Every day new drugs are being synthesized to sidestep the laws created by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Many of these synthetic drugs, often referred to as “designer drugs” or “research chemicals,” are desirable alternatives to illicit drugs for many adolescents due to the ease of accessibility. These drugs, which include synthetic stimulants, synthetic cannabinoids, marijuana concentrates, Gray Death, and others, are not regulated, which means that you can never be certain what drugs or chemicals your son or daughter is putting in their body.
An Emerging Marketplace
While many parents already talk to their kids about drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA/ecstasy, marijuana, alcohol, and cocaine, there’s a relatively new category of drugs that has been emerging for the past few decades that some may not have heard of: synthetic drugs or designer drugs. These new drugs are often created with the intention of mimicking the effects of well-known illegal drugs, but many of the effects are unpredictable. The chemical make-up and effects vary, and the federal government does its best to outlaw these drugs as quickly as it becomes aware of them; however, new formulations are constantly emerging, making it difficult for law enforcement and concerned parents to keep up.
In some cases, these substances are cheap, sold legally, and are readily available over the internet. They are often marketed as research chemicals, a misleading name, as these drugs have little to no research supporting their safety. Websites use vague and deceptive wording to advertise the sale of research chemicals, often referring to them as an “exciting opportunity” to gain knowledge concerning the effects, properties, and science behind these synthetic drugs. The advertisements online assure that their products are of the highest quality and safe, yet make sure to mention that they are not intended for human consumption in order to avoid legal responsibility for the hazards of synthetic drug abuse.
There are thousands of designer drug formulations available, but some are more popular than others. It can be virtually impossible to keep up with every chemical being synthesized, but as a parent, it’s important to be aware of the newest trendy designer drugs and the new drug landscape that adolescents may potentially be exposed to.
Many teenagers are unaware of the risks associated with synthetic drug abuse because of the common misconception that legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs.
This is simply not true; in fact, because of the variation of chemicals contained in these drugs, they often produce dangerous and potentially life-threatening effects. This article provides you with information regarding some of the scariest drugs you’ve probably never heard of.
Synthetic cathinones, or “bath salts,” are cheaper alternatives to other stimulant drugs, such as methamphetamine or ecstasy, and often do not show up on drug screening tests. They are synthetic formulations of cathinone, which is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant derived from the khat plant.1
Two of the most common synthetic cathinones contained in bath salts are 3-4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and mephedrone. MDPV, although similar to other stimulants like cocaine, is at least 10 times more powerful than cocaine, thus increasing the risk of experiencing adverse consequences.2 Although these products are referred to as bath salts, they are not to be confused with actual bathing products, such as Epsom salts, which have no psychoactive properties.2
Some popular street names for synthetic stimulants that you should be aware of include:1,2
- Cloud Nine.
- Blue Silk.
- Lunar Wave.
- Ocean Burst.
- Vanilla Sky.
- Plant food.
- Jewelry cleaner.
Bath salts were previously sold legally over the internet or in head shops, but in 2011, the DEA listed MDPV, mephedrone, and methylone as Schedule I controlled substances in the United States, making it illegal to possess or sell products containing any of these three synthetic stimulants.1
Synthetic drugs that do not contain these now-banned stimulants are constantly being produced, though, and many versions of these drugs skirt federal regulations by including labeling that says, “not for human consumption.” Some examples of cathinone products currently available online include 3-MEC, 3-MMC, 4-CMC, 4-GMC Glass, A-PVP, and 4-MEC.3
Despite the DEA controlling bath salts, many websites still sell them and advertise them as “legal bath salts.” Teenagers are particularly susceptible to these online advertisements as they are often unaware of the risks and legality surrounding these drugs and are drawn to the ease of accessibility.
Some the risks and effects associated with synthetic cathinone or bath salt abuse include:1,2
- Impaired cognition.
- Reduced coordination.
- Agitation and violent behavior.
- Panic attacks.
- Suicidal ideation.
- Increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.
- Chest pain.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Excessive sweating.
- Breakdown of muscle tissue.
- Kidney failure.
