Synthetic Drugs Ravaging Today’s Youth

Synthetic Drugs Ravaging Today’s Youth. Earlier this year, many young people went to Montefiore Medical Center acting extremely violent and confused.  Many of them tested positive for drugs. The degree of violence and confusion was much higher than what the medical professionals at Montefiore could have anticipated.  After being sedated for a few days, the stories they told had a striking recurring theme.  They all had used synthetic marijuana.

The harmful effects of synthetic marijuana were responsible for over 150 people going to hospitals across New York.  100 people in Alabama were admitted to hospitals for the same reason during this same timeframe.

These were just some of the names that were used on the streets for amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, LSD, marijuana, MDMA, mescaline, meth-amphetamines, and PCP.   If these names mean nothing to you, you’re fortunate.  Fortunate, but not out of the woods.

In addition to these cannabinoids, depressants, hallucinogenic or psychedelic substances, opioids, opium derivatives, and stimulants, today’s youth are faced a variety of other synthetic drugs.

What Are “Synthetic Drugs?”

Synthetic drugs are are designed, developed and made in chemical laboratories. instead of being extracted from plants, animals or bacteria.  They are created to be at least identical in effect and properties, if not stronger, to their “traditional, naturally-based” illegal drugs.  They are also known as analogue drugs.

Synthetic drugs are labeled as “not for human consumption.” They contain dried, shredded plant material and chemical additives resulting in their mind-altering effects.  These labels have no impact on the applicability of local, state or federal laws that limit or prohibit the sale of synthetic drugs. These labels do, however, fluster enforcement efforts as law enforcement and health officials may not be able to identify the products being used as drugs, therefore creating public health problems.

What do they look like?

Products are found in small, square, packets, neatly arranged on a display rack. The packaging is attractive and colorful and describes their herbal scents and aromas. Samples can even be openly, although deceptively, demonstrated.  Moreover, synthetic drugs are sold as “herbal incense” or “potpourri” or “bath salts” or “jewelry cleaner,” at low prices in paraphernalia shops, convenience stores, smoke shops, or other legal retail outlets, and on the internet, all as legal substances, to pretty much anyone.

Are They Legal?

This is not to say that synthetic drugs are all legal.  They are not.  All 50 states have, since 2011, banned two types of synthetic drugs: cannabinoids (such as “synthetic marijuana”, “Spice” or “K2”) and cathinones (such as “bath salts”).  Laws are specific, therefore states generally targeted specific versions of these drugs with individual bans.  Producers of the drugs, in an attempt to avoid the law, simply made minor changes to the chemical composition of the banned substances to create new, but similar, drugs not previously covered by law.  In order to keep up with imaginative manufacturers, legislation in subsequent years has been more general in nature, targeting entire classes of substances or using broad language to describe the prohibited drugs.

The intent of general bans is to prevent new forms of synthetic drugs from remaining unregulated, while still allowing use for approved medical and research purposes.  In addition, many states have empowered state agencies, such as a State Board of Pharmacy or Board of Health, to utilize an expedited rule-making process to temporarily ban newly identified substances that would fall into this general category, subject to later review by the State’s legislature.

Additional legal actions

In July 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 into law.  This new law makes the use, possession or distribution of certain synthetic drugs illegal.  This Act adds fifteen synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as “Spice” and eleven synthetic cathinones, commonly referred to as “bath salts,” to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.[1]

Another addition to the Federal Controlled Substances Act is the Federal Analogue Act,[2]  otherwise known as the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986.  This amendment bans drugs which are not classified as a controlled substance, although they are very similar to ones that are illegal.  These laws require that the analogue drug be substantially similar in chemical structure and pharmacological effects as a scheduled controlled substance.

According to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, 34 states have similar analogue laws, and a number of states have amended their analogue laws to specifically address emerging synthetic substances.  States have also targeted drug manufacturers and sellers through product labeling and branding laws.  Illinois is one example of a State that created criminal penalties for false advertising or misbranding “synthetic drug products.”[3] Other states have created civil penalties or are utilizing business licensing and other regulations to sanction businesses that illegally sell these substances.

What Are Their Effects?

