Unpredictable drugs like bath salts or Spice are the most infamous of the modern research chemicals. While these compounds have been listed as illegal, manufacturers adjust one or two points on the molecule to create a drug that is technically new, but chemically similar to the original, and then release it to the unregulated legal high market. Since these are altered and not tested before they are sold, much is unknown. It is only predictable that these drugs will bind to the same receptors in the brain. Beyond that, it is hard to say what psychological and physical effects the drug will produce and how long it will remain in the body.
As the name implies, research chemicals were originally designed by organizations, typically pharmaceutical companies, to produce a potential new medication. Prior to the Internet, the formulas of these research chemicals were difficult to obtain; however, many illicit manufacturers find chemical information online for free, and then produce dangerous intoxicants based on untested opioids, cannabinoids, stimulants, steroids, and much more.
Some kinds of research chemicals are more widely manufactured and abused than others. The top five most famous research chemicals of abuse are outlined below.
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- Synthetic Cannabinoids: These unpredictable drugs are designed to mimic marijuana in both appearance and effect. Sold as incense or plant food, and labeled “not for human consumption,” synthetic cannabinoids bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. They can produce some relaxing and psychedelic effects like those associated with use of organic marijuana.
Since these research chemicals are untested, they are unpredictable. Often, they lead to overdose symptoms like hyperthermia, heart attacks, psychosis, and intense hallucinations. The drugs may bind to the cannabinoid receptors for a few hours, or a few days. Many people have been hospitalized after abusing drugs like K2, Spice, or fake weed.
- Synthetic Cathinones: These drugs are modeled after stimulants that naturally occur in the khat plant, which is native to Eastern Africa. The chemical in khat is cathinone, and synthetic cathinones are those that are chemically similar but manufactured in a laboratory. These drugs are crystalline powders or crystals, usually white or brown. They are sold in packages labeled “not for human consumption,” like synthetic marijuana, and sometimes called jewelry cleaner or phone screen cleaner. More common names include bath salts, flakka, scar face, and cloud nine.
While synthetic cathinones can produce stimulant effects like increased attention and sociability, they are more likely to induce paranoia, delirium, high body temperature, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, and sudden death. Many people have been hospitalized due to bath salts and related drugs, and several people have died.
- Psychedelics: Several research chemicals were developed to act like psychedelic drugs. LSD is a totally synthetic drug, but its hallucinogenic and emotional effects are well documented. Newer drugs with labels like 4-HO-MET, 2C-I, and TMA-2 are manufactured analogs of existing drugs like psilocybin or lab-made psychedelics like DMT.
As a group, designer hallucinogens are either tryptamines or phenethylamines. These drugs typically cause auditory and visual hallucinations, and often tactile hallucinations; they also cause negative side effects like paranoia, depression, confusion, and physical effects like stomach cramps and diarrhea. They can lead to overdose, which typically involves mental effects like extreme anxiety, delusions, and psychosis.
- Piperazines: Some forms of piperazine were developed as tablets or syrups for prescription use to treat roundworm and pin worm infections in both humans and animals. These medications have been discontinued as anthelmintics, however, because they were linked to liver damage, kidney disease, and seizures. Because many versions of piperazine chemicals were developed for research into potential new treatments, like other NPSs, the formulas for these drugs are now being manufactured and sold untested.
Piperazines are often abused in club or rave settings and called legal E, herbal ecstasy, frenzy, or bliss. Intoxication can result in a high similar to that associated with ecstasy, including excitement, euphoria, and sociability. Side effects can include insomnia, anxiety, depression, dehydration, and, of course, the dangerous effects from the deworming medications: kidney and liver damage or seizures.
- Fentanyl and Other Opioids: While fentanyl is a potent narcotic – about 50-100 times more powerful than morphine, from which it is derived, and about 80 times more potent than heroin – it is a Schedule II substance, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Fentanyl is found in a few brands prescribed to treat chronic, severe pain that other opioid painkillers cannot treat.
The drug is created in laboratories, and there are many research versions in the fentanyl family of chemicals that have been created for illicit purposes and are being abused. This is in addition to diversion of prescription fentanyl. These untested, unregulated, and extremely dangerous versions of an already potent narcotic have led to hundreds of overdoses in the United States alone.
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The Danger of Abusing Synthetic Drugs
While many well-known intoxicating drugs like alcohol, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine are abused across the country and cause numerous overdoses and chronic health problems every year, new synthetic versions of these drugs are being released without any testing. Research chemicals mimicking cannabinoids, opioids, stimulants, and hallucinogens are intensely dangerous because their effects are unpredictable; they can be very harmful physically, last for a very long time, lead to permanent psychosis or damage to internal organs, or cause spontaneous death. There is no safe way to dose these substances. People who begin abusing these drugs need to seek help immediately.