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Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drug abuse in the workplace

Safework Health offers analysis for a wide range of current and emerging designer/synthetic drugs in our laboratories located across Australia.

Synthetic drugs, or designer drugs, are chemical analogues of many well-established drugs of abuse. They provide many of the same effects as real cannabis (Synthetic Cannabis) or to amphetamine-type stimulants (Cathinones and Bath Salts) or sedatives. 

Synthetic drugs are made in a laboratory and can be even more dangerous than the real thing. 

In this article, we provide you with an overview of synthetic drugs, their effects, the impact of synthetic drugs in the workplace, and how to manage synthetic drug abuse at work. 

What are synthetic drugs?

Synthetic drugs were never intended for human use, being purely research tools (Synthetic Cannabis, Cathinone, Bath Salts) or repurposed medicines (Ketamine).

To stay ahead of the law, the people who manufacture these drugs develop new chemicals that are not on the list of any country’s banned substances. They can also constantly alter the chemical components of their drugs every time a government bans some or even all their ingredients.

Synthetic drugs are also known by a wide range of names, such as herbal incense, herbal highs, party pills, bath salts, plant fertiliser, synthetic cocaine, and synthetic cannabis. 

One major problem with many synthetic drugs – especially Synthetic Cannabis, Cathinone and Bath Salts – is that the actual drugs being sold change from year to year. In 2010, most K-2 and Spice products contained the drug JWH018. By 2014, it was overwhelmingly the drug AM2201, a completely different class of Synthetic Cannabis. Users cannot be certain they are taking the drug they think they have purchased.

Taking a closer look at synthetic drugs

There are three common types of synthetic drugs:

  • Synthetic Cannabis: Natural cannabis owes its effects to THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. THC is a relatively innocuous drug -there is no practical toxic limit with marijuana, it is not physically addictive nor is there any withdrawal syndrome associated with marijuana. THC has few side effects and very, very few users experience psychotic episodes, nearly all of them having an underlying mental illness. Synthetic Cannabis is toxic, with many fatalities recorded from overdoses. It is also highly addictive, has dangerous side effects including heart beat irregularities and spikes in blood pressure, and can induce dangerous psychotic episodes in a substantial fraction of mentally healthy individuals. 

    Synthetic cannabis is usually sold as plant clippings (often just lawn waste) which has been sprayed with the chemical. Synthetic cannabis is usually smoked, although it can also be consumed as tea. They are usually sold in colourful packets, bearing brand names like Spice, K-2, Kronic, Godfather, Mojo, Northern Lights, Lightning Red, and Lightning Gold.

  • Cathinones: These drugs are derived from cathinone, the natural stimulant present in the khat shrub of East Africa. They are sold as white or brown crystal-like powder and mimic the effects of amphetamine (speed) or cocaine and are sold under a variety of names. The drugs methylone, mephedrone and MDPV are sold under names like Cloud 9, Syncaine, Supercoke and Bath Salts. Synthetic cathinones are dangerous and have caused numerous fatalities. They often induce paranoia, audio-visual hallucinations, panic attacks and even excited delirium marked by extreme agitation and violence.
  • Bath Salts (NBOMe’s): Of all the synthetic drugs, these are the most dangerous. Wholly synthetic compounds these drugs act like a cross between Ice (crystal meth) and LSD, they are addictive and have a higher rate of inducing psychosis and excited delirium than Synthetic Cannabis. They are quite toxic and have been associated with a significant number of deaths in young healthy users – which makes the names of some of these drugs, like Dr. Death, Lightning Gold and Mojo, somewhat ironic.
  • Ketamine is a dissociative anaesthetic which causes significant euphoria in users. Because of its side effects – dissociation, delirium, hallucinations and chronically inflamed bladders – its medical use is severely restricted, usually to emergency situations (because it is so potent). It’s often sold as ‘Vitamin K’ or ‘K’.
  • Synthetic drugs are sold in a whole range of guises, including herbal highs and party pills. Synthetic Cathinones and NBOMes are often sold as energy boosters due to their strong cocaine- and amphetamine-like effects.

Effects of synthetic drugs on the body

Synthetic drugs contain an assortment of man-made chemicals, fillers and cutting agents, which make it difficult to predict their effects on the body. 

Making things more difficult is the common practice of manufacturers constantly changing the ingredients should any of them get banned. 

Some of the adverse effects of synthetic drugs include:

  • fast and irregular heartbeat
  • paranoia
  • acute agitation – sometimes excited violent delirium
  • emotional fragility
  • diminished cognitive ability
  • hallucinations
  • muscular pain
  • sore jaw
  • appetite loss
  • anxiety
  • seizures
  • psychosis
  • suicidal thoughts
  • rapid breathing
  • racing thoughts
  • dissociative state
  • rapid uncontrolled heart rate
  • death

Several deaths have been attributed to the use of synthetic drugs, particularly synthetic marijuana.

The impact of synthetic drugs at work

Synthetic drug use can substantially increase the risk of workplace incidents. By increasing agitation and excitability, such workers are distractable and rarely pay close attention to the situation. Coupled with a tendency to hallucinate, they should never be allowed near potential workplace hazards.

Users of the drug can suffer seizures and psychosis, which could trigger an accident that results in injury or death, particularly if they are operating vehicles or heavy machinery. 

What to do about synthetic drugs at work

Synthetic drugs are some of the most dangerous substances around. While overall use rates are not very high, they are still significant, and – like Ice – they have a disproportionate impact on workplace safety. The only way for employers to protect themselves is to establish a clearly worded drug and alcohol policy and procedure. 

Such a policy should include a drug education and awareness program and a drug testing program.

Synthetic drug testing

The ever-changing compounds that make up synthetic drugs can make it difficult for standard drug tests to detect them. 

Safework Health provides laboratory-based analysis for a range of synthetic drugs including Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Cathinone, Piperazines, NBoMes, Ketamine and Flakka. Testing should be carried out on urine as this is the most reliable way to detect synthetic drugs.

Our drug test panels are constantly updated to be able to detect the chemicals that are used in synthetic drugs, and our scientific team constantly monitors the compounds that get struck off or added to the list of ingredients.

Safework Health is also committed to improving its existing synthetic cannabis drug test regime as well as developing new synthetic drug testing methods to help deal with synthetic drugs at workplace concerns.

Learn more

Safework Health can help keep your workplace safe from drugs and alcohol. Contact us today for a confidential discussion.


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