It’s important to note that this is not a conclusive list of hazards, as the chemical make-up of synthetic stimulants is constantly changing, introducing new risks and potential ramifications. Using bath salts is never safe. Every time your child uses a synthetic drug like bath salts they run the risk of experiencing harmful side effects.
Synthetic cannabinoids—often called synthetic marijuana or fake weed—are cheaper, sometimes legal, alternatives to marijuana, although for the most part their effects are dissimilar to those of marijuana and are often more severe and dangerous.4 They consist of a variety of chemicals that are sprayed on plant material and smoked or liquidized and used in an electronic cigarette or vaporizer.6
Common names for synthetic cannabinoids include Spice, K2, Kush, Kronic, Black Mama, and Joker, although there are countless formulations available.4,6 Online, some cannabinoids that are available include:3
- Funky Buddha.
Synthetic cannabinoids are popular among teenagers and are extremely dangerous. Among American teenagers, synthetic marijuana is the second most abused illegal drug, second only to marijuana.5 In 2012, 11% of high school seniors reported having used synthetic cannabinoids and in the year prior,
nearly 80% of the emergency department visits involving synthetic cannabinoids were among teenagers and young adults between the ages of 12 and 29.4,5
Much like synthetic stimulants, you can never be certain what is contained in drugs such as Spice or K2 due to the lack of regulation concerning the chemical components. Every batch is different and manufacturers are constantly changing the chemical make-up to avoid controlled status.4 They are usually sold and marketed as herbal incense and are available in gas stations, novelty stores, head shops, and online.6
Both synthetic marijuana and marijuana attach to the same receptors in the brain, although there is evidence that synthetic marijuana has stronger effects on those receptors, leading to more intense and unpredictable effects.6 Some dangers of abusing synthetic cannabinoids include:6
- Altered perception.
- Detachment from reality.
- Severe anxiety.
- Violent behaviors.
- Suicidal ideation.
- Extremely rapid heart rate.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Kidney damage.
As with synthetic cathinones, this isn’t a complete list of potential adverse effects, since synthetic cannabinoids are constantly changing, but it is useful to familiarize yourself with the known consequences so you can recognize possible synthetic marijuana abuse in your teen.
It’s likely that you’ve heard of marijuana and the negative effects resulting from marijuana abuse, but a newer, highly potent form of marijuana called marijuana concentrate has become popular in more recent years. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active chemical in marijuana. While regular marijuana typically has a THC level of about 20%, marijuana concentrates can have anywhere from 40% to 80% THC.7
Teens may infuse food or drinks with the drug and consume it orally, or they may smoke it by use of pipes, vaporizers, or electronic cigarettes. Smoking marijuana concentrate using a vaporizer or electronic cigarettes is typically referred to as “dabbing.”7
Instead of appearing as a plant-like substance like regular marijuana, the extracted marijuana concentrate more closely resembles butter or honey.8,9 Marijuana can be converted into marijuana concentrates via a process known as butane extraction. This method, which is sometimes called “blasting,” can be quite hazardous due to the high flammability of the butane that is passed through a marijuana-packed pipe or glass tube to achieve the extraction.8,10 Teens can easily learn how to do this conversion process at home due to the availability of instructional videos on YouTube and social media websites.10
This practice is risky and has led to a number of explosions, fires, injuries, burns, and death among manufacturers.9,10 Additionally, users may use a blow torch when dabbing out of a glass water pipe, which increases the risk for severe burns.10 Further, small amounts of butane may remain in the pipe after conversion, and when inhaled, may cause long-term nervous system impairments and cognitive problems.11
Some slang terms for marijuana concentrates include:7
- Black glass.
- Butane honey oil (BHO).
- Ear wax.
- Honey oil.
Like the synthetic cannabinoids, marijuana concentrates are far more potent than marijuana, which may result in more intense and unpredictable effects. Little research has been done regarding the long-term effects of dabbing since it is a relatively new form of marijuana abuse, but it has been theorized that falls, accidents, and instances of loss of consciousness are more common after using marijuana concentrates than after traditional marijuana use.10 Further, some experts hypothesize that dabbing has a higher risk of dependence development and subsequent withdrawal symptoms in chronic users, but that has yet to be confirmed.10
Some of the known dangers of marijuana use include:7,12
- Panic attacks.
