Learn / What Are Designer Drugs?
Designer drugs are synthetic drugs created to mimic traditional drugs. They sell through gray areas in drug legislations—and can adapt as quickly as legislations change. For those reasons, they’re sometimes called “legal highs”.
Designer drugs carry risks health professionals and law enforcement haven’t fully realized yet. And designer drugs can evolve and change with relative ease, making all the types and variants hard to keep track of.
But for each new designer drug, a way to heal exists. For example, you can go to rehab for designer drug use.
Here, designer doesn’t mean fancy. The “designer” class of drugs just means someone designed the drug to act in a certain way1. It also means it was designed to skirt the law through cracks in controlled substance legislations.
They’re sold in packaging that says they’re “not for human consumption,” which can keep their manufacturers somewhat safe from legal trouble.
Some designer drugs began as a research project2. Shady scientists can hijack the research made on the brain and tailor a drug to have a particular reaction. Designer drugs originated overseas, produced in places like China and Europe before shipping to America.
Young teens and military members use designer drugs1 more often since they don’t always appear in drug tests. The packaging and names of designer drugs also cater to young teens, with bright colors, fun designs, and names like Green Giant and Joker.
Synthetic drugs don’t always have illegal connotations, as designer drugs do. For example, morphine is a synthetic drug. Though someone could abuse it, morphine wasn’t designed, manufactured, and sold with that in mind.
Designer drugs specifically mimic other illegal drugs—but with chemical properties most toxicology screens won’t notice. Chemicals like fentanyl, morphine, and LSD would show.
And like any other drug, natural or synthetic, designer drugs come with a unique set of risks and side effects.
No drug is without risk. But for designer drugs, their sneaky manufacturing and profit-motivated sellers create problems we’re yet to fully understand.
For example, most designer drug users don’t take just one2. They may combine 2 or more designer stimulants, or make a speedball with a depressant and stimulant. The process of making designer drugs hasn’t been regulated in any way either, meaning you could take a much higher dose than intended or something you never meant to take.
The general side effects of designer drug3 use include
The more precise effects of designer drugs vary based on the kind you take.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)4 recognizes 7 different kinds of designer drugs. They might add more in the future, but for now, these 7 are what they’ve been able to identify.
Most synthetic cannabinoids began as an innocent research project5. Synthetic cannabinoids affect receptors throughout the body in the same way as THC (found in marijuana). It creates an elevated mood and sense of relaxation5. Almost all synthetic cannabinoids go by the street name Spice.
Compared to natural marijuana, Spice usually has a stronger effect5 and higher potential for toxicity.
The chemical compound of Spice coats plant material, making it look like marijuana. You can smoke Spice like regular weed, snort it, or eat it. Its side effects include acute psychosis, anxiety, tachycardia, confusion, paranoia, and delusions.
Phenethylamines are synthetic hallucinogens6, called 2Cs for their 2 connecting carbon molecules. Other street names include N-Bomb, based on the chemical name 25I-NBOMe. They communicate with serotonin receptors in the brain7.
Phenethylamines recently hit the U.S. market after they were made to research serotonin receptors7. You can snort, smoke, inject, or swallow N-Bomb as a liquid or powder. After use, side effects like depersonalization, delirium, extreme confusion, violence, tachycardia, hyperreflexia, bizarre behavior, and heart failure can occur.
Arylcyclohexylamines cause a dissociative high. The drug compounds of arylcyclohexylamines include ketamine, phencyclidines (PCP)8, and more. PCP goes by the street name “angel dust” as it’s typically “dusted” over marijuana and tobacco before smoking. Many synthetic arylcyclohexylamines were originally designed as anesthetics. PCP began that way too, before retiring to a veterinary anesthetic for its side effects.
Ketamine isn’t as strong as PCP but still has addictive potential, especially at higher doses. Smaller doses, however, can be therapeutic.
These designer drugs can cause violent behavior, hallucinations, amnesia, coma, ataxia, catatonia, and tachycardia.
Everyone has naturally occurring tryptamines—serotonin, melatonin, and others. But synthetic tryptamines act as hallucinogens9. They typically mimic the effects of LSD and DMT (psychedelic found in plants and animals). Street names include “Foxy”, “Foxy-Methoxy”, “Alpha-O”, and “5-MEO”.
Tryptamines cause hallucinations and some stimulant effects9. They can also cause agitation, muscle tension, death, and rhabdomyolysis. Designer tryptamines come as pills, capsules, powders, or a liquid.
Piperazines cause many of the same effects as ecstasy10, a stimulant. Similar to ecstasy, they’re marketed toward party-goers and even created to look like ecstasy. Its slang names include “party pills”, “Jax”, “Legal E”, “Flying Angel”, and “Pep X”.
