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Synthetic Drugs of Abuse

From the Field

What are Spice and Bath Salts and their effects? Are synthetic drugs such as Spice and Bath Salts permitted for use by military personnel?

HPRC's Answer

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Bath Salts
Military Resources

Use of synthetic drugs has become a significant problem in the United States over the past several years according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Synthetic Drugs web page. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has “emergency scheduled” five synthetic cannabinoids (“fake pot”) often found in Spice and three stimulants common to Bath Salts in Schedule 1 (which means they have no medical use and are illegal). Emergency scheduling provides the time needed to conduct oversight and administrative actions for permanent scheduling according to the Controlled Substances Act. Before they are classified as a Schedule 1 drug, they may first be banned by selected states because they have a high risk of abuse and provide no medical benefit. Note that use of any illegal or mind-altering legal drugs while on active duty—on or off duty—is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and can result in action by the Office of Special Investigation, as well as a dishonorable discharge. Use of such drugs can also negatively impact the health and wellness of individuals and units. See the Resources section at the end of this document for more information about branch-specific policies and articles.

Synthetic drugs, sometimes called “designer drugs,” are laboratory-made substances intended to mimic the effects of illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines. Specifically, they are created as a means to bypass laws that ban the use of specific drugs. However, designer drugs often differ chemically from the drugs they are intended to mimic.

Synthetic chemicals that are classified as “legal” may not be detected by routine urinalysis or blood tests. Once they become known as “mimics” of already scheduled drugs, tests for their detection are developed, and the presence of many such chemicals can now be identified in a user’s system.

Manufacturers of synthetic drugs change their chemical formulas frequently; they are also sold under various names. Users may have different reactions with each use, because the amount(s) and type(s) of active drug(s) may change. For more information, view NIDA’s Emerging Drugs and Spice, Bath Salts, and Salvia web pages. In this Answer, we focus on two of the most common synthetic drugs (Spice and Bath Salts).


What is Spice? The term “Spice” refers to a group of drugs that produce effects similar to those of marijuana. These drugs often are sold as K2 or Spice, synthetic marijuana, fake weed, or skunk. They are mixtures of dried plant materials and synthetic cannabinoids, compounds similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. This mixture is then smoked or ingested in the same ways as marijuana.

What are the effects of Spice? Spice acts on the same receptors in the brain as THC, but Spice drugs are chemically different and often more potent than THC (that is, less drug is required to produce a given effect). That means that Spice drugs may have more powerful and unpredictable effects such as euphoria, relaxation, and altered perception, as well as a high heart rate, nausea, vomiting, confusion, and extreme agitation (see the Navy PSA video). Seizures, heart attacks, and hallucinations, all of which can be fatal, have also been reported. See NIDA’s Drug Facts: Spice for more information, as well as the FBI bulletin: Synthetic Marijuana and SAMHSA’s News Release on "synthetic marijuana."

Bath Salts

What are Bath Salts? “Bath Salts" is the street name for a group of drugs that mimic the effects of cocaine and amphetamines. Although their chemical makeup can vary, Bath Salts tend to have chemical structures related to cathinone, an active ingredient similar to amphetamines. They tend to look like crystallized bath salts, which is how they got their street name. They are ingested orally, snorted, smoked, or injected and can be much more potent than their counterparts – marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, hallucinogens.

What are the effects of Bath Salts? Bath Salts promote the release of dopamine (a brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure) from nerve cells. In other words, Bath Salts may increase energy and feelings of euphoria. Many people also experience increases in heart rate and body temperature, headache, nausea, and other unwanted symptoms (see the Navy PSA video and NIDA video). Major side effects include violent behavior, liver/kidney failure, psychosis, delirium, suicide, and even death. According to NIDA, Bath Salts are “dangerous.”


New synthetic drugs are being made all the time. The two drugs in this overview are only some of the ones being made. These drugs may be “legal” for a short period of time, but remember that taking any mood-altering drug may be in violation of the UCMJ, which can result in serious legal consequences for your military career (see DoDI 1010.01 and the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) Infosheet on drug testing). These synthetic drugs may have unintended health consequences and even can result in death. If you want more information, including branch-specific articles, please see the list below of Military Resources.

Military Resources

Air Force



    Coast Guard