- Impaired memory, cognition, and coordination.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Increased risk of heart attack.
- Lung infections.
Your teen may be able to conceal dabbing better than marijuana abuse, because marijuana smoke has a strong, distinctive scent while the vapor from electronic cigarettes packed with marijuana concentrate is odorless. The lack of odor, combined with the fact that the oil is often mixed with food, such as brownies or sweet drinks, or used in an electronic cigarette, can make it extremely difficult for a parent to detect their child’s dabbing.11
Gray Death (sometimes written as Grey Death) is not a single drug, but rather the slang term for an especially dangerous combination of drugs that typically includes:13,14
- Fentanyl and/or more potent designer versions of fentanyl.
- U-47700 (Pink), a novel synthetic opioid.
- Carfentanil, an opioid that is far more potent than fentanyl.
- Possibly other drugs, depending on the batch and supplier.
Gray Death, which is often encountered as a gray colored, concrete-like powder, is so powerful that use can lead to near-instantaneous death due to overdose. Its contents vary greatly from sample to sample, which increases the user’s risk of experiencing adverse consequences.13 The DEA refers to the risk that Gray Death users take as a type of “Russian Roulette,” considering the large variation between batches.14 Though not entirely substantiated, there have been reports of people, both users and first responders, overdosing upon contact with the drug mixture.15 It is estimated that Gray Death is about 10,000 times more potent than morphine.15
What is particularly troublesome and terrifying about Gray Death is that each of the drugs contained in the combination is deadly on its own. Heroin, an illicit opioid, often contains additives such as powdered milk, starch, or sugar. When injected, these additives can obstruct blood vessels and lead to significant damage to organs, such as the brain, kidneys, liver, and lungs.16 Overdosing on heroin is quite common, with more than 15,000 heroin overdose deaths having occurred in 2016.17
Fentanyl, which is also included in Gray Death, is a very powerful synthetic opioid drug—about 100 times more potent than morphine. In pharmaceutical form, it is used as a powerful surgical anesthetic and is additionally prescribed to manage chronic cancer pain in patients who aren’t responding to alternative opioids.18 Fentanyl is often mixed into the street supplies of heroin, unbeknownst to the user, which increases the risk of respiratory depression, overdose, and death.18 In the midst of the country’s current opioid crisis, fentanyl and other synthetic versions of fentanyl are responsible for a sharper increase in overdose deaths than any other opioid drug.17
U-47700, also known as Pink, U4, or Pinky, is a potent synthetic opioid that is often marketed as prescription opioid pills on the street or mixed with heroin or fentanyl to create a potentially fatal drug cocktail. In 2016, the DEA implemented a temporary controlled status of Schedule I for U-47700 due to the risk to public safety and its detection amongst overdose deaths. It is also sold on the internet as a “research chemical,” is labeled “not safe for human consumption,” and is highly unregulated.19
Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl. It has been linked to many overdose deaths in certain parts of the U.S. Like fentanyl, it is often sold as heroin, a phenomenon which places unknowing heroin users in particularly life-threatening situations when using their “normal” dose of heroin. Carfentanil is used to tranquilize large animals, such as elephants, which is why it is so deadly in humans. First responders and lab, treatment, and other medical personnel are also at risk because Carfentanil can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled.20
As you can imagine, when these drugs are combined into the mixture known as Gray Death, an overdose is not only possible but extremely likely. As heroin becomes adulterated with cheaper, more potent synthetic opioids, the risk of overdose increases greatly. In fact, in 2015 alone, about 33,000 people died of an opioid overdose.21
Dextromethorphan (DXM), a common ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications such as Robitussin, is used to suppress coughing.22 It is included in as many as 120 cold and cough medications; it either occurs alone or in combination with other OTC drugs, such as decongestants, analgesics, expectorants, or antihistamines. This may not be a drug that you’d typically consider to be a danger to your teenager, but many adolescents abuse DXM in large quantities for its dissociative effects, altered perception, euphoria, and hallucinations.
