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Synthetics (Bath Salts, Flakka, 241-NBOMe, Synthetic Marijuana)

What Are Synthetics?

Synthetics are a group of potent manmade substances that are designed to give users particular kinds of “highs.” Known by street names such as “Meow Meow,” “Flakka,” and “Arctic Blast,” they are addictive, dangerous drugs, generally made in unregulated foreign factories. The U.S. government bans the sale of many specific synthetic drugs. However, to evade the law, makers regularly alter the drugs’ complex formulations. The results are untested mixtures of chemicals that interact in users’ brains in highly unpredictable and sometimes deadly ways. Users have no way of knowing what is in a dose and what its effects will be.

In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, synthetics, which used to be called “designer drugs,” were a factor in more than 23,000 emergency room visits. The drugs are also the cause of increasing numbers of fatalities.

The U.S. has encountered over 200 new substances over the past four years.

Common Synthetics and Their Effects

Bath salts salts are synthetic cathinones—powerful, addictive stimulants with perception-altering qualities that are manmade derivatives of the African “khat” plant. Bath salts, which have nothing to do with bathing products, take the form of white or brown clumpy crystalline powder, sometimes packaged and labeled “not for human consumption.” The drugs are snorted, swallowed, smoked, or injected to create energized hallucinatory feelings. Bath salts can cause extreme agitation, panic attacks, paranoia, psychotic and violent behavior, heart problems, extreme thirst, headaches, hyperthermia (a seriously elevated body temperature), tissue breakdown, kidney failure, and death.

Flakka (gravel) is also a synthetic cathinone, more powerful than bath salts. Flakka, which comes as a white or pink foul-smelling crystal, is eaten, snorted, injected, or vaporized in an e-cigarette. The drug can cause hyperstimulation, vivid hallucinations, and episodes of mania and rage that can trigger violence or self-harm. Flakka can also cause muscle cramps or spasms, heart problems including heart attacks, and death.

MDMA (ecstasy, Molly) is a psychoactive drug with amphetamine-like and hallucinogenic properties. Although MDMA is usually not classified with “synthetics,” an analysis by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency found that 87 percent of drugs sold as MDMA were actually bath salts or contaminated with bath salts.

R241-NBOMe (N-bomb) is a newer synthetic drug, a phenethylamine—a class of chemicals that includes many with psychoactive and stimulant effects. N-bomb comes in microdoses (drops of the drug dried on absorbent “blotter” paper), as a powder (loose or within capsules), and as a liquid. It is sometimes passed off as “natural” LSD, which it is not. NBOMEs’ effects are similar to those of bath salts and flakka and include delirium, hallucinations, agitation, violence, seizures, rapid or irregular heartbeat, fatally high blood pressure, hyperthermia, cardiac arrest, and death.

Synthetic Marijuana (Spice, K2, spike) is a mixture of dried plant materials that have been sprayed with addictive synthetic chemical additives; Spice contains no marijuana or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, and spice is not a “natural” product.

Signs that Someone Needs Help For Synthetic Drug Use

Here are questions to ask if you’re concerned that you or someone you love—spouse, child, parent, or friend—may have a problem with synthetic drugs.

Have they stopped taking part in formerly pleasurable activities or lost their interest in family members and friends for no apparent reason?

Do they regularly appear confused, disoriented, severely anxious, paranoid, or agitated?

Have they exhibited physical signs of synthetic drug use: tremors, agitation, excessive sweating, nausea, increased pulse, or racing heart?

Do they feel a strong, constant urge to use synthetic drugs?

Are they focused on or obsessed with obtaining synthetic drugs?

Have they tried to quit synthetics, but couldn’t?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you or your loved one may have a problem.


At times, intoxication with synthetics can be a medical emergency.
In these instances, call 911 right away.

Phoenix House offers treatment for ongoing problems with synthetics.

At Phoenix House, treatment for synthetics may begin with stabilization, if needed, which is personalized and tailored to needs of each individual. Our treatment methods focus on the strengths of the individual and are grounded in proven practices that target the underlying causes of addiction and that help our clients successfully maintain recovery over the long term.

We Can Help

If you are concerned about a friend or loved one’s use of bath salts, Flakka, or other synthetic substance, our caring, compassion staff members can help and advise you. We offer safe, affordable treatment in 10 states as well as the District of Columbia. Call us anytime: We are here to help you 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-888-671-9392.