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Dangers of Fentanyl, Synthetic Drugs, and Research Chemicals

Learn about the dangerous designer drugs that have been gaining popularity in the U.S.

Did you know that in the US in 2019, there were more than 36,000 fatalities from using synthetic drugs, except methadone?[1] This is more deaths than happened from any other kind of opioid in the previous year.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the usage of synthetic medicines, which has made the news.

What are synthetic drugs? They may be synthetic “copies” of classic drugs that mimic the effect of another drug. Or they may be an entirely new novel drug that is chemically different than other drugs, finding a way around regulation and detection.

These drugs can include synthetic versions of marijuana, cocaine, or opioid drugs that are created in a lab. Many who use street drugs may not even be aware that they are consuming a “synthetic” drug.

Because of the way synthetic drugs are often labeled, promoted, and used, they pose a significant danger to human health as advised by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In contrast to their counterparts, synthetics can result in unusual side effects that medical staff may not have the proper tools to treat.

Looking for additional safety information about fentanyl, synthetic drugs, and other research chemicals? Read further below.

Background and History

A rise in black markets and secret labs all over the globe have taken advantage of consumers and legal regulations through synthetic designer drugs. Often, these drugs are marketed as alternatives to classic drugs, sometimes claiming a better high than they might achieve with classic drugs.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, many synthetic narcotics come from countries other than the United States. The government discovered synthetic drugs for the first time in the US in December 2008 when they intercepted and tested a consignment of “Spice” in Dayton, Ohio. [3]

Synthetic drugs have the potential to be extremely addictive and represent significant unknown dangers to the health of the general public. And, authorities may find it near impossible to regulate or monitor the transportation of these drugs. Some are even untraceable in toxicology reports.

Manufacturers often make changes to controlled drugs’ chemical structure to get around the limits of the law. They almost always label their products as “not for human consumption.” This is to conceal their intended use and avert FDA regulatory control of the production process.

The availability of research chemicals, their cheap cost, and the common widespread belief that they are sometimes “natural” and safe have led to the rise in synthetic drug addiction. In addition, the ability of synthetic narcotics to evade conventional drug tests (due to their new compound) is another contributing reason to their widespread use.

Synthetic Drugs, Designer Drugs, and Research Chemicals

Many pharmaceuticals can technically be considered synthetic, however illicit and unknown synthetic drugs pose a unique danger.

The definition of synthetic drugs are those made from chemicals created in labs rather than from plants or other natural sources. In many instances, they’re designed to mimic the effects of more popular medicines, but they are less expensive to produce and sell. Because of their low cost and great effect, these drugs have become trendy.

The labs making these drugs may make an effort to legitimize their business as “for research” purposes — coining the term research chemicals. This also can provide a legal loophole for drug dealers. They may even produce other legitimate chemicals to justify their shady practices.

Many of these substances have their chemical compositions continuously changed. Once again, that is done to escape classification as restricted narcotics. As a result, they’re become known as designer drugs.

Labeling As Not for Human Consumption

Labeling a synthetic drug, research chemical, or designer opiate is one of the most frequent indicators of its existence.

Even though these drugs are indeed sold and intended for usage, they are often labeled as “not for human consumption” or “for research purposes only.”

Because of this deceptive advertising, these drugs are being presented as legal narcotics. They become abused rather than used as a would-be prescription drug.

It is even more worrisome, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), because of the manner of selling these drugs, there is no need for disclosure of a substances full ingredients. As a result, it is impossible to determine precisely which compounds are included with the promised chemicals.

Consequently, since the chemical components are continuously changing, individuals who purchase these items may regularly get different chemical mixtures each time. This raises the risk of overdose or other serious medical issues.

Common Types of Synthetic Drugs

As described above, one of the issues with synthetic drugs is that the formulas are always changing. On the other hand, these medicines fall into various categories that are comparable to more well-known chemicals.

This resemblance is often included in the formulation of these drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids, for example, are often likened to marijuana because they have a comparable physiological impact. Consequently, many people assume that marijuana is a harmless, natural drug. Therefore, they may think that synthetic cannabinoids must be the same.

Synthetic Cathinones (Bath Salts)

Synthetic cathinones, often known as bath salts, are artificial stimulants derived from the khat plant’s active ingredients. Khat is an East African and Arabian shrub whose leaves are chewed for a moderate stimulating effect. Manufactured cathinone derivatives may be much more potent than the natural substance and, in some instances, extremely hazardous.

These drugs are not bath salts in the true sense of the word. Synthetic cathinone bath salts should not be mistaken for true bath salts like Epsom salts. These bath products contain no psychedelic compounds.

Drug dealers market synthetic cathinones in tiny foil or plastic packets stamped “not for human consumption.” They may be sneakily packaged as products like bath salts, cleaners, or plant food.

