Drug and Alcohol

Risks of Designer Drugs: Understanding the Risks and Realities of Designer Drugs

What are the Risks of Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs are risky. Basically, there's no guarantees with them. Learn about the risks of designer drugs in our blog.

What are designer drugs, anyway?

We can trace the concept of designer drugs and their appearance to the 1920s and 1930s when chemists began modifying the chemical structures of existing drugs to create new compounds with similar effects. However, the term "designer drug," as we know it today, was coined in the 1980s.

The first well-known and widespread use of designer drugs can be attributed to the emergence of synthetic opioids, known as "designer opioids," in the 1970s. One of the earliest examples was a designer opioid called alpha-methyl fentanyl, created by a team of chemists led by Dr. Paul Janssen in the 1960s.

Alpha-methyl fentanyl and similar compounds were intended for legitimate medical use as potent analgesics. Still, they entered the illegal drug market, leading to many overdoses and fatalities.

The term "designer drug" gained popularity in the 1980s when a surge of new psychoactive substances, often analogs of existing drugs, appeared in the recreational drug market. One of the most infamous examples was MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly known as ecstasy. MDMA was initially developed in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck for potential therapeutic purposes, but it resurfaced in the 1980s as a popular party drug.

Since then, the production and distribution of designer drugs have continued to evolve, with chemists creating novel psychoactive substances to exploit legal loopholes or circumvent drug regulations. 

Risks of Designer Drugs: What Is a Designer Drug?

A designer drug is a synthetic substance chemically similar to controlled substances, such as illegal drugs or prescription medications. Designer drugs are typically created to mimic the effects of the original substances while avoiding classification as illegal or controlled substances under current drug laws.

The term "designer drug" comes from the idea that these substances are "designed" by modifying the chemical structure of existing drugs or by creating entirely new chemical compounds. This process is often carried out by underground chemists or illicit laboratories. These drugs are sometimes also known as analogs or analog drugs.

The motivations behind creating designer drugs vary. Some individuals or groups produce them for recreational use, seeking to exploit loopholes in drug laws and regulations. Others may create them to study the effects of specific chemical compounds on the human body and brain.

Whatever the reason for creating them, designer or synthetic drugs can be hazardous, as their chemical structures are often not well-studied, and their effects on the human body may be unpredictable. 

Risks of Designer Drugs: Do Designer Drugs Have Side Effects?

Like any other psychoactive substance, designer drugs can have significant side effects. Since designer drugs are often created with little or no scientific research on their effects and safety, their potential risks can be even more unpredictable and dangerous. Some of the typical designer drugs' side effects include:

Risks of Designer Drugs: Physical Effects

Designer drugs can cause various physical effects, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, sweating, and changes in body temperature. Some designer drugs may also lead to muscle tension, tremors, and seizures.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Psychological Effects

These drugs can alter mood, perception, and cognition. You may experience euphoria, increased energy, alertness, and sensory distortion. Conversely, you may also experience anxiety, panic attacks, agitation, and paranoia.

Designer Drugs: Long-Term Health Effects

Continuous use of designer drugs can have severe long-term health consequences, such as damage to the cardiovascular system, liver, kidneys, and brain. Mental health issues, memory problems, and cognitive impairments are also possible.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Unknown Ingredients and Contaminants:

Because of their illicit nature and lack of regulation, designer drugs may contain harmful impurities or additional substances, further increasing the risk of adverse effects.

The risks associated with designer drugs can vary widely depending on the specific compound and its chemical properties. Due to the constantly changing nature of designer drugs, it is pretty challenging for healthcare professionals to provide accurate guidance on treatment and management.

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Several factors contribute to the popularity of designer drugs, making them attractive to people despite the risks and legal consequences. Following are some of the reasons why designer drugs have gained popularity:

Designer drugs are often created by modifying the chemical structures of existing illegal substances or producing novel compounds not explicitly covered by existing drug laws. This creates a legal grey area where some designer drugs may not be classified as illegal, allowing for their distribution and sale without immediate legal repercussions.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Novelty and New Experiences

Designer drugs often offer novel psychoactive effects and experiences that differ from traditional drugs. People may be curious to explore these new sensations and altered states of consciousness.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Avoiding Drug Tests

Some designer drugs are formulated to evade detection in standard drug tests. This appeal attracts individuals who want to use substances recreationally without risking their jobs or facing other consequences related to drug screening.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Availability and Online Marketplaces

The internet has facilitated the spread and availability of designer drugs through online marketplaces on the dark web. These platforms make it easier for users to access a wide range of substances discreetly.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Misinformation and Belief in Safety

Some people mistakenly believe that designer drugs are safer than traditional illicit drugs due to their novelty or perceived "legal" status. However, as mentioned earlier, the risks associated with designer drugs can be unpredictable and potentially more unsafe due to a lack of scientific research and quality control.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Peer Pressure and Social Influence

Social factors, such as peer pressure and the influence of friends or acquaintances, can also play a role in the popularity of designer drugs. You may feel motivated to try these substances to fit in with your social groups or scenes.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Low Cost

Designer drugs can sometimes be produced and distributed at a lower cost than traditional illicit drugs. Their affordability can make them appealing to people looking for inexpensive ways to achieve a high.