It’s easy to obtain DXM and there are countless videos on the internet instructing how to abuse this medication.22 Just because it is a legal, OTC drug doesn’t mean that it is safe to abuse. At high doses, DXM mimics the effects of dangerous drugs like PCP and ketamine.22
Street names for DXM you’ll want to be aware of include:22
- Poor Man’s PCP.
- Triple C.
DXM is only meant to be used in the recommended dose and abusing it in high doses, whether alone or in combination products, can lead to harmful side effects, such as:22
- Slurred speech.
- Loss of control of body movements.
- Excessive sweating.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Liver damage (due to the presence of acetaminophen in many DXM-containing products).
- Central nervous system damage.
- Heart damage.
Teens may mix DXM with alcohol, which can prove to be an especially hazardous combination due to the compounding of intoxicating effects. Further, for teens who take antidepressants for depression or anxiety, DXM abuse can be particularly dangerous due to the risk of serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition. Lastly, individual physiology may play a factor in the threat of DXM abuse, as about 5% to 10% of Caucasians metabolize DXM poorly, increasing the risk of death from overdose.22
Steps for Parents
It’s highly important that you have an open conversation with your kids about drug use and the related dangers because they may be unaware of the risks associated with more well-known drugs, let alone the new drugs that are constantly being manufactured. Teens spend a lot of time with their peers, both at school and during extracurricular activities, and they are particularly susceptible to peer influence and pressure at this point in their lives. Without the knowledge surrounding these life-threatening drugs, adolescents may be more likely to experiment with mind-altering substances that could lead to severe physical and mental health complications, dependence, addiction, overdose, or death. If you think that your child may have a problem with substance abuse, it’s not too late to help them get healthy.
If you suspect that your teen is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, it’s best to sit them down and have a nonjudgmental and compassionate discussion with them about what they’re going through. Aggressive confrontation could cause your teen to become defensive and closed-off. Transparency and empathy is key when discussing serious topics, such as drug abuse and addiction.
If you receive a positive or receptive response from your teen, you may want to consider your next steps in getting them help. You and your teen can write down a list of things to take into consideration when choosing the best program for them and then conduct research together in a collaborative manner, keeping your son or daughter’s needs and best interests in mind. There are even special recovery programs that specialize in treating the unique needs and issues of adolescents struggling with an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
If you don’t know where to begin, there are several preventive and treatment-related resources available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, including:
Though most kids will never try the scary and deadly drugs described in this article, it’s important for parents to stay educated and informed so that they can be proactive and supportive.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Drug Fact Sheet: Bath Salts or Designer Cathinones (Synthetic Stimulants).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”).
- Chem. (2017). Cathinones.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice) Unpredictable Danger.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Synthetic Marijuana Lands Thousands of Young People in the ER, Especially Young Males.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Synthetic Cannabinoids.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). The Facts About Marijuana Concentrates.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d). What You Should Know About Marijuana Concentrates, Also Known As: THC Extractions.
- Minnesota Department of Public Safety. (n.d.). Marijuana Fax Fact Sheet.
- Stogner, J.M. & Miller, B.L. (2015). Assessing the Dangers of “Dabbing”: Mere Marijuana or Harmful New Trend? Pedatrics, 136 (1).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Youth Perception of Marijuana Harm Decreases as “710” Becomes More Potent.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Marijuana.
- Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program. (n.d.). Emerging Trend Bulletin: Potent new opioid/opiate compound known as “Grey Death.”
- Nedelman, M., CNN. (2017). Grey Death: The Powerful Street Drug That’s Puzzling Authorities.
- USA Today. (2017). Gray Death: It’s 10,000 Times More Powerful Than Morphine.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Heroin.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Overdose Death Rates.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Fentanyl.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2016). Schedules of Controlled Substances: Temporary Placement of U-47700 Into Schedule I.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2016). DEA Issues Carfentanil Warning to Police and Public.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2016). Opioid Addiction: 2016 Facts & Figures.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2014). Dextromethorphan.