synthetic drug

How Lab-Created Synthetic Drugs Cleverly Elude Law Enforcement

Photos courtesy of Rene R via Flickr and the DEA via Wikimedia Commons

A slew of new lab-created “designer drugs” are undergoing global expansion. 

Joining the ranks of known narcotics are hundreds of new psychoactive substances (NPS) — synthetic drugs, which are grown in the lab instead of the dirt.

What you should know about them

According to the UN’s 2013 World Drug Report, there were 348 new synthetic drugs in over 90 nations, up from 166 in 2009.

Whether you say “no” or “yes” to such drugs (or any), it’s important to be knowledgable about what they’re made up of. Not all products marketed as “legal” are as safe as they seem, or as innocent as their labels imply.

Many of these so-called “designer drugs” are created to mimic the effects of naturally occurring drugs like marijuana and opium, modified in-lab for enhanced highs or to prevent unwanted side effects.

Most also cleverly alter the chemical structure of controlled drugs to get around legal restrictions, making them difficult to track for law enforcers everywhere.

There are synthesized versions of almost every type of drug known to man, which vary in availability, risk, and legalization. Here are some popular examples, and how they manage to evade the law.

1. Synthetic cannabinoid

AKA: Spice, K2, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks

“Fake weed” is often marketed as a safe and legal alternative to marijuana under a variety of fun names. They’re also sometimes marketed as “all natural,” which usually isn’t the case.

Though K2-like products do consists of natural dried plant material, their active ingredients are synthetic cannabinoid compounds, which sometimes contain heavy metal residues that put health at risk.

2. Bath Salts

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Screen shot from (Note: Curiousmatic does not recommend or endorse)

AKA: Cloud 9, Bliss, that drug that allegedly made this Florida man eat a person’s face.

Deceptively named “bath salts,” synthetic cathinones are labeled as such to evade detection. Similar types are also called “plant food” or “jewelry cleaner.”

Bath salts are concerning due to their unknown chemical components and their possibly scary and zombie-like effects on the brain.

3. Krokodil

AKA: That drug that gives you scales (When in Russia, vodka is a safer bet.)

This drug is a synthetic form of the heroin-like drug desomorphine, combined with other toxic chemicals (allegedly including lighter fluid and industrial cleaner).

It’s popular in Russia as a cheap heroin substitute, and though it has reportedly made an appearance in the U.S, the DEA has yet to confirm its usage.

4. Legal acid

AKA: N-bomb, Smiles, 25I

While acid in itself is a synthetic drug, certain NPS are emerging as legal substitutes for LSD and other hallucinogens.

Synthetically derived from mescaline, the chemicals are often stronger than those in typical acid, which can lead to unintended effects, especially if the drug is mislabeled.

Why are so many of these drugs “legal?”

The issue with synthetic drugs is that once components are banned, they are easily replaced by other, newer chemicals and emerge on the market under different names.

Because of this, it’s especially difficult to know the long-term effect of these ever-morphing drugs, since they are replaced by new products so frequently.

Another issue is that these drugs are often marketed to buyers as the drug they are mimicking, rather than as the synthesized, and often chemically enhanced or mixed version they are. Synthetic drugs can be more difficult to treat if the trip goes south, the BBC says.

The UN suggests international cooperation is needed to create an early warning system, which would allow emerging synthetic drugs to be reported as they emerge globally.

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Jennifer Markert