By Joseph Lee, MD, Medical Director of Hazelden's Youth Continuum
Synthetic or designer drugs have been around for some time now, but they have been surging in popularity in the US over the past decade. There’s synthetic marijuana, synthetic amphetamines (i.e., Bath Salts), and an ever-growing list of synthetic hallucinogens, including Dragonfly, all easily available online for any half-determined individual.
American's New Deadly Drug: Dragonfly
Despite the rash of synthetic-drug-related headlines in the past year, I find many parents and adolescents still feel these issues don’t pertain to them. These problems are often imagined to exist in seedier parts of cities, not in our neighborhoods and certainly not in our homes. Gauging current trends, however, there are plenty of reasons for every family to become aware. I hope the information below helps some families out there from suffering a preventable tragedy.
What Is Dragonfly?
Bromo Dragonfly is one of the dozens of designer hallucinogens with an increased presence in our communities. Dragonfly is so named because of the winged appearance of its chemical structure, and because of an attached bromine atom. There are many cousins of Dragonfly, most famously the “2C” drugs, such as 2C-B and 2C-E. All of these chemicals work on serotonin, and change the way we feel and experience the world through our thoughts and senses. As a whole, all of these chemicals have different properties and effects when used.
Bromo Dragonfly is extremely potent, meaning that a very small dose has a very big kick – even a minor overdose can be disastrous. As drugs go, its effects last quite a long time, up to 2 or even 3 days. That means that if someone has a side effect, they are bound to have them for awhile. Confusion, heart problems, hallucinations, seizures and even death have been reported from the consumption of Dragonfly, and it has been banned in several other Western countries. Moreover, many of the individuals who have suffered from its use were first time users.
At Hazelden, we now routinely treat young people across the country whose minds have been devastated by the impact of various synthetic drugs. Many get better, but the hallucinations, paranoia and disorganized thoughts can last months.
Why Would My Child Use Dragonfly?
Let’s be realistic. Young people have and probably always will experiment with substances. Though risk-taking and novelty-seeking may be expected, easier access to drugs and an endless stream of incomplete open source information (usually online) are newer trends. Combined, these variables give some a false and dangerous confidence about using these substances “safely.” The legal gray area that many synthetic drugs reside in certainly does nothing to discourage such a notion.
These days, I see an increasing number of young people who find that their social reputation improves significantly as they become amateur experts in obscure drugs. They innocently, but ignorantly, give advice to their friends about how someone else used safely before, how to mix the chemicals, and what they should expect. All this occurs without any knowledge of drug interactions and preexisting medical conditions. Though it is fortunately not commonplace, there are no winners when catastrophe strikes.
Some young people I have treated have heard of the dangers of synthetic drugs like Dragonfly and are biased against using them. So, if kids are wary of it, what is the problem? The problem is that many who buy Dragonfly actually believe they are buying acid or another drug, only to fall victim. This is because most of these designer drugs are full of contaminants and are made by amateur laboratories. No one can ever really be sure what they are taking and in at what dosage.
Finally, certain populations may be drawn to using synthetic drugs because of drug monitoring from work, sports or legal obligations. Dragonfly and many drugs like it are not detected in standard urine drug screens.
Why Is This Stuff Legal?
Dragonfly and many other synthetic drugs are currently not regulated on a federal level. The problem is that these chemicals can easily be altered with slight changes in structure to evade regulation. It also takes time for legislation to pass, creating an endless catch-up game for government agencies. These drugs are bought online sometimes from other countries, so jurisdiction is another problem.
How Can I Protect My Family?
In the end, parents are the CEOs of their home. If your family is currently in crisis or you have strong suspicions, there are a number of ways to safeguard your home. This may include tracking credit card statements, screening packages that come to the home, and even tracking Internet browsing histories. If you are in a desperate situation, don’t feel bad about doing what is necessary in your child’s best interest. That being said, the best way to prevent drug use is to establish a culture in your home that preserves both safety and dignity.
Parents need to clear about the expectations they have regarding drug use. It’s equally important to withhold judgment so that children won’t be discouraged to communicate with you in times of need. The best parenting styles for drug prevention are authoritative, meaning that parents are emotionally available and compassionate, while holding firm boundaries and expectations.
One of the points I failed to mention on the show (due to time constraints) was the importance of getting help. All of us are blinded by the love we have for our children and no one is consistently an objective observer of themselves and their families. If you have any concerns, pediatricians, mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, and school resources can all point the way to effective screening and evaluation.
Perspective and Prevention
Bromo Dragonfly will not be the last drug to make headlines, but it does represent some new trends in drug use. The Internet’s role in drug use, easy accessibility, and murky legalities are all now a reality for many families. It’s up to parents, teachers and health-care professionals to protect our loved ones through education and prevention.
Get more information on teenage alcohol and drug abuse from the America Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.