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Emerging Drugs of Abuse

New Drugs Present Growing Public Health Concerns

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Updated September 21, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Parents, school officials and public healthcare workers not only have to be on the look-out for the use of traditional drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, but now they have to deal with a growing list of synthetic, designer and emerging drugs.

The public health concerns with most of these new drugs revolves around the fact that they have not been in use long enough for researchers to be able to assess their long-term health effects.

Here is a look at some of these emerging drugs that are beginning to show up on emergency department treatment reports from hospitals across the United States.

Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana, sold under brand names like "K2" and "Spice" and called "fake weed" or "legal bud" by users, first appeared in on the scene in the U.S. around 2008. It's use has grown at an alarming rate.

According to the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey, 11.4 percent of 12th graders used Spice or K2 in the past year, making it the second most commonly used drug among high school seniors, behind the use of marijuana.

One factor in the rapid growth in use of synthetic marijuana initially was the fact that it was legal and readily available on the shelves of convenience stores, head shops and on the Internet.

Another factor in the quick increase in use of the drug was that it was advertised as a "natural" product. Although the Spice products do contain natural dried materials, the active ingredients are chemical designer cannabinoid compounds that are anything but natural.

Health Effects of Spice

Because these chemical compounds can be more powerful than the THC found in marijuana, users of the drug can experience unexpected reactions. According to reports from Poison Control Centers around the country, users report symptoms including rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations.

Synthetic marijuana can also raise blood pressure, cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia), and in a few cases has been linked to heart attacks.

Steps have been taken now to make the distribution and sale of synthetic marijuana illegal in many states and on the federal level, but makers of the drugs change the ingredients as fast as legislators can ban them and faster than researchers can try to determine their possible negative health effects.

Bath Salts

If Spice is fake marijuana, the drugs marketed as "bath salts" are fake cocaine or fake methamphetamine. The drugs are sold under brand names like "Ivory Wave," "Vanilla Sky," "Purple Wave," "Red Dove," "Scarface," "Blue Silk," "Zoom," "Bloom," "Cloud Nine," "Ocean Snow," "Lunar Wave," "White Lightning," and "Hurricane Charlie."

But like Spice, the bath salt drugs are anything but natural. They contain amphetamine-like chemicals that can include methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone, and methylone, also known as substituted cathinones.

These drugs work in the brain like stimulant drugs and have been found to trigger intense craving for more of the drug similar to cravings experienced by methamphetamine users. Officials believe that mephedrone is of particular concern because of the high risk of overdose, causing public officials to issue warnings against its use.

Health Effects of Bath Salts

Like Spice, these drugs are too new for scientists to have studied their long-term effects, but their use have been linked to a growing number of emergency room visits around the U.S. Poison Control Center reports of symptoms from patients who used bath salts included chest pains, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and delusions.

Some deaths have been reported in people who took the synthetic stimulant drugs, including one possible suicide, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The U.S. Congress passed a law in July 2012 that was aimed at taking bath salts type drugs off the shelves of stores nationwide, regardless of how their active ingredients might be changed or altered.

Salvia

Unlike Spice and bath salts, salvia is a natural herb, mostly grown in southern Mexico, Central and South America. The reason there is new concern about the drug is because it showed up on the 2009 Monitoring the Future study of drug use by 8th, 10th and 12th grade students.

Use of the drug has remained on subsequent Monitoring the Future surveys, showing greater use of salvia by high school students that their use of the drug ecstasy.

Usually, salvia is ingested by users chewing its fresh leaves, but it can also be used by drinking juices extracted from the leaves or it can be smoked in the same ways marijuana is smoked.

Salvia works by acting on the opioid receptors in the brain, but the receptors that salvia act upon are different from those activated by the opioids heroin and morphine.

Effects of Salvia

Users of the drug report experiencing hallucinations or “psychotomimetic” episodes, which mimic a psychosis. These episodes are usually short-lived, lasting less than 30 minutes. Users also report psychedelic-like visual symptoms, emotional swings and feelings of detachment.

There have been few studies in the U.S. about the long-term effects of salvia, but some recent studies have indicated a negative affect on learning and memory skills.

Salvia is not currently on the federal Controlled Substances list, but a few states have passed laws making it illegal to distribute or sell it.

Molly

Actually, molly is not a new drug, but a altered version of an old one. Molly, short for "molecule," is the powder or crystal from of MDMA (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine) which is the chemical used to make ecstasy, a widely used club drug.

Unlike ecstasy which usually contains other ingredients like caffeine or methamphetamine, molly is considered to be "pure" MDMA. It has become a popular drug used at dance (rave) events, music festivals and generally on the electronic dance music scene.

The existence of the drug gained national attention when pop singer Madonna asked participants at the 2012 Ultra Music Festival in Miami, "How many people have seen Molly?" She was sharply criticized for the comment and later apologized.

Unlike salvia, molly is a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S. because of its potential for abuse and the fact that it has no accepted medical use.

Effects of Molly

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) molly can cause paranoia, depression, confusion, anxiety, sleep disruption and drug craving. Users can experience muscle cramps. nausea, blurred vision, tremors, faintness, chills, sweating and involuntary teeth clenching.

One of the most dangerous effects of MDMA is its tendency to interfere with the ability to regulate body temperature. Users can experience sharp increases in body temperature which can lead to liver, kidney and cardiovascular failure. Many deaths attributed to MDMA use have been linked to increased body temperatures.

The crowded and hot conditions at dance events where the drug is commonly used, contribute to user's dehydration and hyperthermia, according to the DEA.

Sources:

Drug Enforcement Administration. "Get Smart About Drugs: Ecstasy or MDMA." Accessed August 2012.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "DrugFacts: Spice (Synthetic Marijuana)." Updated May 2012.

Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Synthetic Drugs." Accessed September 2012.

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