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What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are cheaper and more available than other abused drugs, but they pose serious risks due to their unpredictable nature. They are designed to be legal rather than safe, and rarely undergo sufficient research.

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What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs are synthesized in a laboratory setting using chemicals. They are not exclusively illegal or even always drugs of notable abuse potential. Various drugs with legitimate medical purposes are synthesized in this way. 

However, some drugs are synthesized in criminal labs for the purpose of selling on the black market. Other drugs made in legitimate labs are sometimes stolen or diverted to be sold on the streets as well.

Key Facts About Synthetic Drugs

Key Facts

  • Synthetic drugs were first reported as a legitimate problem in the United States in 2008, with the seizure and analysis of Spice in Ohio.
  • Because of their highly customizable and varied nature, synthetic drugs have been notoriously difficult to regulate. Many sellers are able to find loopholes around drug laws intended to prevent abusable synthetic drugs from being sold legally. As soon as regulators outlaw a specific formulation, manufacturers often tweak the formula, so it remains technically legal.
  • The primary users of synthetic drugs are young people, as these drugs are often cheap and easily accessible.
  • It is often difficult to test for synthetic drug use because of the varied chemicals that can be used to make them.
  • Nothing about synthetic drugs makes them inherently safer than drugs derived from natural substances. Many of these drugs are often sold with false claims attached, such as statements about them being “natural” or “healthy.”

Different Types of Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs are usually broken down into two categories:


Common synthetic cannabinoids include the drugs K2 and Spice. These drugs are designed to mimic THC, which is the substance in marijuana that makes it psychoactive. 

Many of these drugs are so new that there is limited information on exactly how they can affect the body. In terms of what draws people to use them, they have many of the same effects associated with marijuana, including these:

  • Euphoria
  • A general sense of well-being
  • Spontaneous laughter and excitement
  • Increased appetite
  • Quiet, reflective moods

There are also some serious concerns about their short-term and long-term toxicities. These concerns don’t generally exist with marijuana.


Synthetic stimulants include drugs such as bath salts and MDMA (which is also called ecstasy or Molly). These drugs are usually designed to chemically mimic the effects of popular party drugs, such as cocaine, LSD, and methamphetamine. 

Many of these drugs also fall into other drug categories. For example, MDMA is a type of psychoactive drug called phenethylamine. Phenethylamines can come in many different forms, such as blotting paper, pills, and powder. This is similar to how LSD is often delivered. 

Piperazines are a group of chemicals that often mimic the effects of MDMA, and they highlight one of the major risks of buying almost any substance of abuse. Many criminal sellers will often misrepresent these drugs, selling them as MDMA when they actually are something else. This means you may be putting a different substance into your body than you think you are and will have no real legal recourse if you’re cheated in this way.

Research Chemicals & Other Workarounds

Many strategies are often used by (usually criminal or at least unethical) drug manufacturers and sellers to try to subvert regulations and trick consumers into overestimating the safety or quality of products. One of these is labeling substances as research chemicals.

On one hand, research chemicals have a real place in legitimate medical research. Some chemicals may have some uses researchers want to test, and they may have been checked for certain medicinal or other properties and confirmed to have those properties, even if we don’t fully understand the substance yet. 

However, many of these chemicals are too easy for nonprofessionals to get and misuse. There is a serious issue with research chemicals being underregulated.

One way sellers often trick customers is by labeling a drug “legal X” with “X” being replaced with whatever substance a person may want to use but is illegal in their area. For example, some drugs are sold as “legal benzodiazepines,” with similar properties to currently regulated benzodiazepines, but these substances are underresearched and easier to sell due to the more legally gray area they exist in.

Dangers & Risks

Poison Control receives thousands of calls a year about synthetic cannabinoids. One issue when discussing the specific risks of different substances is how varied and underresearched many of them are. However, there are some commonalities that can be discussed. 

The more frequent effects are reported to include the following:

  • Agitation
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting 
  • Confusion

In 2015, 15 deaths were reported to be the result of using synthetic cannabinoids, which accounts for 0.05 percent of these calls. It was found that males are more likely to experience severe outcomes compared to females. The same is true for people over 30 compared to those between 10 and 19 years old.

Less research has been performed on synthetic stimulants, but these substances shouldn’t be considered safer. They are just less used and less understood.

