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The hidden dangers of synthetic drugs
07:56 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Watch CNN’s investigative documentary “Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs Are Killing Kids” at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Story highlights

Synthetic drugs are designed to mimic certain controlled drugs

Synthetic drugs were linked to more than 28,000 emergency rooms visits in 2011

Manufacturers keep changing drugs' chemical composition to bypass laws

CNN  — 

Chase Burnett was a high school soccer player and honor roll student in suburban Atlanta. His mother described him as having an inner light about him, a joy to be around.

Chase was found dead in his family’s hot tub on March 4, 2012. A package of synthetic marijuana was found nearby. He was only 16.

Chase’s father, David Burnett, was unaware his son had tried synthetic marijuana until it was too late.

“We found out the day that he passed away that he had experimented with it just a handful of times,” Burnett said he learned from Chase’s friends.

“What killed Chase was the synthetic cannabinoid poisoning, the marijuana. The chemicals that were sprayed onto the leaves shut his lungs down. He suffered a violent death. He asphyxiated and suffocated, and he obviously became unconscious … and I found him in the hot tub,” Burnett told CNN.

“It’s a senseless death,” Chase’s mother, Yvette Burnett, said. “A child, teenagers, walk into a store thinking it’s legal, thinking it’s not going to hurt them. They purchased something that shouldn’t be sold. And we just don’t want the pain of what we’re going through to affect other families.

“Our son made a mistake. He made a bad choice, never ever knowing that this would take his life. So I just ask parents and grandparents, talk about this stuff.”

Synthetic drugs were linked to more than 28,000 emergency rooms visits in 2011, according a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Here’s what else you need to know:

What are synthetic drugs?

Synthetic “designer” drugs are chemically laced substances, designed to mimic the highs of marijuana, cocaine and other controlled drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids (also known as K2, Spice or synthetic marijuana) and synthetic cathinones (better known as bath salts) are two common types of synthetic drugs with growing concerns, especially among high school students.

Unlike regular marijuana and cocaine, which come from plants, synthetic marijuana contains chemicals and dried plant materials. It is sometimes marketed as “potpourri.”

While bath salts may sound innocuous, they are quite the opposite. These drugs typically come in the form of white powder or crystals and resemble true bath salts, such as Epsom salts. But chemically, they are very different. Bath salts can be taken orally, inhaled or injected and produce side effects similar to those of amphetamines.

Synthetic drugs are mainly manufactured overseas in China and are shipped to the United States in bulk. They are easy to find online and can also be found in head shops and even gas stations – often sold in unsuspecting packaging labeled “not for human consumption.”

The dangerous facts

Marilyn A. Huestis, Ph.D., a research scientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has been studying the effects of drugs on the body for more than 25 years.

In 2008, when designer drugs became prevalent in Europe, she realized it would soon be a major problem in the United States. The DEA says there are now more than 300 identified synthetic drugs.

“They are much more potent than the drugs that they mimic, so we have much more deaths and adverse effects than we had put together with the other [controlled] drugs. It’s a major problem,” she explained.

Dr. Joe Funk, a physician with Northside Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine in Georgia, talks about the physical effects he’s seen in patients who have taken bath salts.

“They just lose control,” he said. “They will be combative and violent, just cussing you out. And after they come of it, they don’t realize what they did.”

Other physical signs beyond anger and violence include profuse sweating, hallucinations, anxiousness, heart palpitations, losing control and losing touch with reality. Funk explains that because of the lack of oxygen and blood flow to the heart, patients have had heart problems as well.

The effects of synthetic marijuana are just as troubling. According to the Partnership for Drug-free Kids, the subtle signs include increased agitation, profuse sweating and pale skin. The larger concern is loss of motor skills, physical control and seizures. The paranoia associated with synthetic marijuana is more extreme than the paranoia associated with regular marijuana.

Before 2010, synthetic drugs were not controlled at a state or federal level, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Now, almost every state and the federal government have passed laws banning certain chemicals that are used in synthetic drugs.

The American Association of Poison Control Center’s most recent data even shows human exposure to bath salts is down from more than 6,000 cases in 2011 to fewer than 500 reported cases in 2014. But the dangers of these drugs and new ones constantly emerging on the market continue to exist. Manufacturers are constantly changing the makeup of the drugs to circumvent and bypass the laws. And this also furthers the risk in using these drugs.

Michael Baumann, Ph.D., with the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that even subtle changes in the molecular structure can drastically change how these drugs affect the body.

“This is a dangerous game – you don’t even know what is in these substances.”

Talking to teens

Education, communication and being vigilant are key, according to Steve Pasierb of Partnership for Drug-free Kids. Because synthetic drugs are readily available in retail, he says voicing the word with your kids about the dangers of these drugs makes a difference.

“We know from all the research that kids who learn a lot about the drug issue at home, from whoever is raising them, are half as likely to use,” Pasierb explained.

If you are concerned about someone you know using synthetic drugs or need help coming up with a plan to discuss synthetic drugs with your loved ones, here are some resources to help.

– The Office of National Drug Control Policy and Partnership for Drug-free Kids have put together a Parents’ Toolkit, to help parents talk to their kids about synthetic drugs.

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids Hotline (1-855-DRUGFREE) will help parents walk thru what they think is happening and come up with a plan. Licensed, clinical social workers answer questions and provided treatment options based upon caller’s location.

– The following websites offer more information and statistics about the dangers of synthetic drugs: Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Know The Dangers

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) will connect you to a trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, 24/7 – no matter what problems you’re dealing with.