THE BLOG
06/02/2016 12:32 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2017

Bath Salts, Smiles and Spice: The Dangers of Synthetic Drugs

Dr. Jonathan Horey is chief medical officer of Sunspire Health, a national leader in the treatment of addiction. www.SunspireHealth.com

Imagine this scenario: your 14-year-old daughter is visiting a friend when you get a hysterical, garbled call. You race to the friend's house to find your daughter wandering down the street, raving about God. When you ask if she's taken any drugs, you can't get a straight answer. She is confused, dazed, and paranoid. Your beautiful young teenager has metamorphosed into a psychotic mess.

When you take her to the emergency room, you learn she has likely taken "bath salts," a kind of synthetic drug with mood-altering and stimulant properties. Fortunately, she suffers no lasting effects except for the appropriate limitations on her activities that you will discuss with her (more on that later). Other young people are not so lucky. Bath salts and other synthetic -- or "designer" -- drugs can have serious health effects including nausea, seizures, agitation, high blood pressure, heart attacks and drug-induced psychosis -- even death.

If you think something similar couldn't happen to you, that your family is somehow protected -- by living in a nice neighborhood, by close family relationships, by strong religious values or even by your child's innate intelligence or allotment of common sense -- you would be wrong. Simply by possessing an adolescent brain, your child is vulnerable to a dangerous mix of characteristics that can lead to experimentation with drugs, including curiosity, impulsiveness, risk-taking behavior, resistance to authority, a sense of invulnerability and a need for peer approval.

The adolescent brain has been compared to a car with the dangerous combination of a powerful gas pedal and faulty brakes. This is because adolescent brains mature asymmetrically. That is, the parts of the brain that register and reinforce emotions mature first (the gas pedal) while the parts that regulate decision making (the brakes) do not fully mature until their mid-20s. Thus, teenage brains are wired to seek out pleasurable experiences without the ability to fully weigh the risks of these experiences. It is important to note here that there is nothing "wrong" with adolescent brains. They are wired exactly how they need to be for this stage of life. Adolescents need to be willing to take risks, seek independence and explore their environment to figure out how they will live the rest of their adult lives. However, like most things in nature, brain development is not a perfect evolutionary solution.

Synthetic drugs are manmade drugs (as opposed to those formulated from natural ingredients, such as heroin), designed to mimic the stimulant, depressant and/or hallucinogenic effects of illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD. They are altered in order to avoid being classified as illegal. Some, such as "bath salts," "potpourri," "herbal incense," "plant food" or "jewelry cleaner," are marked as "not for human consumption" and labeled with common household names to disguise their true nature. Others are sold as "safe," "legal" or "natural" highs. They are marketed with packaging and names such as Black Mamba, Flakka, K2, Kush, N-Bomb, Salvia and Spice, designed to appeal to teenagers. They are cheaper than illegal drugs and easier to obtain -- online or at head shops, gas stations and tobacconists. Most of these drugs are manufactured overseas -- many in China -- and then shipped illegally to the United States.

They are a serious public health threat. In order to circumvent existing drug laws -- as well as evade urine testing that would identify them -- unscrupulous manufacturers are constantly creating new formulas, which means no one knows what these drugs consist of, what the health effects are or what dosages are dangerous. Health authorities can, however, keep track of their impact on public health by monitoring emergency room admissions and deaths. The National Institute on Drug Abuse's National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS), for instance, reports on trends and emerging patterns of abuse. Some of the alarming reports currently posted on its website include:

  • In the span of two weeks in April of last year, more than 160 patients were hospitalized following synthetic marijuana use -- in New York alone.
  • Last year, 19 people died from a synthetic hallucinogen called N-bomb, Legal Acid, Smiles or 25I. This drug can cause seizures, heart attacks, arrested breathing and death, even in extremely small amounts.
  • Florida and other parts of the country have experienced a surge in the the use of a synthetic stimulant known as Flakka, which causes hyper-stimulation, paranoia and hallucinations that can lead to violent aggression and self injury.

So what can be done to help adolescents resist experimentation with drugs? The short answer is: get involved. Take an interest in your adolescent's interests, know who their friends are and what they do together, and be aware of what they are doing on social media. This is not helicopter parenting, it is simply involved parenting. Your adolescent may protest at times, but some amount of protest is a good sign. Adolescents are supposed to resist boundaries as they strive for independence, but that does not mean that they don't need and want them, even if they won't admit it. If you have qualms, remember that teenagers are more vulnerable to behaviors leading to permanent injury or death than any other age group. When adolescents feel supported by reasonable boundaries, they will feel free to turn to adults for help and advice. Their needs for sensation seeking, peer involvement and novelty can be channeled into activities they are interested in and can safely participate in on their own.

If your child does develop any kind of addictive disorder, please seek out professional help. These illnesses are treatable and intervention at a young age can prevent an early death or a lifetime of suffering. Above all, don't think your child is immune. Awareness is crucial. As a county prosecutor said in an interview about synthetic drugs on NBC's Dateline: "Good kids do drugs and die."

For more information, visit www.SunspireHealth.com.

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.