History of Synthetic Drugs

It’s usually stated the first synthetic drug was chloral hydrate, discovered in 1869. Before then, medicine was usually derived from nature and only lightly processed from things like herbs, plants, roots, vines, and fungi. 

However, the mid-19th century signaled a fundamental shift in the way humans interacted with the world and engaged in scientific research. Better understanding of things like chemistry and biology allowed for the synthesizing and use of drugs that didn’t occur naturally. 

Like many scientific advancements, this wasn’t inherently good or bad. But one of the negative outcomes was that it would slowly become easier for people to sell potentially addictive or dangerous substances that regulators weren’t prepared for. There were good reasons to want to keep these substances out of the hands of the average consumer.

Who Uses Synthetic Drugs?

The group of people most likely to misuse synthetic drugs are young individuals because these drugs are often cheap and available in places we may not typically associate with the ready availability of drugs, such as convenience stores. They may be sold as herbal incense or labeled “Not for Human Consumption.” 

Even substances that are technically illegal to sell are often underregulated and relatively easy for someone to get in many areas.

Government Efforts to Ban Drugs

The United States government tries to stop synthetic drugs from being sold to consumers by regularly updating their regulations and punishing manufacturers and sellers of illegal substances. The DEA offers a tool to report synthetic drugs online to help with this process.

Unfortunately, these regulations are often inadequate, such as when President Obama passed a synthetic drug law that was fairly obsolete even as it was being signed. The problem is that individuals can look at the current regulations in place and often synthesize new drugs with similar effects to those banned that technically don’t fall under the current rules. 

Regulating these drugs is something of an arms race that can be difficult for regulators to keep up with.

Treatment Options for Synthetic Drug Misuse

If you’re struggling to stop using any type of synthetic drug, you should talk to an addiction treatment professional about your options. While there aren’t dedicated treatments for synthetic drug addiction, general addiction treatment practices are used. Experts usually employ practices that work for substances we understand better with similar properties and adapt them to your needs.

The first step of addiction treatment is usually detox, which allows your body to process the drugs in its system and go through withdrawal. Then, you can participate in therapy. During these sessions, you’ll learn to identify what draws you to use drugs, how to channel those feelings in healthier ways, and what to do if you feel compelled to use drugs. 

Some addictions can be treated in part with medication, but not necessarily synthetic drug addiction. You will have to talk to a treatment expert about the specific drugs you have used repeatedly and get their opinion about whether any medications might be a good fit. In some instances, medications are used to treat specific symptoms, such as insomnia, depression, or anxiety.

Synthetic Drugs FAQs

What are some other names for synthetic drugs?

Synthetic drugs might also be called designer drugs or lab drugs. Because they are made in labs, chemists can try to adjust them to have specific properties that they want. 
Despite the jargon used, it needs to be emphasized that no chemist, especially underground chemists selling drugs that are meant to skirt regulations, can perfectly synthesize a drug that has only “good” effects with no health downsides. Chemistry and medicine simply haven’t advanced far enough for us to predict exactly what a drug will do without substantial research, which the majority of these drugs don’t get.

What is the main difference between natural and synthetic drugs?

Natural drugs aren’t necessarily “healthier” than synthetic drugs despite some people thinking so. The defining difference between these two categories of drugs is simply that synthetic drugs are synthesized in a lab setting by chemists using chemicals. Some drugs are also semi-synthetic, meaning they have a more natural base than typical synthetic drugs but are still at least partially synthesized in a lab.

What is the first synthetic drug?

The first synthetic drug was likely chloral hydrate, a sedative that is sometimes used to treat insomnia and relieve anxiety. Today, it is largely considered obsolete, and it is no longer available in the United States. It is still used in some other parts of the world.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated April 30, 2023
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  5. Synthetic Drugs. Drug Enforcement Agency.
  6. New Federal Ban on Synthetic Drugs Already Obsolete. (July 2012). Wired.
  7. Chloral Hydrate. (March 2019). National Library of Medicine.
  8. The New Classes of Synthetic Illicit Drugs Can Significantly Harm the Brain: A Neuro Imaging Perspective with Full Review of MRI Findings. (April 2018). Clinical Radiology & Imaging Journal.
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