Summary

  • Synthetic drugs aim to mimic the effects of existing illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.
  • It is not known how safe synthetic drugs really are, as there is limited research on the short-, medium- and long-term effects of these substances.
  • There are no quality control checks on synthetic drugs, so it is not always known what substances they contain.
  • The Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act progressively bans the possession and supply of synthetic drugs and their derivatives as they emerge.
Synthetic drugs, or new psychoactive substances (NPS), are also known by a number of other names including new and emerging drugs (NEDs), bath salts, herbal highs and legal highs. These drugs aim to mimic the effects of existing illicit drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

Synthetic drugs have different chemical structures to the illicit substances that they are trying to mimic, so they can be marketed as ‘legal’, safe and acceptable alternatives to illicit drugs. However, their legality can vary and their safety is unverified.

It is not known how safe they really are as there is limited research on the short-, medium- and long-term effects of these substances. There are also concerns about what is actually in NPS. There are no quality control checks on synthetic drugs, so it is not always known what substances they contain.

The Victorian Government has strengthened the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 to ban substances comparable to illegal drugs that are sold as so-called ‘legal highs’. Additional substances are banned under the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act as they emerge.

Types of synthetic drugs

The three most common types of synthetic drugs are:
  • ‘herbal highs’ or ‘party pills’
  • synthetic cannabinoids
  • research chemicals and drug analogues.

‘Herbal highs’ and ‘party pills’

‘Herbal highs’, also known as ‘party pills’, are often marketed as herbal supplements that offer increased energy or mood with similar effects to stimulants, such as ecstasy or amphetamines. They typically contain a variety of natural and chemically active ingredients, which can include caffeine, citrus, aurantium and geranamine (geranium extract).

Until 2009, the two most common chemical active ingredients were BZP (benzylpiperazine) and TFMPP (trifluoro-methyl-phenylpiperazine). Other ingredients included piper nigrum, phenylalanine, tryptophan and tyrosine.

After BZP was banned in Australia in 2009, manufacturers began marketing new products. Analysis of these products found a range of chemicals, including:
  • cathinone
  • methcathinone
  • phthalimidopropiophenone
  • mephedrone
  • methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDVP).
Because of their newness, the potential harms associated with these chemicals are difficult to predict. Each product may contain different chemicals with varying toxicity.

Synthetic cannabis

Synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals that are similar to delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the active ingredient in cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids are usually sold combined with herbs and aim to mimic the effects of cannabis. They are generally smoked or occasionally drunk as a tea.

‘Spice’ was the earliest in a series of synthetic cannabinoids sold in Australia. Since then, a number of other similar products have been developed for sale such as ‘Kronic’.

Many synthetic cannabinoids have only recently been developed, so there is very limited information available about their short and long-term effects.

Reported effects of synthetic cannabis include:
  • a similar effect to smoking cannabis
  • disconnection from thoughts, feelings, memories and sense of identity (dissociative state)
  • a fast and irregular heartbeat
  • relaxation
  • euphoria
  • a rapid pulse rate
  • racing thoughts
  • delayed reaction time
  • dry mouth
  • lowering of inhibitions
  • dizziness
  • agitation
  • paranoia.
A growing number of reports, mostly from the United States, indicate that people are increasingly experiencing toxic effects from using synthetic cannabinoids, including:
  • a rapid heart rate
  • hypertension
  • tachypnoea (rapid breathing)
  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • hallucinations
  • racing thoughts
  • seizures
  • death.
These reports also suggest that the toxic symptoms last for three to four hours, with no adverse effects recorded as persisting beyond this timeframe. However, there is concern about serious acute and long-term toxicities.

Research chemicals and drug analogues

Drug analogues are substances that are chemically similar to other drugs. Drug derivatives are substances that are made from another drug. These drug analogues or derivatives often belong to various groups of drugs such as cathinones, phenethylamines and tryptamines. One example is mephedrone (commonly called meow meow).

Drug derivatives are included in the bans under the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act. Labelling on these products can be deceptive, with some described as ‘research chemicals', ‘plant food' or ‘bath salts'. They also include warnings such as ‘Not for human consumption' or ‘Only for research purposes'.

In 2010, both the United Kingdom and Australia banned mephedrone and then a number of other substances emerged, containing new chemicals. These include:
  • naphyrone
  • MDPV
  • flephedrone
  • methoxetamine (a ketamine analogue).
Because some of the chemicals contained in these new products, such as MDVP, are active at very low doses, they are often cut with fillers to make sure the dose is similar to the illicit drugs that it is aiming to mimic.

Media reports suggest that a number of people have experienced adverse effects from taking these drugs. Some of the reported effects include:
  • emotional fragility
  • diminished cognitive ability
  • muscular pain
  • a sore jaw
  • loss of appetite
  • days of hallucinations
  • acute agitation
  • paranoia
  • heart problems
  • chest pain
  • headaches
  • suicidal thoughts.

Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Pharmacist
  • Cannabis Information and Helpline Tel. 1800 30 40 50
  • DirectLine Tel. 1800 888 236 (24 hours a day, seven days per week)
  • Family Drug Support Tel. 1300 368 186 (24 hours a day, seven days per week)

Things to remember

  • Synthetic drugs aim to mimic the effects of existing illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.
  • It is not known how safe synthetic drugs really are, as there is limited research on the short-, medium- and long-term effects of these substances.
  • There are no quality control checks on synthetic drugs, so it is not always known what substances they contain.
  • The Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act progressively bans the possession and supply of synthetic drugs and their derivatives as they emerge.
References
  • New psychoactive substances (synthetics) facts, 2013, Alcohol and Drug Foundation. More information here.
  • Mephedrone facts, 2013, Alcohol and Drug Foundation. More information here.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids, 2013, Alcohol and Drug Foundation. More information here.
  • New psychoactive substances (aka ‘synthetics’) update, 2013, Alcohol and Drug Foundation. More information here.
  • New and emerging drugs, 2013, Prevention Research, Drug info, Alcohol and Drug Foundation. More information here.
  • Hillebrand J, Olszewski D, Sedefov R 2010, ‘Legal highs on the internet’, Subst. Use Misuse, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 330-340. More information here.
  • What is spice? National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC), Canberra. More information here.
  • Reuter P 2011, Options for regulating new psychoactive drugs: a review of recent experiences, UK Drug Policy Commission, London. More information here.
  • European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), 2009 Understanding the 'Spice' phenomenon, National Documentation Centre on Drug Use. More information here.
  • Australian Customs and Border Protection Service 2010, Legal highs’ not necessarily legal, Canberra, Australian Government. More information here.
  • Birdwell J, Chapman J, Singleton N 2011, Taking drugs seriously – a Demos and UK Policy Commission report on legal highs, Demos, London. More information here.
  • Zimmermann U, Winkelmann P, Pilhatsch M et al. 2009, ‘Withdrawal phenomena and dependence syndrome after the consumption of ‘Spice Gold’, Deutsches Ärzteblatt, vol. 106, no. 27, pp. 464–647. More information here.
  • Is synthetic cannabis like Kronic, Spice and Kalma safe? National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC). More information here.

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Last updated: February 2015

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