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Synthetic Drugs: A Man-Made Menace


*Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. The article below is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.

The use of synthetic drugs, known as bath salts and synthetic marijuana, also called Spice or K2, has skyrocketed since their appearance just a few years ago. Potentially harmful synthetic drugs are sold on the Internet and in certain establishments under many different names and misleading labels. Users are most likely to be young people, including teenagers, college students and service members, who have been led to believe that these products are an easy and legal way to get high without the risk of detection in a drug test. As a service member or family member, you should be aware of the very real dangers posed by these synthetic drugs and of the potential impact that their use could have on a service member's military career.

Synthetic marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is plant material laced with man-made chemicals that mimic the effects of THC, a component of "natural" marijuana. A large family of chemicals has been created for this purpose. In different combinations, they are often called "Spice" or "K2," but other names may also be used. Synthetic marijuana is usually smoked using a pipe, a water pipe or rolled in cigarette papers.

Users of synthetic marijuana may experience some effects similar to natural marijuana, such as euphoria, giddiness, bloodshot eyes and impaired short-term memory and concentration. However, psychotic symptoms are more likely with synthetic marijuana because it stimulates receptors in the brain to a higher degree, making it much more potent. Users of synthetic marijuana may experience a range of side effects including increased heart rate and blood pressure, paranoid behavior, agitation, irritability, nausea, vomiting and confusion. Severely negative effects to the cardiovascular and central nervous systems have also been reported.

Synthetic marijuana is often marketed as "herbal incense" or "potpourri" and typically looks like natural marijuana or oregano. Products are labeled "not for human consumption" to avoid Food and Drug Administration regulation and law enforcement scrutiny.

Bath salts

The term "bath salts" is commonly used for synthetic drugs that act as a stimulant or hallucinogen. Bath salts may be snorted, taken by mouth, mixed with water or injected. These substances stimulate the body's central nervous system and have effects similar to cocaine and amphetamines. Milder effects include increased alertness, diminished need for sleep, lack of appetite, agitation and nosebleeds. More serious side effects may include increased heart rate and blood pressure, hallucinations, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, violent behavior and risk of organ failure.

Bath salts may also be marketed as "plant food" or "research chemicals" to disguise their properties and true purpose. They're sold under brand names like Purple Wave, Bliss and Vanilla Sky, to name just a few. These substances come in colorful packets of crystals or powders, or they may be sold as liquids. Like synthetic marijuana, bath salts are deceptively labeled "not for human consumption."

Safety hazards

Synthetic drugs are not safe according to the health warnings issued by numerous federal, state and local public health authorities and poison control centers. As the use of these drugs increases, so does the frequency of emergency room cases involving psychotic reactions, paranoid delusions, agitation, seizures, cardiac arrests and even deaths caused by these synthetic substances. Especially troubling side effects include a lack of pain response and lack of judgment, which can lead to dangerous behaviors such as running into traffic and over exposure to extreme weather conditions.

Synthetic drugs are man-made and there is no way to know for certain which and how many chemicals a product contains and in what quantities. Synthetic drugs may also interact with prescription medications, alcohol and other illegal drugs, causing more serious reactions. These factors often make synthetic drug use difficult to diagnosis and treat.

Synthetic drugs haven't been around long enough for people to really study their long-term effects on the brain or determine how addictive they are. But the information that is available suggests that tolerance builds quickly leading to increased dosage and risk of physical or psychological addiction.

Control of synthetic drugs

Prior to 2010, synthetic drugs were not controlled. As the dangers of these substances became apparent, the Drug Enforcement Administration, state drug control agencies, and the military services moved quickly to ban many of the compounds used to make synthetic drugs.

Each branch of service is taking aggressive action to educate service members about the risks of synthetic drugs and the consequences of their use and now have the capability to test for synthetic compounds like Spice. The services have also implemented robust random drug testing programs to detect use. Before trying any synthetic drug, service members need to know that the use, possession or distribution of a banned compound is unlawful under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Using, possessing, promoting or distributing any legally obtained bath salts or synthetic marijuana products will at the very least expose a service member to administrative action and possible discharge. A positive drug test may not be required. There is zero tolerance for the use of drugs - synthetic or otherwise - in military service.

Military parents of teens and young adults should also take steps to find out about the prevalence of synthetic drugs in their civilian communities, as well as the legal and law enforcement efforts to control them.

Getting support and treatment

If you or someone you know is using synthetic drugs, support is available. Service members have several treatment options. Military OneSource can also help you identify treatment options in your local community. Visit them online or call 800-342-9647. You can also reach out to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information hotline at 800-729-6686. 


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