Learn / The Hidden Risks of Club Drugs

The Hidden Risks of Club Drugs

Hannah Friedman
 January 19th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Synthetic drugs can be misleading. It’s easy to take them by mistake, because they’re often mislabeled or poorly described. Maybe a friend offered you “pure” molly at a festival. Or you saw packages of “legal weed gummies” in your local convenience store. But many synthetic drugs contain other harmful substances. And they’re often unregulated, or even unlabeled. And when you don’t know what you’re taking, you can’t predict the risks.

These drugs carry high risks of bad interactions and overdose. As with all drugs, there’s also a risk of addiction. And when you’re gambling with substances and dosages, it can sneak up on you. When you’re ready to recover, you might consider attending a rehab program for synthetic drug use.

What Are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs—sometimes called club drugs or designer drugs—are drugs manufactured in labs.1 They’re supposed to mimic the effects of “natural” drugs like marijuana or cocaine that are derived from organic substances like the cannabis plant or coca plant.

You can sometimes find synthetic drugs in convenience stores2 or smoke shops with labels like “not for human consumption” or “for cleaning purposes.” These labels help sellers avoid detection by law enforcement. But that plausible deniability creates misinformation. As a result, synthetic drugs aren’t always easy to spot. In order to stay safe, it’s important to know how to recognize them.

Synthetic Marijuana

Some stores sell synthetic marijuana as an alternative to weed.3 They might also call it an “herbal supplement,” “K2,” or “Spice.” But it’s usually a combination of plant materials and synthetic chemicals, despite labels claiming to contain only natural substances. These drugs can cause severe agitation and even hallucinations.

Because synthetic marijuana is unregulated, you likely won’t know what you’re buying. It’s also much stronger than regular marijuana, and can include heavy metals or other dangerous chemicals. If you regularly smoke weed, taking synthetic marijuana may seem like a safe alternative. But despite its similar name, it’s a completely different drug.

Bath Salts

Bath salts are a synthetic stimulant.4 They normally come in a crystal powder form packaged as plant food or phone screen cleaner. Bath salts may produce paranoia, hallucinations, increased sex drive, or panic attacks. In some cases, taking bath salts leads to violent behavior. The term “bath salts” can refer to a variety of specific drugs. Among these, a drug called flakka is increasingly popular.5

Because bath salts are typically cheaper and stronger than other stimulants, they’re especially addictive. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, many people report “intense, uncontrollable urges” to use bath salts4 repeatedly.


Also known as molly or MDMA, ecstasy acts as both a stimulant and hallucinogen.6 It can alter your perception of time and space, and increase pleasure and energy. However, it can also cause sleep problems, anxiety, and memory issues. Molly comedowns are notoriously depressing—that’s because it depletes your brain of its natural pleasure chemicals:7

“By releasing large amounts of serotonin, MDMA causes the brain to become significantly depleted of this important neurotransmitter, contributing to the negative psychological aftereffects that people may experience for several days after taking MDMA.”

Because ecstasy is unregulated, it’s frequently mixed with other drugs. Even when it appears in crystal form, it’s almost certainly combined with additives like methamphetamine, bath salts, ketamine, and fentanyl. And because many people use ecstasy at clubs or festivals, it’s common to mix it with alcohol and other drugs. This creates a dangerous situation that can potentially lead to overdose.

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, replicate the effects of natural opioids, like morphine. But synthetic opioids produce stronger narcotic effects8 than natural opioids, increasing the risk of overdose. Synthetic opioid addiction often resembles addiction to natural opiates like heroin and morphine, though it may be compounded by the effects of other ingredients. Most rehabs treat these opioid addictions in the same way.

Are Synthetic Drugs Legal?

Designer drugs have some unique risks. And that’s not only because of their chemical makeup. Their legal and cultural statuses also play a role.

Lack of Regulation

One of the main dangers of club drugs9 is their lack of regulation. FDA-approved drugs like benzodiazepines can also lead to addiction. But if you choose to, you can track your dosage. And that information might make it easier to know when you need help.

Designer drugs are different. Because they’re made in labs without oversight, chemists don’t have to follow a precise formula. They might even switch between different chemicals because of changing supply chains. Then, distributors can add other substances to bulk up the quantity and increase their profit margins.

When you mix these substances with alcohol or other drugs, they can be a deadly combination. And you may not recognize the warning signs of overdose. In order to reduce overdoses from laced drugs, some nonprofits and governments have started to offer drug testing kits.10

Increased Availability of Designer Drugs

Synthetic drugs are also dangerous11 because of how accessible they are. To buy them, you don’t need to learn a secret code, or meet up with anyone covertly. Instead, you can just walk into a store and buy them with a credit card. And many people only take club drugs at events,12 which can feel like special occasions. So even if you go clubbing every weekend, it might feel like your drug use is under control. And that can make it harder to notice a growing addiction.

