Synthetic Drugs Increasingly a Problem for Young Americans

Daughter is sitting at home disinterested, mother is worry

The term “synthetic drugs” is not well understood, yet drugs that fall under this category are becoming increasingly popular among users. Synthetic drugs are defined as mind-altering substances made in a lab, i.e., not derived from organic material. Synthetic drugs are often made to mimic other substances like cannabis, heroin, cocaine, or khat. The list of synthetic drugs grows longer each year, but three in particular are of imminent concern in the U.S.: synthetic cathinones, synthetic cannabinoids, and synthetic opioids.

People need to understand what synthetic drugs are so they can caution their loved ones not to use them. If loved ones are already using them, their family members need to understand what’s at stake and help their loved ones seek treatment as soon as possible.

Synthetic Drugs: Synthetic Cathinones

Synthetic cathinones are lab-made stimulants designed to produce effects similar to those of the khat plant, a shrub grown in East Africa and southern Arabia that some people consume for its mind-altering effects. The active ingredient in the synthetic version, cathinone, is artificially synthesized rather than distilled from the khat plant. Cathinone is chemically similar to ephedrine, a commonly misused stimulant.

Frequently referred to as “bath salts,” using synthetic cathinones can be life-threatening, as their side effects can be serious. Such drugs are also addictive, and people who use them may become dependent on them, unable to stop using them on their own.

According to a United Nations report, the khat plant was trafficked into the U.S. as early as 2014, possibly earlier. However, as the plant-based drug took off in popularity, dealers and traffickers innovated ways to replicate the plant’s active ingredients in a lab. Producing synthetic cathinones in North and South America-based labs became easier and cheaper than bringing the drug from other continents. So, synthetic cathinones are now the preferred product among dealers and consumers. Also according to the U.N., young people are the primary target audience for synthetic cathinone distribution and sale.

Synthetic Drugs: Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are artificial substances made in a way that is chemically similar to cannabis. Some synthetic cannabinoids produce similar mind-altering effects as cannabis, while others produce very different effects. Because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, drug dealers, traffickers, and manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids use various chemical combinations and sell the drugs in gas stations and convenience stores. As soon as the federal government outlaws one series of chemicals used to make synthetic cannabinoids, dealers and traffickers simply alter the chemical composition and produce a “new” substance that is not yet illegal.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the use of synthetic cannabinoids is associated with severe health problems that can be life-threatening. Such drugs appear in many forms, but they are usually added to liquid cartridges used in vaping devices or added to dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked. Common names for synthetic cannabinoids include “K2” and “Spice.”

Young users often prefer synthetic cannabinoids as they are sometimes cheaper and easier to obtain, and they do not show up on most routine urine drug screens that test for cannabis. Interest in such drugs is growing, too. According to a Congressional Research Service report, calls to poison control centers for incidents relating to harmful effects of synthetic cannabinoids (such as K2 and Spice) and stimulants (such as bath salts) more than doubled in a recent two-year period.

Young man feels not good.

Synthetic Drugs: Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are a relatively new and extremely dangerous drug trend; mind-altering, lab-made opioids that are much more potent than opioids derived from the opium poppy, like morphine or heroin. In the U.S., synthetic opioids now lead to more overdose deaths than morphine, heroin, and opioid painkillers combined.

In recent years, the trafficking of synthetic opioids like fentanyl into the U.S. from other countries has become a public health emergency, one that the U.S. is still reckoning with. Troy Miller, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner, spoke to this point. “In my thirty years as a customs official, the trafficking of synthetic illicit drugs like fentanyl is one of the toughest, most daunting challenges I have ever seen,” he said. “CBP’s modernized Strategy brings the unique, formidable, and wide-ranging capabilities and authorities of CBP to bear on the illicit synthetic drug trade and build capacity and collaboration with our partners—domestic and international—to ensure the safety of the American people. As the nation’s frontline, CBP is uniquely positioned to lead the federal government’s efforts to combat fentanyl.” In that same report, the CBP published data showing how over 900 drug seizures recently took in:

  • Over 13,000 pounds of fentanyl precursor chemicals
  • Over 2,590 pounds of non-fentanyl precursor chemicals (precursors for other drugs)
  • 142 pill presses and 325 pill molds (for making counterfeit pills)
  • More than 270 pounds of fentanyl pills and powder and more than 210 pounds of Xylazine
  • More than 1,160 pounds of methamphetamine
  • Over 11,230 pounds of other finished synthetic drugs

According to the National Institutes of Health, 3.6% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 years and 7.3% of adults ages 18 to 25 years misuse opioids. Prescription opioids are the most frequently used opioids among young people, but synthetic opioids are a close second.

Synthetic Drugs: The Need for Treatment

Synthetic drugs are spreading at an alarming rate, causing users to experience harmful side effects, become addicted, overdose, and die from using them. People who use such drugs often experience serious health concerns like paranoia, extreme anxiety, hallucinations, seizures, aggression, suicidal or homicidal behavior, chest pain, and even heart attacks. And because synthetic drugs are made in clandestine drug labs, users never have a reliable way of knowing what exactly they’re using.

If you know someone who is using synthetic drugs, please help them find and enter a qualified residential drug addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Please do not wait until it is too late.


  • NIDA. “Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”).” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023.
  • U.N. “Synthetic Drugs Flooding Market, New U.N. Study Shows.” United Nations, 2014.
  • NIDA. “Synthetic Cannabinoids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023.
  • CRS. “Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service, 2016.
  • NIDA. “Drug Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2024.
  • USCBP. “DHS Doubles Down CBP Efforts to Continue to Combat Fentanyl and Synthetic Drugs.” United States Customs and Border Protection, 2023.
  • NIH. “Opioid Use Disorders in Adolescents—Updates in Assessment and Management.” National Institutes of Health, 2018.


Editorial Staff