Over the past two decades, law enforcement has had their hands full in terms of keeping up with illicit and prescription drug abuse. A classification of drugs known as “synthetics” is leading to serious consequences across the country. In some instances, there is not much law enforcement can do because many of these substances are still technically legal.

Why Are Most Synthetic Drugs Legal?

What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are illicit substances that are meant to mimic the effects of street drugs. In most cases, these substances end up being more potent and harmful than the street drugs they are meant to emulate.

They consist of substances that are not currently regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, and government officials are not quite able to place them on the federally controlled substance schedule. In many instances, as soon as a particular synthetic drug is made illegal, manufacturers change the formula slightly to make it technically legal.

Examples of Synthetic Drugs

Examples of synthetic drugs include the following:

  • Mephedrone
  • Spice

The two most popular synthetic drugs are K2 and bath salts, although many exist, and the number continuously grows. According to Narconon, more than 100 different new synthetics could be added to the ever-growing list.

Spice, also known as K2, is a synthetic form of marijuana. On the streets, it is oftentimes known by the following names:

  • Bliss
  • Bombay blue
  • Genie
  • Zohai
  • Black mamba
  • Fake weed

Generally, Spice is sold in silver-colored plastic bags that are filled with dried leaves that resemble potpourri. They are sometimes labeled as “spices,” “herbs,” or “shredded plant material.” The leaves are usually sprayed with the psychoactive compound that is intended to cause similar effects to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. People experience paranoia, hallucinations, dysphasia, and delusions when they take the drug. Effects of the drug may last anywhere from one to eight hours. Some who use Spice experience seizures or severe agitation.


Bath salts – not to be mistaken for the exfoliating granules used in actual baths – are classified as synthetic cathinones. They cause similar effects of drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. They come in a white or brown, crystal-like powder, and they are packaged in foil or plastic packages. Those who use bath salts swallow, snort, inject, or smoke the powder. On the street, the drugs are known by various names, such as cloud nine, bloom, scarface, vanilla sky, white lightening, and lunar wave.

People who take bath salts report having increased energy, sex drive, and sociability. Many experience hallucinations, excited delirium consisting of extreme agitation, panic attacks, and paranoia. Nosebleeds and nausea are some of the mild side effects of bath salts with the worst side effects happening in those who inject or snort the drug. The more serious issues that occur include:

  • Dehydration
  • Breakdown of skeletal tissue
  • Mania
  • Kidney failure
  • Death

Several individuals have been arrested while on bath salts while participating in activities like assault, trashing a hotel room, and killing animals. Suicidal thoughts and actions are possible as well.


Mephedrone goes by cute names like meow, bubbles, kitty cat, and m-cat, which don’t accurately represent the severity of this designer drug. As a stimulant, it acts like amphetamines, cocaine, and MDMA. It causes an increase in sociability, sex drive, and excitement. The person feels more confident and may even have stronger feelings for those around them. People report euphoria and an increase in alertness. Most people feel the effects for about an hour.

Mephedrone is not pure. Generally, it only consists of 50 percent of the active ingredient. In the United Kingdom and Wales, six individuals died from using mephedrone in 2011 alone. Although death is not common from it, those who use it may experience heart palpitations, poor circulation, tissue damage, loss of appetite, headaches, sweating, and nausea.


Flakka is another example of a synthetic drug. After a crackdown on bath salts, people began experimenting to find substances that produce a similar high, and the result was flakka. Although most news headlines related to the substance center around areas in Florida like Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, the drug was found throughout the nation and world in 2014.

Flakka consists of alpha-PVP, which produces similar effects to drugs like methamphetamine and crack cocaine. It is derived from the amphetamine-like drug, cathinone, and it causes an increase in movement and talking. When a person’s excitement and emotional levels rise, it works the cardiovascular system hard, which leads to severe heart problems. Kidney failure and hyperthermia are possible as well. In addition, the drug may cause severe agitation, aggression, paranoia, and delirium. Hallucinations are possible too.

In some cases, the person who uses it experiences excitement delirium. It has led people to bizarre behaviors, such as running in the streets naked, attempting sexual intercourse with trees, and having delusions of being God. Death is possible from this drug, often due to the erratic behavior users may engage in.

People may buy flakka on the street from dealers or online. It is much cheaper than methamphetamine and has more potent effects. Being cheap and highly addictive make it the ideal combination for a drug geared toward low-income communities.

Why Are Some Synthetic Drugs Still Legal?

Although many of these substances have been banned shortly after their introduction, it is very difficult for researchers to keep up with all the chemicals being introduced to the market. Once they determine the chemical composition of one synthetic, a new one starts its course. These drugs hit stores and online several years ago, and researchers determined several chemicals in them. Researchers have yet to be able to create drug tests that detect every substance in synthetics, especially considering the chemical composition of many changes so rapidly. In fact, tests currently detect 14 of the chemicals in bath salts, but there are many others that are currently not detectable.

When sold online or in stores, they are labeled as common products like “jewelry cleaner,” “plant food,” “incense,” “cellphone screen cleaner,” and “potpourri.” Manufacturers label them with warnings, such as “not for human consumption,” which kept them on the market and legal for quite some time. The warnings on marijuana synthetics even stated that they create marijuana-like effects but without the THC. The package sometimes states, “for adult use only.”

Are Bath Salts Illegal?

The chemicals in synthetic drugs are different than many other substances on the market. Those who created these substances took the time to make sure the substances did not have the same chemical composition as the ones already deemed as controlled substances.

The risks associated with synthetic drugs are generally not known by the public until harmful effects begin occurring. A prime example is when bath salts first came about. The Poison Control Center did not start receiving phone calls until 2010 in regard to individuals experiencing high blood pressure levels and tachycardic heart rates due to a substance. The people stated they had serious reactions to these chemicals, including delusions, extreme paranoia, and hallucinations. In all of 2010, the Poison Control Center received 304 calls directly related to exposure to bath salts. In 2011, the number of phone calls about bath salts rose exponentially. They received 6,138 calls that year. However, after the calls spiked in June, there was a gradual decrease up until November due to law enforcement and government officials becoming more aware of synthetic drugs.

A similar effect happened with the use of Spice. Calls to the Poison Control Center doubled between 2010 and 2011. Narconon revealed nearly 7,000 calls were made to poison control centers in 2011 alone for synthetic cannabis exposure.

Synthetic Drug Addiction

Synthetic Drug Addiction

While researchers are learning more about these drugs and developing more testing for them, addiction treatment centers are seeing more and more cases of addiction to bath salts, flakka, Spice, and other synthetic drugs. Flakka is considered to be the most addictive synthetic drug, even more so than many illicit drugs like meth.

All of these substances are considered to be psychologically addictive. This means people experience agitation, anxiety, and strong cravings for them. Synthetic drug addiction is treated in a similar way to addiction to other substances of abuse. Based on current research, treatment facilities are using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other forms of therapy to address addiction to synthetics.