dealer on a different day. The same is true for other drugs, including “bath salts” and “spice” sold at convenience stores.

Easy Access

To make matters even worse, the availability of synthetic drugs convinces some people that they can use the substances without much risk. A package of synthetic cannabis sold at a convenience store must be safe, right? Otherwise, the store couldn’t sell it legally.

A few moments of thought can reveal the problem with assuming legal products are safe. After all, the same store might sell tobacco cigarettes that increase the user’s risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). About 16 million Americans live with smoking-related illnesses. These regulated products aren’t safe to use, so it’s dangerous to assume that unregulated products are safe.

Easy access to synthetic drugs also means that young people often use the chemicals. One survey of illicit drug use by high school students shows that more than 36% had used cannabis within the last year. Synthetic marijuana was the second-most commonly used drug (11.3%).

Adverse Health Effects

The adverse health effects of using synthetic drugs can vary depending on the type of chemicals consumed. Although designer drugs can create unexpected side effects, common experiences include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pains
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Paranoia
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Hallucinations
  • Panic attacks

Long-term use can cause:

  • Changes in brain structure
  • Mental health issues, such as depression and PTSD
  • Heart disease
  • Legal problems
  • Relationship problems

Addiction Potential

The addiction potential of synthetic drugs can vary significantly depending on the chemical compound. It’s unlikely that someone who takes LSD at a rave will get addicted to the drug. LSD has a fairly low addiction potential. Even frequent users tend to give their brains time to recover between experiences.

However, methamphetamine has a high abuse potential. A report shows that about 2.6 million Americans 12 years and older used meth in 2020. An estimated 1.5 million lived with methamphetamine use disorder during that year. These numbers suggest that more than half of people who use meth develop addictions to the drug.

It’s impossible to know the addiction potential of any synthetic drugs purchased illicitly. You cannot know the drug’s true chemical structure, so you cannot know whether it has a high or low risk of addiction.

How Synthetic Drugs Avoid Law Enforcement

Synthetic drug manufacturers try to avoid legal repercussions by changing chemical structures frequently. They hope that changing their products will keep them ahead of laws and regulations. When the government identifies a new drug and writes a law making it illegal, the manufacturers have moved on to a new substance.

The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act helps government agencies address the legal ambiguity of certain chemical compounds. The act added 26 synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids to the list of Schedule I drugs.

States can also move quickly to ban dangerous chemicals before they become popular among residents.

Government actions might help prevent people from selling and buying synthetic drugs. Obviously, legality does not stop everyone from trading and using illicit drugs. Meth is a controlled substance with some tightly regulated medical uses. It’s illegal to make, sell, and buy the drug without government approval. Still, millions of people use meth each year.

Putting synthetic drugs on the list of controlled substances does, however, make it more difficult for people to access the chemicals. Gas stations and convenience stores are less likely to sell banned substances. Removing spice, K2, and similar drugs from stores makes it harder for users to find and purchase the chemicals. It doesn’t stop an addict from finding the drugs they need, but it attempts to address the public health concerns of rampant drug use.

Treatment Options for Synthetic Drug Abuse

Treatment options for synthetic drug options might need to address chemical withdrawal, psychological withdrawal, and underlying mental health issues. The specific approach will depend on the type of substance a patient uses. Someone abusing meth will probably need different treatment options from someone misusing N-BOMB. Care providers should base treatment plans on the individual’s needs.

Managing Withdrawal Symptoms

The symptoms of withdrawing from synthetic drug abuse can include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Severe depression
  • Dehydration
  • Tremors
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Fever

People who try to stop using the substances without professional help might return to the drug to end signs of withdrawal. Medical detox programs provide support during the process, making withdrawal more tolerable. Medications might help patients endure withdrawal from opioids, amphetamines, and other highly addictive drugs.

In some instances, withdrawing from a drug can put patients in physical danger. When withdrawal symptoms can lead to physical harm, treatment centers might need to use a tapering schedule that slowly weens the person off the drug.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people address the underlying mental health conditions that contribute to addiction. For example, someone with PTSD might use synthetic cannabinoids to experience euphoria instead of anxiety and panic. CBT teaches people how to identify and confront thought distortions and behavioral patterns that exacerbate symptoms.

CBT can also teach patients how to find healthier coping strategies. Instead of turning to drugs for relief, they can choose healthier options that appeal to their interests and personalities.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing accepts that people have positive and negative experiences with drug use. Ideally, it seeks to highlight the benefits of quitting compared to the dangers of continuing to use. The counseling method meets each person where they are and encourages them to make positive, healthy choices. Motivational interviewing brings the pros and cons to light so patients can confront the reality of living with drug addiction.

Ongoing Support

Many people living with substance misuse disorder need inpatient treatment to stop using synthetic drugs. The journey does not end with detox. Ongoing support through out-patient services, counseling, and abstinence groups like narcotics anonymous (NA) contribute to ongoing success.

Contact Zinnia Healing

The professionals at Zinnia Healing understand the complexity of synthetic drug abuse. Each person needs a unique approach to detoxing and finding strategies that lead to long-term sobriety.

Synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous because users don’t know what they’re taking. They also tend to cause more intense reactions than substances found in nature.

If you or a loved one is struggling with synthetic drug abuse, reach out to Zinnia Healing to get started on the path to wellness. We offer a broad range of substance use and mental health services that can equip you for a healthier life without synthetic drugs.