Synthetic “designer” drugs are gaining popularity across the country, particularly with parolees, military personnel, and others looking to get a legal high without worry of failing a drug test. Through sophisticated chemistry, amateur drug makers have found ways to minorly alter the chemical structure of drugs like marijuana and MDMA to make them “street legal” and undetectable in standard drug tests.
“The world of drugs, for controlled substances and toxicology, five or eight years ago used to be about maybe 250 compounds, all of which we understood well,” says Peter Stout, a research forensics scientist at RTI International, when asked about the prevalence of the designer drug trend. “Now, we’re getting 10, 20, 100 new compounds that show up every year.”
On this week’s “TechKnow,” contributor Crystal Dilworth meets with police and research professionals to learn more about these dangerous and elusive drugs. Here’s what you should know about some of the most popular products:
The term “spice” refers to a variety of herbal mixtures that resemble marijuana in appearance and effect. Spice is touted as a safe, legal alternative to cannabis, and it is sold in many smoke shops and gas stations alongside tobacco products. Some of the most popular names for spice strains include K2, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others.
Spice is often promoted as being “natural” psychoactive plant material. In truth, the only natural component is dried plant matter that is treated with the psychoactive chemicals, synthetic cannabinoid compounds that simulate the effects of natural marijuana.
All cannabinoids, including the synthetic compounds used in spice, are federally classified with marijuana as a schedule 1 narcotic. Makers of spice have continued to keep their products “street legal” by staying one step ahead of law enforcement, changing the chemical structure slightly in order to create a new compound that has not yet been classified as an illegal cannabinoid.
The ever-changing chemical makeup of spice’s active ingredients means that there is little data on the effects of spice on the human body. However, spice abusers at Poison Control Centers across the country have reported rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice has also been shown to raise blood pressure and, in a few cases, has been associated with heart attacks.
alpha-Methyltryptamine, or aMT, is a psychedelic and stimulant, initially developed in the 1960s as an antidepressant. It creates feelings of euphoria and hallucinations similar to MDMA or LSD, though the chemicals are structurally unrelated.
While still legal in Canada and the UK, aMT was permanently classified as a schedule 1 narcotic by the DEA in 2004. However the drug can still be easily purchased online under the guise of “health supplements.”
Reported side effects of aMT include anxiety, restlessness, muscle tension, jaw tightness, pupil dilation, tachycardia, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. There have been few reported fatalities that are directly tied to aMT use, however in several cases, deaths have been caused by excessive doses of aMT or coingestion with other drugs.
Drugs sold as bath salts are in no way related to epsom salts or other bath products. In fact, these synthetic drugs, also marketed as keyboard cleaner, plant food, and jewelry cleaner, are most similar to amphetamines in their effects and chemical composition.
According to Dr. Zane Horowitz, the medical director of the Oregon Poison Center, professionals believe that the main component of most bath salts is MDPV, or methylenedioxypyrovalerone, though “newer... derivatives are being made by illegal street chemists.” Popular types of street bath salts include "Ivory Wave," "Purple Wave," Vanilla Sky," and "Bliss."
The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 outlawed many of the ingredients used to make bath salts, classifying them as schedule 1 narcotics. However, like spice, the chemical makeup of bath salts is constantly being altered by amatuer chemists to avoid detection, making the drug incredibly difficult for law enforcement to track and monitor.
Other than highly-reported (and mostly false) cases of zombie-like behavior, effects of bath salts can include agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, chest pain, increased pulse, high blood pressure, and suicidal thinking/behavior.
Depression or suicidal behavior can last "even after the stimulatory effects of the drugs have worn off," Horowitz says. "At least for MDPV, there have been a few highly publicized suicides a few days after their use."
To learn more about designer drugs, watch "TechKnow," Saturday 7ET/4PT on Al Jazeera America.