The term “synthetic drugs” previously referred to specific types of drugs that were manufactured for use in connection with the dance/party/rave scene, namely, Ecstasy and other MMDA variants.

However, the category has expanded and may now include other types of drugs such as:

In recent years, the term “synthetic drug” has expanded party-scene club drugs to include more “designer” drugs that are intended to mimic the effects of drugs like LSD, cocaine, marijuana, and stimulants, such as methamphetamine. They share the fact that they are manufactured in a laboratory. Sometimes they are originally made for legitimate legal uses but are diverted for illegal purposes. Or, they may be produced in clandestine laboratories to serve the international illegal drug market.

Sometimes synthetic drugs are legal substances that are sold in innocent-looking packages labeled as “potpourri”, “spices”, or “incense”. They can be marked with the words “not intended for human consumption”, although people still do consume them for illicit purposes.

The manufacturers of synthetic drugs often modify the chemistry of illegal or controlled substances and create a drug that escapes identification as a controlled substance under existing drug laws. Or, they label the substances as “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and avoid Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of the manufacturing process.

Synthetic drugs can be divided into two categories based on their chemical makeup:

  • Cannabinoids: These are chemicals that mimic the effect of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. They have names such as “K2” and “Spice.”
  • Stimulants: These are synthetics such as Bath Salts; most of these contain chemical compounds that mimic the effects of cocaine, LSD or methamphetamine. They have names such as “Ecstasy” and “Molly.”

Fentanyl is an example of a synthetic drug. It is a synthetic opioid (drugs that have effects similar to those of morphine, which is an opium derivative) Fentanyl, however, is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is manufactured legitimately and prescribed for pain management. As a prescription medication it is applied via a patch on the skin.

However, because of its powerful opioid properties, fentanyl is also used for illicit purposes. Some underground manufacturers add it to heroin to increase its potency, or they disguise it as highly potent heroin. Users may believe that they are purchasing heroin and do not know that they are buying something much stronger and more dangerous, i.e. fentanyl.

What are the Dangers of Synthetic Drug Use?

The synthetic drug market is difficult to regulate, and many injuries and deaths have been related to synthetic drug use. The drugs can be ingested in a variety of ways, e.g. smoked, injected, snorted, or ingested. The exact dangers depend on the synthetic drug that a person uses, but a wide range of adverse physical and psychological side-effects are possible.

Often there is no way to tell what the exact contents of a package of synthetic drugs are. This is one risk – a person does not know what they are putting in their body and what effect it might have on them when they use synthetic drugs. There are also no guidelines on dosages and the manner in which to administer them. Thus, even one-time use of a synthetic drug can lead to adverse psychological side-effects, such as paranoia, hallucination, and psychosis as well as physical effects. If the substances in the synthetic drugs are addictive, a person could develop an addiction.

Among the known health effects of synthetic drugs are the following:

  • Cannabinoids: the effects of cannabinoids can include elevated blood pressure, tremors and seizures, agitation and anxiety, nausea and vomiting, racing heartbeat, hallucinations, dilated pupils, and suicidal and other harmful thoughts or actions;
  • Stimulants: the effects of stimulants include increased heart rate and blood pressure, chest pain, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, and violent behavior, which can lead users to harm themselves or other people;
  • MDMA: the effects can include severe lowering of body temperature, dehydration, long term learning difficulties, nausea, chills, sweating, involuntary jaw clenching and teeth grinding, muscle cramping, blurred vision, high blood pressure, heart failure and arrhythmia.

Many synthetic drug users have engaged in self-harm and even suicide while in a state of hallucination. Therefore, enforcement authorities often crack down on shops and stores that sell synthetic drugs. More and more jurisdictions are outlawing different synthetic and illicit drugs.

What are the Criminal Consequences for Synthetic Drug Crimes?

When synthetic drugs first came on the scene, they were especially pernicious because they had not been included in the definition of controlled substances that are illegal. Since that time the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been able to designate numerous synthetic drugs as Schedule 1, making them illegal to sell or possess. However, drug manufacturers continually evolve to stay ahead of the law, introducing new drugs that are slightly different chemically than those that are illegal, but with even more potential to harm those who use them.

Today, however, science is helping law enforcement keep up with the drug manufacturers. A handheld device has been created that can identify the chemical contents of certain substances on the spot. It encompasses a library, updated regularly by chemists, to include new substances that manufacturers introduce to replace drugs as they are classified as illegal Schedule 1 controlled substances.

So, law enforcement is managing to keep up with the manufacturers and include new synthetic substances in the definition of controlled substances almost as fast as illegal manufacturers can produce them.

The federal Controlled Substances Act and other related laws list the penalties for the following substances and other items associated with drug use:

  • Heroin;
  • Cocaine and crack;
  • PCP,
  • LSD,
  • Marijuana;
  • Amphetamine;
  • Methamphetamine;
  • The component chemicals used in manufacturing drugs;
  • Drug paraphernalia;
  • Date rape drugs;
  • Rave drugs;
  • Designer drugs;
  • Ecstasy;
  • Drug kingpins,
  • Other substances including narcotics and opiates identified in Schedule I, Schedule II, Schedule III, Schedule IV, and Schedule V of the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act.

A large number of criminal acts including possession, manufacture, sale and distribution of these substances are specified in the law. Penalties for violation of federal drug laws can include fines that range from $1 to $50 million depending on the quantity involved. Prison sentences can range from 5 to 40 years to life in prison, again, depending on the quantity and the exact substance involved. For example, possession with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin is punishable by a fine of $10 to $50 million and imprisonment for 10 years to life.

The specific criminal consequences for synthetic drug crimes under state laws vary from state to state. Synthetic drug crime penalties may range from misdemeanor to felony consequences. Misdemeanors usually result in fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of no more than one year.

In Pennsylvania, simple possession of a synthetic drug is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and up to 1 year in jail. Trafficking in synthetic drugs carries a maximum, mandatory sentence of up to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000.

Felonies carry higher fines and longer sentences. As with most drug crimes, manufacturing, selling and distributing synthetic drugs will result in greater penalties than simple possession of a small amount for personal use.

Of course having a drug conviction on a person’s record can make it difficult for that person to find a job, gain admission to some schools and obtain housing, or credit in the future.

Some defenses may be available in some cases. For example, it may be a defense if the substance is not actually illegal in the state in which a person has been charged. This can happen sometimes because the laws on synthetic drugs are constantly changing as new drugs emerge.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Synthetic Drug Charges?

Synthetic drugs can be dangerous and may also lead to some very serious criminal charges, especially under federal law. If you have been charged with a crime, state or federal, in connection with synthetic drugs, you should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area.

Your attorney can provide you with legal advice and defend you against criminal charges. A lawyer might be able to get the charges reduced or help you in other ways. You are most likely to get the best possible outcome in your case if you have an experienced criminal defense attorney representing your interests.