Piperazines gained popularity worldwide as a mislabeled legal alternative to meth and MDMA (ecstasy)10. There’s little regulation or control over piperazines, making them an especially risky designer drug.
After taking piperazines, which come as a pill or powder, you might experience seizures, hallucinations, kidney failure, and respiratory acidosis.
Pipradrol, a stimulant11, was first used as an antidepressant. It was also used to treat dementia and obesity. But pipradrol was quickly recalled due to its potential for abuse. Its effects mirror amphetamines—without some of the undesirable side effects. Pipradrols suppress appetite and don’t cause noticeable overexcitement, like other stimulants.
Pipradrol’s street names include MRD-108 and Alpha. Its toxic effects include hallucinations, death, anxiety, nausea, and convulsions.
Cathinones mimic cocaine12, ecstasy, and MDMA as designer central nervous system stimulant. They’re commonly called bath salts and cause a sense of euphoria. Being marketed as a designer drug, you can find bath salts online, in gas stations, smoke shops, and adult stores.
Other street names include “Bliss,” “Blue Silk,” “Glass Cleaner,” and “Super Coke.” The active ingredient in cathinone comes from a khat plant. Scientists synthesized a drug based on the khat plant to form bath salts, which look like small, opaque rocks. Taking bath salts can cause psychosis, confusion, violence, hypertension, seizures, death, paranoia, and delusions.
The makers of designer drugs suggest they’re a fun alternative to “real” drugs. Or, a way to take drugs without getting caught—or without accidentally hurting yourself.
But neither proves true.
Yes. Some designer drugs could be even more addictive than the drug they’re copying. Fentanyl, for example, mimics natural opioids like heroin13—but it’s 50 times more potent.
Most designer drugs are supposed to be addictive1. What begins as an experiment or coping tool can spiral out of control and into addiction. Because, with the easier accessibility of designer drugs, feeding the habit isn’t too difficult. Finding a reason to stop could feel unnecessary.
But you can.
Designer drug addiction often responds well to the same treatments used for natural drug addictions. Some benzodiazepines can help1 with long-term treatment and withdrawal.
Some patients confront their need for treatment in an emergency room. An ER can get you stabilized and ready for the next steps in treatment, like a residential rehab with 24/7 support.
In treatment, you’ll likely have group and individual therapy to address the thoughts and behaviors behind your addiction. You might also join 12 Step meetings, which encourage you to find support in your higher power and in your peers. Many rehabs take insurance to make the cost of care more affordable. And your family can heal with you too, since most rehabs also offer family services.
Treatment for designer drug use has the potential to unlock a life of recovery. To learn more about your recovery resources, you can browse our list of rehabs with reviews, pricing, insurance information, and photos.
Weaver, M. F., Hopper, J. A., & Gunderson, E. W. (2015). Designer drugs 2015: Assessment and management. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, 10(1), 8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13722-015-0024-7
Fratantonio, J., Andrade, L., & Febo, M. (2015). Designer drugs: A synthetic catastrophe. Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome, 1(2), 82–86. https://doi.org/10.17756/jrds.2015-014
Liechti, M. (2014). Novel psychoactive substances (Designer drugs): Overview and pharmacology of modulators of monoamine signalling. Swiss Medical Weekly, 144(0304), w14043–w14043. https://doi.org/10.4414/smw.2015.14043
Designer drugs | dea. Gov. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.dea.gov/taxonomy/term/341
Abuse, N. I. on D. (2018, February 5). Synthetic cannabinoids (K2/spice) drugfacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/synthetic-cannabinoids-k2spice
Phencyclidine—An overview | sciencedirect topics. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/phencyclidine#:~:text=Phencyclidine%20(PCP)%20is%20one%20of,dizocilpine%20(MK%2D801).
Luethi, D., & Liechti, M. E. (2020). Designer drugs: Mechanism of action and adverse effects. Archives of Toxicology, 94(4), 1085–1133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00204-020-02693-7
Details for tryptamines. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.unodc.org/LSS/SubstanceGroup/Details/68c027b6-0ed9-4c07-a139-7f1ca7ffce84#:~:text=Tryptamines%20act%20predominantly%20as%20hallucinogens,also%20possess%20residual%20stimulant%20activity.
Details for piperazines. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2023, from https://www.unodc.org/LSS/SubstanceGroup/Details/8242b801-355c-4454-9fdc-ba4b7e7689d5
Pipradrol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://go.drugbank.com/drugs/DB11584
Bath Salts—DEA Fact Sheet. (2020). Drug Enforcement Administration. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Bath%20Salts-2020.pdf
Fentanyl. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.dea.gov/factsheets/fentanyl
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