Synthetic Drugs and Research Chemicals

In the last few years, stories have circulated in the news media about drugs known as bath salts, K2, or Spice that result in erratic, violent behavior in those who use them. New types of drugs with similar reactions and stories seem to pop up on a regular basis, making it seem that there is a plethora of new drugs being introduced every day.

However, many of these drugs are simply new versions of natural compounds that have been created in the laboratory. Known as research chemicals or synthetic drugs, these substances have side effects and risks that have led the Office of National Drug Control Policy to declare them as a threat to public health and safety. Understanding more about the origins, risks, and potential solutions to the spread of these drugs may help people who are struggling with synthetic drug misuse get the help they need and begin the path to recovery.

What Are Synthetic Drugs and Research Chemicals?

The term designer drugs is often used to describe synthetic drugs and research chemicals. This is an appropriate name, because these drugs are designed rather than extracted from nature. Quite simply, these drugs are manufactured in labs.

In many cases, research drugs are developed to act like more common drugs, but with the goal of making production less expensive than it is for drugs created from natural sources. As a result, these drugs can make more money for the people who sell them, while still being cheaper for the users to buy.

In addition, many of these drugs have formulaic alterations that make them stronger, offering a more intense high. Because these drugs cost less and often have a higher potency, they can be immensely popular.

People who make and distribute these designer drugs take great pains to avoid these drugs being categorized as illegal. In their effort to produce drugs that are “technically” legal, they often use chemicals that are designed for other purposes, such as for scientific research. This is where the name research chemicals came from. As described by an article from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), these distributors will often label the drugs as “not for human consumption,” even though human consumption is actually the goal, in order to throw off the authorities.

Types of Research Chemicals and Synthetic Drugs

The following is a brief summary of the types of drugs included in these categories, many of which have been the subject of news reports in recent years.

Synthetic Opioids

The medical field uses a number of types of synthetic and semisynthetic opioids to treat various types of pain or to help in the treatment of addictions to heroin and other opioids. Fentanyl and tramadol were originally formulated for these purposes. However, these drugs – particularly fentanyl, which has become a popular street drug – cause intense psychoactive effects and result in physical risk.

Fentanyl is sometimes added to other street drugs to increase their potency. A large number of deaths have occurred as a result of this use of the drug, as the users are often unaware that their dose has been laced with a synthetic opioid.

Synthetic Cathinones

Synthetic cathinones are popularly known as bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food, among other names. These drugs are among the research chemical types of drugs that are often labeled as being not for human consumption. As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the substances mimic a drug from the African/Asian khat plant, and provide a stimulant response that can be more intense than those of cocaine or amphetamines.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are made to resemble the psychoactive compound in marijuana, known as THC. Again, however, these drugs – which have street names like spice and K2 – can cause a far more intense reaction than natural THC. The drugs are often sprayed on herbal blends and used to make tea, smoke, or burn as incense.

Ecstasy, Molly, and MDMA

Ecstasy and Molly are drugs that provide both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, and can create a powerful euphoria. According to NIDA, both contain MDMA, a chemical with similarities to amphetamines and to the hallucinogenic drug mescaline.

MDMA is another synthetic that is often combined with other drugs in ways that can be dangerous. Caffeine, the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, ephedrine, methamphetamine, and other stimulants and hallucinogens have been blended in Molly. Bath salts or other synthetic cathinones may also be included. The combinations can lead to a very high heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, paranoia, and violent behavior, among other reactions.

Health Risks of Designer Drugs

The main risk of these drugs is that the contents are often unregulated and therefore unknown. This can result in chemicals being ingested into the body that may have an unpredictable reaction, leading to physical or mental injury or even death.

As an example, SAMHSA reports that more than 28,500 emergency room visits in 2011 were based on synthetic cannabinoid use – a greater than 150% increase from the previous year. This may be because many synthetic cannabinoid drugs are labeled as “organic” or otherwise made to seem natural, making people think they are safer than other drugs.

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Signs and Symptoms of Research Drug Addiction

Only a doctor or other addiction specialist can diagnose someone with a substance use disorder. But some signs to look for include:

  • Using substances in higher amounts or more often than intended.
  • Continuing to use substances despite the negative impact they have on your life.
  • Drug cravings.

Treating Synthetic Drug Addiction

Evidence-based treatment from a certified, reputable treatment center can help many people recover from substance use disorders and prevent further harm of continued drug use.

These facilities use therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that help people learn how to recognize and manage triggers and cravings, learn how to substitute more desirable behaviors in place of substance use, and lead toward a better chance of staying abstinent and avoiding future use of these substances.

If you’re worried about your substance use, we’re here to help. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction recovery services in Nevada and throughout the United States. Call our free, confidential helpline at to learn more about your treatment options.