What You Need To Know About Illicit Drugs Today

By Alyssa Cavanuagh, ARNP, MSN

What You Need To Know About Illicit Drugs Today

Drug abuse is a serious problem in the United States, especially among young people who are using a new generation of designer drugs. These drugs mimic the effects of traditional recreational drugs but contain ingredients that can cause serious health hazards to the consumer. Friends and family members are often the first to detect drug abuse problems, so learning to recognize the signs of drug abuse can lead to early, potentially lifesaving treatment.


Designer drugs are created in homemade laboratories or other concealed locations. The maker often creates a designer drug by blending drugs with psychoactive effects, such as cocaine or morphine, with over-the-counter materials. The resulting designer drug causes new and frequently unknown effects on the consumer’s brain, behavior, and body.

Some makers offer designer drugs on the internet, often labeling the product “not for human consumption” to avoid prosecution. Just over 14 percent of U.S. respondents in the 2014 Global Drug Survey said they had purchased drugs online within the previous year.

Consumers use designer drugs in the same ways as they use other drugs, by swallowing, snorting, smoking or injection. The various types of designer drugs and administration methods produce different effects, both wanted and unwanted. Synthetic cannabinoids, including K2, spice, herbal incense, create an effect similar to marijuana. Cathinones, including bath salts and 2-C drugs, imitate the high of LSD. Depending on the drug, the consumer may experience exhilaration, long periods of wakefulness or sleepiness, or lack of appetite. Unwanted effects can include panic attacks, aggressive behavior, paranoia and hallucinations. Other effects include nausea, significant blood pressure changes, seizures, slurred speech and blackouts. These drugs can even cause death.

Synthetic Cannabinoids Synthetic cannabinoid products emerged onto the U.S. drug market in 2008 as legal alternatives to marijuana. Authors of the Global Drug Survey said that synthetic cannabis products were the most commonly used novel psychoactive drug across their sample of participants. The researchers also found that synthetic cannabis users were 30 times more likely to need emergency medical treatment than traditional cannabis users. The United States DEA says that poison control centers received about 5,200 calls regarding exposures to synthetic cannabinoids in 2012.


Budder, also known as marijuana wax or butane hash oil, is a heavy, sticky substance with a reputation for greater toxicity and higher potency than standard marijuana. Country crime labs in Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and other South Florida counties have been unable to record the actual number of budder cases in those areas because laboratory tests identify Budder as marijuana. Laboratories are working on new testing methods to properly identify this substance. Producers manufacture budder locally in marijuana grow houses, despite the great risks involved in budder production. An explosion occurred during an attempt at manufacturing budder in Boca Raton during May of 2014, damaging the windows of the grow house. Police officials confirmed budder production as the cause of the destruction. Budder can be dangerous outside the grow house too, potentially causing hallucinations, heart palpitations, paranoia, extreme anxiety, and can even spur the onset of psychosis.


Flakka is another new designer drug that has been increasingly popular in Palm Beach County. Flakka, otherwise known as gravel or bath salts, is a crystalline substance that looks like rock candy and produces effects similar to crystal meth. A cheap alternative to meth, flakka is transported from overseas and purchased online. The active chemical in flakka is alpha- PVP or methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), which frequently causes paranoia, feelings of unease, and severe psychosis.


Abusing any drug is dangerous because of the risk for adverse effects that could lead to serious bodily harm or even death. Healthcare professionals have provided care for drug users for decades, creating emergency treatment plans based on the known effects of various ingredients in the abused drug. Designer drugs usually come from illegal laboratories, so it is impossible for the consumer to know exactly what is in the drug or how strong its effects will be.

The unknown ingredients in designer drugs make it difficult for emergency responders and emergency department workers to determine the best course of treatment in cases of adverse reactions to and overdoses on designer drugs. In these cases, healthcare professionals rely on laboratories capable of testing a wide variety of substances commonly found in designer drugs. Without these highly sensitive laboratory tests, emergency department doctors can only treat whatever symptoms the patient presents. Laboratory testing is also an essential monitoring tool for drug treatment facilities.


Using and abusing drugs is serious. Left unaddressed, drug use can result in side effects, including dependence, addiction, and overdose. Anyone concerned that a loved one is abusing drugs can learn to recognize the physical, behavioral, and psychological warning signs of drug abuse.

The physical signs of drug abuse depend largely on the drug used but can include:

• Bloodshot eyes

• Pupils that are abnormally large or small

• Frequent nosebleeds

• Changes in appetite

• Unexplained weight gain or loss

• Change in sleep patterns

• Poor grooming or hygiene

• Unexplained injuries

• Unusual odor on body, breath or clothing

• Shakes, tremors, slurred speech, poor coordination

Behavioral signs include deteriorating performance at work or school, loss of interest in hobbies, decreased motivation, unusual or unexplained need for money, borrowing, and stealing. Psychological signs of drug abuse include an unexplained change in attitude or personality, irritability or sudden mood changes, inappropriate emotional responses, or appearing fearful or paranoid.

Knowing how to recognize the signs of drug abuse can lead to early treatment and can even save a life. If you or someone you know has a drug problem, contact a drug addiction treatment facility or mental health professional in your area.

Alyssa Cavanaugh, ARNP, MSN, is the lab manager for Advanced Diagnostic Laboratory Services, LLC, a full reference laboratory that specializes in complete laboratory testing for substance abuse and pain management, as well as laboratory consulting for High Complexity LC-MS labs. To learn more about ADLS, please visit us at www.myadls.net or call (561)221-0353