Nobody knows for sure what the effects of any synthetic drug are.  Because manufacturers are constantly trying to stay ahead of the laws that ban or criminalize the production, marketing, sales and use of synthetic drugs, they are continuously changing the chemical make-up of these substances.  A simple tweak of the molecular compound, the illegal drug and its effects can become legal again.   “Head shops are knowingly distributing a dangerous, potentially deadly product.”[4]  With a constantly changing formulation of these drugs, it is virtually impossible to conduct any truly meaningful long-term studies of their effects.

Anecdotal information on the effects of synthetic marijuana, for example, reveals that, compared to marijuana, its adverse effects are often much more severe.

Some effects include:

  • agitation and anxiety
  • nausea
  • hallucinations
  • psychoses
  • seizures, convulsions
  • panic attacks
  • accelerated heartbeat
  • high blood pressure
  • blurred vision
  • heart attacks
  • suicidal

and other harmful thoughts or actions, and death.

In addition to the adverse effects of cocaine, LSD, and methamphetamine, synthetic versions is associated with:

  • elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • chest pain
  • extreme paranoia
  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • violent behavior

These side effects may cause users to harm themselves or others.

Synthetic Drugs in the Media

A recent CNN Special Report,  “Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs Are Killing Kids,” covered the deaths of two teenagers. Christian Bjerk and Elijah Stai both died from taking the synthetic drug 25I-NBOMBe (also known as 2C-I-NBOMe).[5]

Eighteen-year-old Christian Bjerk was a popular high school football player looking forward to starting at North Dakota State College in the fall of 2012.  He had plans to join the college’s football team.  Christian was found dead lying face down on the sidewalk.  Not far from Christian’s body, the police found two disoriented teenagers.  One was naked on a bench, the other screaming at parked car.  The police suspected drugs involved.  A police investigation of the house where Christian had attended a party turned up a white powder. Consequently, police couldn’t determine what it was.

Days later, Elijah and his foster brother Justin traveled to Grand Forks from Minnesota. They went to celebrate Elijah’s upcoming 18th birthday and visit his cousin. Elijah and Justin were hanging out with their cousin’s boyfriend. According to Justin, he offered them a special treat.

Justin said that Adam told them the powder was an extract from psychedelic mushrooms. Elijah was nervous because he had never tried psychedelic mushrooms before. Soon after they consumed the bag of laced chocolate, the hallucinations began. “The trees looked like cauliflowers like dancing around,” Justin recalled. “The sidewalks were swooping up and down like a roller coaster, and the grass was shooting up to the sky.” Elijah started having a violent reaction to the drug. He was convulsing uncontrollably, foaming at the mouth and hitting his head.  When the ambulance arrived, Elijah had passed away.

The aftermath.

At the hospital, the doctor reported that Elijah was suffering from multiple organ failure and had also gone into cardiac arrest.  Elijah was brain dead. On June 15, 2012, after three days in the hospital, his family decided to disconnect his life support.

The report went on to trace how this drug wound up in North Dakota.  The investigation found the online seller.  Therefore he was prosecuted, pled guilty and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

What can we do?

As parents or other influencers of young people, we must be clear about the dangers of these drugs.

Therefore, a clear message for young people is to avoid putting anything in their bodies that would change their feelings or emotions. Whether it is something they smoke, drink, take in pill form or shoot with a needle. The human brain is an incredible and fragile machine.  A teenage brain requires even more care because it is a developing work in progress.  Additionally, stress that it is impossible to know what these drugs contain, who made them or what you are going to get; getting high – no matter how – carries risks of making unsafe or unhealthy decisions.

In conclusion, just because a drug is legal does not mean that it is safe; we don’t know the long-term effects of synthetic drugs because the drugs are constantly changing in order to stay “legal.”


[1] The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is the statute prescribing federal U.S. drug policy under which the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of certain substances is regulated.  The act was passed by the 91st United States Congress as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

[2] 21 U.S.C. § 813, is a section of the United States Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1986. This allows any chemical “substantially similar” to a controlled substance listed in Schedule I or II to be treated as it is also listed in those schedules intended for human consumption.

[3] Illinois Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.  410 ILCS 620 (2012).

[4] Synthetic drugs sold using sly, deceptive marketing.  (2014, May 20).  KXAN.  Retrieved from

[5] Deadly High: How synthetic drugs are killing kids.  (2014, December 2).  CNN.  Retrieved from


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