Synthetic Drugs & Research Chemicals

Table of Contents

The world of synthetic drugs leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The use or abuse of synthetic drugs or research chemicals is often substituted as an alternative to using illicit drugs. These substances can create many dangers for individuals communing with them, in many cases, much is still being studied about the impact these substances have on the body. Synthetic drugs have effects that are similar to hallucinogens or narcotics. However, these drugs have a slightly altered chemical structure used to evade restrictions. 1 These drugs may be sold legally or illegally. However, due to the nature of these substances, the potency and chemical makeup are largely unregulated, especially when being used recreationally or abused. 

Due to the changes and irregularity in chemical structure, these substances remain completely unregulated by the government or other regulatory agencies. Due to the lack of quality controls, individuals who use synthetic drugs may be at significant risk for health problems or overdoses.2 While the government is working to regulate the composition and sale of synthetic substances, as of now, there are no strict standards in place. Individuals who have loved ones using or abusing synthetic drugs may be largely unaware of what these substances are and why they are dangerous. Taking steps to identify what substances are categorized as synthetic drugs, what their legal status is, and the risks associated with these substances – is essential to determine how to support your loved one.

Synthetic Drugs – The Basics

As mentioned previously, synthetic drugs are defined as substances with similar effects to known hallucinogens or narcotics.1 Synthetic drugs are manufactured and distributed in order to avoid restrictions that impact illegal drugs. These drugs typically range from Synthetic Cannabinoids to Synthetic Stimulants. Many synthetic substances have hallucinogenic properties. Generally, synthetic drug use is most common among young people – teens and young adults.2 According to a 2012 study, one in nine high school seniors reported using synthetic cannabinoids.2 The trend amongst young people is alarming due to the common health impacts associated with synthetic drug use. Due to the man-made nature of these substances and the lack of oversight, individuals who use synthetic drugs are at risk for a number of adverse effects. 

Many of these drugs are marketed and sold in stores across the United States. Synthetic drugs are sold in small variety stores, gas stations, and can be purchased over the internet. Some packages of these substances are labeled “not for human consumption” due to the drugs not being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While some of these drugs are relatively easy to access, there are currently measures being taken that regulate these substances and limit accessibility. Currently, the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States Department of Justice consider synthetic drugs to lack any legitimate industrial or medical use.3

Synthetic Drugs & Research Chemicals: What Are They and Why Are They Dangerous healthcare 2021 09 01 16 11 45 utc 1650918609.6726131 optimized

Types of Synthetic Drugs

There are many synthetic drugs that are popular amongst users. While there continues to be an expanding array of synthetic drugs available, there are a handful that are most common amongst users. Some of the most commonly discussed syntenic drugs include cannabinoids and bath salts. It is imperative for loved ones to understand the differences between various synthetic drugs and the effects they have on the brain and body.

Synthetic Cannabinoids (Spice/K2)

Synthetic cannabinoid products are typically made up of a variety of spices and herbs along with various man-made chemicals.4 These substances are developed to mimic the effects of marijuana on the brain. While there may be a variety of synthetic cannabinoids, the most common is Spice, also known as K2. Research indicates that the chemical compounds in Spice have a high potential for abuse and demonstrate no medical benefit.5 Synthetic cannabinoids are ingested the same way one would ingest marijuana – through smoking a joint, pipe, or electronic cigarette. Additionally, individuals can prepare the substance as an herbal tea. It is important to note that the chemicals present in Spice can attach to brain receptors more strongly than THC.5 Due to the man-made chemicals present in synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice, the effect on the brain is usually stronger than that of marijuana.5 Among the effect on the brain, the body is also impacted by the use of synthetic cannabinoids. 

Negative Bodily Responses to Spice/K25:

The effects of the chemicals present in Spice/K2 are still being studied. Individuals who choose to ingest synthetic cannabinoids are at risk for not only the reactions listed above but potential long-term effects.

Cathinones (Bath Salts)

Cathinones, commonly known as Bath Salts are a synthetic stimulant drug. Like other synthetic drugs, these synthetic stimulants are commonly sold online, at convenience stores, or at “head shops”.6 Bath Salts typically have one or more laboratory-made chemicals that are similar in nature to cathinone – a stimulant naturally found in the khat plant.7 The chemicals used in Bath Salts are generally similar to the chemicals found in amphetamines such as methamphetamine and MDMA. Oftentimes, these substances are confused with Epsom salts which are also commonly referred to as bath salts. However, the synthetic drug Bath Salts are typically brown or white in color and look like a crystal powder sold in small plastic or foil packages. These substances are commonly labeled as items like “plant food” or “jewelry cleaner” for sale. However, these marketing descriptions are not reflective of their intended use.7 

Bath Salts are typically ingested through swallowing, snorting through the nasal cavity, inhaling, or injecting with a needle. As mentioned previously, due to the chemical similarities of amphetamines or MDMA, the brain reacts to Bath Salts as a stimulant. However, there is a wide range of effects that the drug can have on an individual’s brain and body. 

Effects of Cathinones (Bath Salts)7

The negative impact of Bath Salts on physical and mental health is apparent. There have been many cases where individuals need hospitalization and medical attention after ingesting the drug.


Less information on synthetic tryptamines is available in the scientific community. However, these synthetic drugs are known to have a similar hallucinogenic effect as their counterparts.8 Synthetic tryptamines produce a profound change in sensory perception, overall mood, and thought in the individual ingesting them. Again, due to the unregulated nature of synthetic tryptamines, these drugs pose a potentially grave threat to individuals who choose to consume them.


