Use of synthetic psychoactive drugs like “bath salts” and “Flakka” has been growing in the U.S. and across the world in recent years. The unregulated substances, many of which are sold in bodegas or head shops as “legal highs,” are created in labs and meant to mimic the effects of drugs like marijuana or LSD.
Though their potential dangers are widely reported, little is actually known about who is using these drugs.
In the first study on the demographics of synthetic drug users, NYU’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR) examined the self-reported use of 57 synthetic “new” drugs based on data collected between 2009 and 2013. They also looked at the prevalence of use and the socio-economic backgrounds of survey-takers.
The findings, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, show that the drug’s use steadily increased over those four years.
Of the “new” or synthetic drugs included in the study, the most common were psychedelic tryptamines (like DMT) and synthetic cannabinoids (imitation pot), said Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center and one of the lead researchers.
Of all the people surveyed, 1 percent reported having used a synthetic drug. “However, we’re pretty confident that use of new drugs was severely underreported, as the research subjects were not asked about most of these drugs specifically,” said Dr Palamar.
He added that past research suggests that rates of bath salts and synthetic marijuana use are much higher than this data showed.
Portrait of a Synthetic Drug User
Researchers found that the drugs were more commonly used by males, white people, older people and those in lower income brackets. They were more popular in cities than rural areas. And most synthetic drug users had used alcohol, tobacco or other illicit drugs like cocaine or ecstasy/MDMA.
Other drug-related results included:
- More than 95 percent of subjects who reported use of a synthetic drug reported that they also had used alcohol, pot or smoked cigarettes in their lifetime
- 80 percent had used ecstasy
- 79 percent had used opioids (like prescription painkillers or heroin)
- 74 percent had used cocaine
- 74 percent had used LSD
One of the reason synthetic, psychoactive drugs are so difficult to regulate is that drug makers continue to make new ones. And because so little is known about the substances, they can have unpredictable, often dangerous, side effects.
“Hundreds of new psychoactive drugs have come out in recent years and some of them can be very dangerous,” said Dr. Palamar. “We need health surveys to ask about use of new drugs, in addition to traditional drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, in order to quickly pick up on potential drug epidemics.”
Additional Reading: What Are the Current Substance Addiction Trends Among Teens Today?
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