Parents Guide to Synthetic Drugs

When it comes to kids and drugs, most parents keep a close eye out for the top offenders: alcohol, painkillers, inhalants, and marijuana. These are the drugs that teens are most likely to take, and these are also the drugs parents were most likely to take when they were young. That means most parents know what these drugs are, and parents know just what to look for when they are investigating their children’s personal belongings for evidence of drugs.

But parents that stick to these common drug offenders could be missing out on an entire class of drugs that has proven very popular among young people. Synthetic drugs are new and novel substances that could entrap and ensnare teens. If parents do not know what these drugs are, they may not have the means to keep their children safe.


What Makes a Drug Synthetic?
Why Synthetics?
Who Uses the Drugs?
Why Now?
Starting the Talk

What Makes a Drug Synthetic?

In theory, any drug that is made in a laboratory could be defined as synthetic, but when it comes to drugs, this word is used to define a very specific type of drug. It is made in a laboratory, but it also:

  • Mimics the action of another drug now deemed illegal
  • Is more powerful than the conventional drug
  • Is not (in most cases) considered illegal
  • Has not been tested and/or proven safe

This may sound like a very rigid list that would encompass only a few different substances, but according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there were 51 variants of just one type of synthetic drug found in 2012 alone. That’s an explosion, as there were only two variants of this type of drug known in 2009.

Synthetic drugs are usually placed into three different classes, per the Allegany Health Department and other sources. Those classifications include:

Research chemicals

K2, Spice

Bath salts

Varied, usually reads like a chemical formula

Drug mimicked





Hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia

Paranoia, hallucinations, sense of energy


Sold where?

Online, head shops

Online, head shops


Why Synthetics?

As mentioned, most synthetic drugs were created in order to mimic the impact or the effect delivered by traditional drugs. Some parents may wonder why a teen would dabble in these drugs, when there are older and more tested options available. Each teen may have individual reasons for use, but often, teens claim that they use these drugs for one of three reasons.

synthetic drugs and legality
  • 1. Legality: A source quoted in an article by The Guardian sums up this argument by mentioning a “war on drugs.” Since legislators have worked hard to beef up the legal impact of using conventional drugs, many teens are leery of using these drugs. They do not want to be arrested, lose their scholarships, or suffer other long-term consequences.Since many synthetic drugs are new and untested, legislators have not made them illegal quite yet. This means teens could use these drugs with impunity, without worrying about any legal action. To many teens, that is very appealing.
  • 2. Potency: The portion of the mind that governs risk-taking and reward has not quite developed during the teen years. As a result, most teens are hardwired to take serious risks now, without worrying about the future consequences. To teens, the bigger the thrill, the better – and synthetic drugs could provide a lot of thrills.An expert interviewed for an article produced by PBS reports that some synthetic drugs are 100 times more potent than the natural drugs they mimic. Teens may be aware of this statistic, and they are prepared to take the risks in order to prove their bravery to their peers. To them, it seems reasonable.
  • 3. Ease of access: Even though synthetic drugs are very potent and very dangerous, their legal standing makes them hard to legislate. That means they can be sold in all sorts of places teens might spend time.The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that many synthetic drugs are sold in gas stations and head shops. They are also sold online. This means teens who do not want to meet with dealers they consider dangerous, and who might not want to venture into dangerous neighborhoods in which drugs are sold, might benefit from strolling into a simple shop to buy these drugs. It is often easy to do so.

Who Uses the Drugs?

graph shows the signs of drug use and that there were at least 7,000 calls to poison control centers due to issues involving synthetic drugs

Teens from all over the country use these drugs, and it is not a problem that is limited to big cities and rough neighborhoods. In fact, in an NBC News story about the issue, experts said synthetic drug use in Virginia was higher in rural areas, like farms, than in urban areas.

National statistics bear this up, too. Experts quoted by PBS report that there were at least 7,000 calls to poison control centers due to issues involving synthetic drugs in 2015 alone. That means many people use these drugs.

The signs of drug use can vary depending on the drug the child takes, but symptoms parents can watch for include:

  • Sudden mood shifts
  • Unexplained mania
  • Sudden violence
  • Laughing for no reason
  • Crying for no reason
  • Sweating
  • Fast heart rate
  • Paranoia

Parents can also look for garbage related to drugs. The drugs can come in different packages, but most are wrapped in foil and decorated with colors and symbols that might appeal to teens or young adults. Parents who find these wrappers can take them to a doctor for analysis, or they can confront the teens with the evidence. The same goes for unexplained packages. Teens who buy these drugs online may have boxes and bags coming to the house at all hours, and they may not be able to explain what they have purchased. Parents can also use that as a starting point of discussion.

Why Now?

buying drugs online

Synthetic drugs like this really are not new. In fact, people have been experimenting with the chemical structure of drugs for decades. Many of the drugs of abuse now, particularly those in the research chemical category, developed as a result of laboratory tests done in the 1960s with different classifications of hallucinogenic drugs. But this is a form of drug that seems tailor-made for the young generation. That’s due, in part, to the Internet.

In a profile written for New York Magazine, the author describes an entire culture that has sprung up around the purchase and use of research chemicals. People go online to buy these drugs, and then they go back online to describe what happened to them while they were on the drugs. It becomes a communal experience that could be very enticing to teens, and it could also make the drugs seem really safe. So many people are using them, how bad could they be?

Starting the Talk

Whether or not children are taking synthetic drugs now, it pays for parents to talk to their kids. These drugs are available, and they are very potent. At one point or another, a teen is likely to be tempted to use synthetic drugs, and teens who have used them may not know how to stop. With honest information from parents, teens who have not tried synthetic drugs may be less likely to do so, and teens who currently use synthetic drugs can get the help they need to stop using them.

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We are here to help you get clean and learn how to stay that way. Laguna Treatment Hospital is located in Orange County, CA. The first chemical dependency recovery hospital in the OC, we offer safe medical detox, mental health support, and wellness programs. We remain open and committed to supporting your recovery journey. Laguna is taking every precaution to ensure patient and staff safety. We are able to test incoming & current patients as well as staff for coronavirus to ensure peace of mind and focus on addiction treatment.