Synthetic cathinones are among the emerging psychoactive compounds called NPS; these are illegal psychoactive brain-altering chemicals intended to mimic the effects of controlled drugs.

Synthetic cathinones are sold as low-cost stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines. People normally take these drugs through snorting, smoking, injecting, or swallowing.

How Do Bath Salts Affect the Brain?

There is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the way synthetic cathinones impact the human brain. What is known is that synthetic cathinones can include the following effects:[4]

The above are some of the known effects. In addition, bath salts are chemically related to amphetamines, cocaine, and MDMA.

Synthetic "Molly" and Ecstasy

The drug known as ecstasy became popular as a club drug in the 1990s because of its euphoria-enhancing capabilities. The drug Molly today is widely used for the same reasons.

The commonality between Molly and ecstasy is that the main ingredient is an element known as MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine). It’s a synthetic stimulant comparable to amphetamines and mescaline, which is a hallucinogen.

Many people think that they are getting a pure version of MDMA when they use Molly; however, this is often not true.

It’s reported that Molly capsules often contain harmful substances, often including synthetic cathinones.

How Does MDMA Affect the Brain?

MDMA main affects levels of serotonin in the brain — a chemical that regulates bodily functions such as mood, sexual activity, sleep, aggression, and pain tolerance.[4]

MDMA causes changes in one’s perception, increasing euphoric sensations, the need for touch and simulation, as well as increased sexual arousal.

Unwanted effects of MDMA include:

Spice and K2

These are synthetic compounds that are structurally and chemically comparable to THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. They are often sprayed over herbal mixtures, which have various names, including Spike, Spice, and K2.

The synthetics produce a more powerful feeling, even though the psychoactive ingredient in these medicines is linked to THC. There have been indications that these substances bind more strongly to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. They also seem to stay in the body for a longer period of time than marijuana, resulting in a longer duration of the euphoric effect.

How Does "Spice" Affect the Body & Brain?

Some of the health effects of synthetic cannabinoids include:[4]

These plants, referred to as incense, are intended for smoking. Sometimes you can also make tea with them.

Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opiates

What is fentanyl? Fentanyl is a very powerful narcotic pain reliever. It’s given for severe, debilitating pain and pain after surgical procedures. It operates like other opioids such as heroin and morphine on the central nervous system and the brain.

Fentanyl is much stronger than morphine. There is a narrow therapeutic-to-toxic dosage range. So it’s extremely simple to overdose.

Fentanyl works extremely rapidly within the body. Because of this, it can ultimately cause you to cease breathing much faster than other drugs. This also increases the risk of overdose.

As heroin is increasingly being combined with fentanyl, someone who believes they are receiving heroin may really be getting a combination of heroin and fentanyl.

The manufacture of fentanyl has lately been in tablet form to make it appear like oxycodone or Xanax. Unfortunately, this ploy is proving to be deadly. It’d be the equivalent of requesting a glass of red wine and receiving a fatal dosage of pure ethanol.

Fentanyl, and fentanyl analogs, are commonly sold illegally in the form of drops onto blotter papers, eye drops, powder and sprays. Fentanyl can also made into pills, much like other opioids.

How Does Fentanyl Affect the Brain?

Fentanyl, like morphine, heroin, and other opiods, acts by attaching to the body’s opioid receptors. These receptors sit in regions of the brain that regulate emotion and pain. After repeated drug use, the receptors get used to the substance, reducing their sensitivity to the drug.

Because of this decreased sensitivity, you need more of the drug to achieve the desired effect. When people develop an addiction, drug-seeking and usage consume their lives.

The effects of fentanyl include: [4]

Overuse of fentanyl can lead to overdose, which may cause respiratory problems. This reduces the quantity of oxygen reaching the brain, causing hypoxia. Hypoxia may induce a coma, cause brain damage, and sometimes result in death.

The Ever-Changing Formula of Novel Synthetic Opioids

Previous studies have shown the linkage of increases in the number of synthetic drug-related fatalities. This is combined with an increase in the number of drug shipments seized by police departments that test positive for fentanyl.

According to these studies, rises in fentanyl-involved overdose fatalities are driving increases in synthetic drug-related fatalities. In addition, the source of fentanyl is more likely to be unlawfully produced than medicinal in nature.

There are synthetic drugs manufactured that are very similar in chemical structure to fentanyl. These drugs are known as fentanyl analogs.

Fentanyl analogs include:

Nearly every year we see a new novel synthetic opioid surface. They may be new varieties of fentanyl, or entirely new synthetic opioids such as U-47700. And like U-47700, these drugs are often so new they don’t even have proper street names.