Synthetic phenethylamines also mimic hallucinogens. While little is known about drugs in this class, the chemicals contained in synthetic phenethylamines do have the same reaction in the brain as a traditional hallucinogenic. These drugs are typically in the form of powders, liquid solutions, laced in edible items, and soaked into blotter paper.3

Legal Status in the United States

As briefly mentioned, part of the attraction to synthetic drugs is the fact that they do not currently have the same regulations as their counterparts. While some synthetic drugs are currently designated as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), due to the potential for altering compounds, many are left unregulated.2 Individual states have also attempted to make progress in terms of regulating these drugs. A majority of states have made efforts to control some synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.2 In addition, many recent federal and state laws have been aimed at banning general categories of ingredients, rather than banning specific chemicals used in the production of synthetic drugs.9

The makers and distributors of synthetic drugs are able to mitigate any repercussions or regulatory standards by continuing to create new products with similar properties.9 As it stands, the lack of regulations or bypassing regulations means that products often vary from batch to batch, meaning consumers never truly know what product they are ingesting.9 Due to the chemical nature and unpredictability of synthetic drugs, they pose a considerable danger to users.

Dangers of Synthetic Drug Use

We have already briefly mentioned some of the risks and dangers of ingesting synthetic drugs. While many of the long-term effects continue to be studied, it is clear that these substances pose serious dangers to individuals. These substances can vary in composition from batch to batch, even if it is marketed as the same product with the same packaging. Due to its unpredictable nature, individuals may experience different effects from synthetic drugs. 

During the 2010s, hospitals and emergency rooms saw a relatively significant increase in overdose or complications from synthetic drugs – mostly from Spice or Bath Salts.10 Additionally, many poison control hotlines began receiving an uptick in calls related to overdose symptoms from synthetic drugs. As the momentum of the synthetic drug market gained momentum, officials declared the substance a public health issue. Individuals may face a variety of health complications from using substances such as Spice and Bath Salts. 

Severe Effects of Synthetic Drugs:

These are examples of the most common and severe adverse health effects of synthetic drugs. In the worst cases of synthetic drug overdose, individuals have a dangerous reaction resulting in seriously harmful symptoms or conditions.11 Sometimes, additional substances such as opioids or other narcotics are added to the composition of a synthetic drug, making the substance more lethal to the user. Individuals who consume synthetic drugs are ultimately placing themselves in a dangerous situation without complete knowledge of the chemicals they are consuming. Numerous warnings have been issued from public health outlets and poison control centers outlining the negative health effects of using synthetic drugs.2 If a loved one appears to be suffering from an overdose from synthetic drugs or is having a toxic reaction, it is essential to call 911 or seek medical attention immediately. In the most devastating cases, individuals may die as a result of synthetic drug use.

What to do if a Loved One is Struggling

As a loved one, it can be difficult to understand how to best support someone who is actively using synthetic drugs. However, it is important to educate synthetic drug users about the dangerous chemicals they are putting in their body – especially for parents. As mentioned previously, synthetic drugs such as Spice and Bath Salts are commonly used by teenagers and young adults. During such a pivotal time for brain development, it is essential for young people to take care of their personal health, including brain health. The potential severity of negative effects associated with synthetic drug use typically increases when the substance is being ingested frequently and for a long period of time.9 That means, similar to other drugs, early intervention is essential for your loved one’s health and safety. 

If your loved one is addicted to a synthetic drug, they will likely experience some form of withdrawal from the drug including the following symptoms: headache, nausea, severe anxiety, excess sweating, and trouble sleeping.9 Depending on where the individual is at with regards to their addiction, they may be unwilling to stop using. It is essential to share your concerns with your loved one and even provide them with information about synthetic drugs. Approaching the topic sensitively can help your loved one feel more comfortable opening up about their synthetic drug use. In addition, it will be helpful to speak to a medical professional to assess if treatment would be appropriate for the situation. If you believe that your loved one is in crisis, it is imperative to contact a medical professional as soon as possible. 

While there is still much to learn about synthetic drugs, the information makes it clear that while they may affect the brain similarly to their counterparts, these drugs carry unique risks. However, as more information becomes available, it is helpful to educate yourself and your loved ones on the risk associated with synthetic drugs. If your loved one is suffering from the effects of synthetic drugs, it is important to know you are not alone and support is available – reach out to a professional for assistance.


  1. New York Department of Public Health. (n.d.) Synthetic drug frequently asked questions. Retrieved from
  2. Office of National Drug Control Policy. (n.d.). Synthetic drugs (a.k.a. K2, Spice, Bath Salts, etc.). Retrieved from
  3. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). About synthetic drugs. Retrieved from
  4. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.).
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Spice. Retrieved from
  6. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Bath salts. Retrieved from
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Bath Salts. Retrieved from
  8. Tittarelli, R., Mannocchi, G., Pantano, F., & Romolo, F. S. (2015). Recreational use, analysis and toxicity of tryptamines. Current Neuropharmacology, 13(1), 26–46.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). About synthetic cannabinoids. Retrieved from,ingredients%2C%20rather%20than%20specific%20chemicals.
  10.  Massachusetts Department of Public Health. (n.d.). Synthetic stimulants and synthetic marijuana. Retrieved from
  11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Synthetic cannabinoids (K2/Spice) DrugFacts. Retrieved from