Local view: Be specific; don’t call them just ‘synthetics’

Mark Schneiderhan, Duluth News Tribune
Synthetic drug packets
Synthetic drug packets found by staff members at the CHUM shelter in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Exactly what are synthetics? The term “synthetic drugs” just means the drug has known biological effects in humans but was created in a laboratory and isn’t naturally occurring in nature. Medicines such as aspirin and acetaminophen are “synthetic drugs” used for pain.

The question we need to ask is: What are the effects of the synthetic drug in question? For example, the term “synthetic marijuana” seems very clear. Calling bath salts “synthetics” is much less clear. I strongly feel we mistakenly mystify what “bath salts” and “spice” actually are when we call them all “synthetic drugs.”

There are three classes of drugs commonly referred to as “synthetic drugs.”

Marijuana analogs

There are the marijuana analogs (cannabinoids), often referred to as “Spice” (or “K2,” “Yucatan Fire,” “Skunk,” “Moon Rocks,” “Fake Marijuana,” or “Incense”). These substances are hallucinogenics with properties similar to marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, except they can be much more potent. K2 is 18 times more potent than marijuana’s THC, for example. Reported adverse symptoms include mild to severe agitation, vomiting, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, numbness and tingling, hallucinations and paranoia (similarly seen in acute psychotic episodes of schizophrenia). There has been reported severe chest pain due to restricted blood flow to the heart and a few cases of heart attacks. Also, USA Today, on Feb. 14, reported a link of kidney failure associated with synthetic marijuana. It is thought the kidney failure was due to contaminants such as heavy metals like mercury, nickel, lead, arsenic, cadmium and aluminum that accumulated in the liver, kidney and brain cells.

Amphetamine-like stimulants

A second class of synthetic drugs is amphetamine-like stimulants, or substituted cathinones like “bath salts.” They come under a variety of names, including “Plant Food,” “Cloud Nine,” “Ocean Snow,” “White Lightning,” “Blue Silk,” “Zoom,” “Ivory Wave,” “Vanilla Sky” and more. The drug is white or brown powder that contains powerful stimulant

(amphetamine-like) drugs. These stimulants usually are inhaled, injected, orally ingested or even rectally or vaginally inserted and have a very short duration of action (15 minutes) compared to the long-acting effects of crystal methamphetamine (12 hours). Because of the immediate effect and short action, these stimulants cause very intense craving sometimes similar to or stronger than those caused by cocaine or methamphetamine. These stimulants also are linked to frequent emergency room visits because of paranoia, agitation, aggression, and elevated blood pressure and heart rates. These stimulants also are linked to kidney failure.


The third class is a non-analgesic opioid, “salvia” (salvia divinorum), which is an herb found from southern Mexico to South America. The dry leaves are smoked as a “joint” or ingested by chewing the fresh leaves. The active ingredient, “salvinorin A,” is an opioid-like substance but is different than heroin or oxycodone because it activates the kappa opioid receptor that is generally associated with mood swings and hallucinations. This drug is very short-acting (half- hour to an hour) and within five to 10 minutes can cause alterations in visual and mind and body perceptions (psychedelic effects), causing a decreasing ability to interact with one’s environment. Since, Aug. 1, 2010, the sale of salvia in Minnesota can lead to an arrest for gross misdemeanor under Minnesota Statute 152.027 Subdivision 5.

: Public hearing on synthetic drugs and how their sales, use and abuse are affecting the Duluth community; the hearing is being hosted by the office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson
When: 2 p.m. Friday
Where: Sheraton Hotel, 301 E. Superior St., Duluth
Who: The hearing is free and open to the public.

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