Because these derivatives need specialized toxicology testing, they are often misidentified.

These synthetic opioids may be weaker than morphine, but more commonly they are hundreds of times more potent — making them easier to transport as well. In the United States, carfentanil has been identified as the most powerful fentanyl variety in circulation, with a potency believed to be 10,000 times greater than morphine.

Overall, new synthetic drugs and products are becoming more easily available, and the formulae are unpredictably complex. This makes effective regulation a challenging endeavor.

The constant changing of the synthetic drug formulae means even less knowledge of what elements are in a product.

Thus, even though a person may have successfully used a drug without incident, the new drug can create unanticipated difficulties. This is owing to the inclusion of novel, experimental ingredients in the composition.

What the Government Is Doing About Synthetic Drugs

Many of these drugs have been recently banned at a federal level due to actions taken by Congress and Presidential Administrations.

In 2012, President Obama signed the FDA Safety and Innovation Act into law. This law included the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act. In addition, the legislation categorizes 26 different kinds of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act for the foreseeable future.

It also increased the maximum length of time for which the DEA may officially schedule drugs. This is under its extraordinary scheduling power, changing it from its previous limit of 18 months to 36 months.

When proved that a synthetic drug is chemically and pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II prohibited substance, the Act of 1986 permits the drug to be classified as a controlled substance.

In 2011, the DEA invoked its power to regulate five different kinds of synthetic cannabinoids. It also regulated three different synthetic chemicals used in the production of cathinones.

According to the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, all but one drug was permanently classified as Schedule I substances in 2012. The remaining substances were also formally classified as a Schedule I substance by the DEA.

On April 12, 2013, the DEA again exercised its authority to process three additional types of synthetic cannabinoids. By doing this, the DEA classified them as Schedule I drugs for the time being.

According to the National Institutes of Health, at least 43 states have taken steps to regulate one or more synthetic cannabinoids. Before 2010, there was no regulation of synthetic cannabis at state or federal levels. However, a total of 44 states have regulated one or more synthetic cathinones, which is a significant number.

How Do You Help People Addicted to Synthetic Drugs?

Helping people addicted to synthetic drugs and research chemicals is similar to helping others who abuse other drugs: by offering effective addiction treatment. However, the first and most essential step in helping people is remaining safe and alive until you can provide them with that treatment.

To end synthetic drug-related deaths, we must ensure that everyone has prompt access to vital care when they need it. While drug usage is always dangerous, the introduction of fentanyl has upped the stakes significantly. Every single instance of fentanyl usage bears the danger of mortality within minutes of the occurrence.

This demonstrates the need for a shift in how we think about therapy in general. Many of the conventional treatments of addiction were specifically done for the treatment of alcoholism.

Because drug addiction is a life-threatening condition that cannot be ignored, delaying treatment should be seen as a no-go. We must make every effort to begin therapy treatment as soon as possible.

The best available data indicates that a combination of medicine and psychosocial treatment therapies is the most efficient approach for addiction.

MassHealth research showed that 50% of people using methadone or buprenorphine medical treatment were less likely to reuse opioids. [4] Other research shows that these drugs reduce mortality by 50% or more. Despite this, these drugs still carry a great deal of stigma and confusion.

Even with the greatest intentions and efforts, some individuals need time to open up to this type of therapy. In such instances, the first goal is to keep them alive while engaging with them to assess their preparedness for therapy.

Just Don't Do It!

There has been little research into how many synthetic drugs on the black market work in the body. There is little known about their potential short- and long-term health effects. This is one of the most concerning aspects of synthetic drugs.

Contact us now to get the assistance you may desperately need! We offer a road to recovery and encourage individuals to discover meaning in their lives and lay the groundwork for a new future. In addition, we foster a sense of community and provide a follow-up program to help our members maintain their sobriety.


  1. [1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 25). Synthetic Opioid Overdose Data. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/deaths/synthetic/index.html
  2. [2] Drug Enforcement Administration, & U.S. Department of Justice. (2017). Drugs of Abuse: A DEA Resource Guide. Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/sites/getsmartaboutdrugs.com/files/publications/DoA_2017Ed_Updated_6.16.17.pdf
  3. [3] The Office of National Drug Policy. (n.d.). Synthetic Drugs (a.k.a. K2, Spice, Bath Salts, etc.). Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ondcp/ondcp-fact-sheets/synthetic-drugs-k2-spice-bath-salts
  4. [4] Clark, R. E., Baxter, J. D., Aweh, G., O’Connell, E., Fisher, W. H., & Barton, B. A. (2015). Risk Factors for Relapse and Higher Costs Among Medicaid Members with Opioid Dependence or Abuse: Opioid Agonists, Comorbidities, and Treatment History. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 57, 75–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2015.05.001
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