Designer drugs are typically cheaper than other drugs, so some people may prefer them for practical reasons. This also means that synthetic drugs are more accessible to young people.13 And people who start using drugs during adolescence are more likely to develop addiction.

Misunderstood Risks

There’s a misconception that some synthetic drugs are natural—especially synthetic marijuana. While some brands do contain plant material, they also include other chemicals. Some types of synthetic marijuana may even contain synthetic opioids,3 like fentanyl.

Treating Synthetic Drug Addiction

Experts are still researching the best treatment methods for synthetic drug addiction. As of now, there’s no standard treatment program for synthetic drug abuse.14 But certain behavioral therapies appear to be helpful.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a popular treatment method for addiction and other mental health issues. Studies have proven CBT effective for treating psychoactive drug addiction,15 which includes synthetic drugs.

In CBT, you’ll learn new coping skills for handling emotional stress. Treatment also helps you work through and change unhealthy thought patterns. Your therapist might ask you how you feel before, during, and after taking synthetic drugs, to help you identify triggers. For example, maybe you take molly when you go out with friends because you have social anxiety. Once you recognize this, you can practice new ways to manage difficult emotions.

CBT can also include motivational interviewing (MI). With MI, your therapist will help you identify what changes you want to make in life and why. By reminding yourself why you want to change, you can commit more fully to recovery.

Behavioral Therapy for Teens

Synthetic drug addiction is especially common among teens,12 and young people have unique needs during treatment. For example, teens benefit greatly from group therapy with peers. This helps them connect with others who share their experiences, offering them invaluable camaraderie and social support for their recovery.

Experts also recommend family therapy for adolescents recovering from synthetic drug addiction. This empowers teens in recovery, their parents, and other family members to support each other’s healing.

Get Expert Help

Rehabs have been treating synthetic drug use for decades. So while it may seem like there are a lot of unknowns, your chance for a successful recovery doesn’t have to be one of them.

Search for rehabs that treat synthetic drug addiction to learn about their pricing, treatment approaches, and more.

  1. Facts about Synthetic Drugs | Just Think Twice. https://www.justthinktwice.gov/article/facts-about-synthetic-drugs. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023. []
  2. New York State Department of Health. “Synthetic Drug Frequently Asked Questions.” https://www.health.ny.gov/professionals/narcotic/docs/synthetic_drugs_faq.pdf
  3. Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice) DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5 Feb. 2018, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/synthetic-cannabinoids-k2spice. [] []
  4. Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “Synthetic Cathinones (‘Bath Salts’) DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6 July 2020, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/synthetic-cathinones-bath-salts. [] []
  5. Palamar, Joseph J., et al. “‘Flakka’ Use among High School Seniors in the United States*.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, vol. 196, Mar. 2019, pp. 86–90. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.12.014. []
  6. Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly) DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 15 June 2020, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/mdma-ecstasymolly. []
  7. Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “What Are MDMA’s Effects on the Brain?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, –, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/mdma-ecstasy-abuse/what-are-mdmas-effects-on-brain. []
  8. Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration. “Drug Fact Sheet: Synthetic Opioids.” https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Synthetic%20Opioids-2020.pdf []
  9. Sacco, Lisa N. “Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service. October 28, 2011. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc83995/m1/1/high_res_d/R42066_2011Oct28.pdf []
  10. “Drug Checking.” Drug Policy Alliance, https://drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-checking. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023. []
  11. Written Statement of Joseph T. Rannazzisi, Deputy Assistant Administrator Office of Diversion Control Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Department of Justice, Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. “The Dangers of Synthetic Cannabinoids and Stimulants.” April 6, 2011 []
  12. Weaver, Michael F., et al. “Designer Drugs 2015: Assessment and Management.” Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, vol. 10, no. 1, Mar. 2015, p. 8. BioMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13722-015-0024-7. [] []
  13. Synthetic Drugs | CADCA. https://www.cadca.org/synthetic-drugs. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023. []
  14. Stum, Blaine. “A Challenging Design: Addressing Synthetic and Designer Drugs in Adult Drug Courts.” Justice Programs Office School of Public Affairs. https://www.american.edu/spa/jpo/videos/upload/a-challenging-design-addressing-synthetic-and-designer-drugs-in-adult-drug-courts-fact-sheet.pdf
  15. McHugh, R. Kathryn, et al. “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Substance Use Disorders.” The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, vol. 33, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 511–25. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.012. []

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