Risks of Designer Drugs: Marketing and Branding

In some cases, designer drugs are marketed and branded in a way that appeals to certain subcultures or target audiences, further driving their popularity within these groups.

What Are the Different Categories of Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs can be categorized based on their chemical structures or effects on the body. Let us check out some common categories of designer drugs:

Designer Drugs: Synthetic Cathinones (Bath Salts)

These are stimulant drugs that imitate the after-effects of amphetamines and are chemically related to cathinone, a naturally occurring stimulant found in the khat plant. They often come as white powder and can be snorted, swallowed, smoked, or injected. Synthetic cathinones are often sold as "bath salts" as a way to skirt drug laws.

Designer Drugs: Synthetic Cannabinoids (Spice, K2)

Synthetic cannabinoids are psychoactive substances created to emulate the effects of marijuana (cannabis). They are applied to plant material and marketed as herbal smoking assortments. Unlike natural cannabis, these synthetic variants are frequently more potent and can result in unpredictable and hazardous outcomes for users.

Designer Drugs: Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are opioid-like substances created to mimic the effects of drugs such as heroin or prescription opioids. These substances can exhibit high potency and can cause overdose and dependence.

Designer Drugs: Phenethylamines

This class includes substances like 2C-B, 2C-I, and 2C-E, which are psychedelic and stimulant compounds. They can produce altered perceptions, visual hallucinations, and changes in mood and cognition.

Designer Drugs: Tryptamines

These compounds, such as 5-MeO-DMT and DMT, also have psychedelic effects and are often found in certain plants. Synthetic variations are created to produce similar effects.

Designer Drugs: Piperazines

Piperazine-based designer drugs, like BZP and TFMPP, were initially developed as medications but later found popularity as recreational substances with stimulant and hallucinogenic effects.

Designer Drugs: N-BOMe (NBOMe) Series

These are potent hallucinogens with effects like LSD. They are often sold as blotters or powdered forms and can be consumed orally or sublingually.

Designer Drugs: Research Chemicals

This broad category encompasses various experimental substances not yet well-studied for safety and efficacy. Some people use research chemicals for recreational purposes, but their risks and long-term effects may not be fully understood.

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Risks of Designer Drugs: Can You Get Addicted to Designer Drugs?

Like many other substances, designer drugs can lead to physical and psychological dependence in individuals who use them regularly and in high doses. The addictive potential of designer drugs can vary depending on the following:

  • The specific substance

  • Chemical properties 

  • Individual factors such as genetics, mental health, and patterns of use

Designer drugs often target the brain's reward system, causing an increase in the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure and euphoria. These sensations reinforce our drug-seeking behavior and can make us addicted. Continued use of designer drugs can also lead to tolerance, where the body becomes less responsive to the substance, requiring higher doses to achieve the desired effects. Sustained abuse can contribute to the development of potential addiction.

Designer drugs also create strong psychological cravings, making it difficult to stop using them, even when you know the negative consequences of drug abuse. The use of designer drugs can escalate over time as individuals may engage in bingeing behavior or use multiple substances to enhance or extend the effects, leading to a cycle of addiction.

Addiction Treatment For Designer Drugs

Treatment for addiction to designer drugs follows a similar framework to treatment for addiction to other substances. However, because of the unique and often unpredictable nature of designer drugs, specific treatment approaches may need to be tailored to address the individual's needs.

Medical Detoxification

If you get physically dependent on a designer drug, a medically supervised detoxification process may be necessary to manage withdrawal symptoms during the initial phase of treatment.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies with a strong foundation in scientific evidence, such as CBT, Motivational Interviewing (MI), and Contingency Management, have demonstrated their efficacy in supporting individuals to recognize and transform their substance use patterns. Moreover, these therapeutic approaches aid in developing coping mechanisms that prevent relapse and promote long-term recovery.

Supportive Counseling

Individual counseling sessions can address underlying issues related to designer drug addiction and explore your motivation for change. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment may be recommended for certain designer drug addictions. MAT combines behavioral therapy with prescribed medications that can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment should always be individualized to address the specific needs, circumstances, and challenges of each person seeking help for designer drug addiction. A multidisciplinary approach that combines medical, psychological, and social support is often the most effective way to support long-term recovery. 

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What Is the U.S. Drug Policy About Designer Drugs?

The U.S. drug policy regarding designer drugs involves a combination of federal and state laws to control these substances' production, distribution, and use. The U.S. government has taken several steps to address the challenges of designer drugs. Still, the situation is continually evolving due to the emergence of new substances and legal complexities.

The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law that categorizes drugs into different schedules based on their potential for abuse, medical use, and overall safety. Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous and have a high prospect for abuse, with no accepted medical use. Many designer drugs, particularly analogs of illegal substances, are often classified as Schedule I drugs, making their production, distribution, and possession illegal under federal law.

To address the issue of designer drugs specifically, the Federal Analog Act was enacted in 1986. The law sanctions the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to prosecute substances that are "substantially similar" to Schedule I or II drugs, even if they have a slightly different chemical structure. Doing so allows authorities to target analogs and derivatives of illegal drugs created to evade the existing scheduling. 

In 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was signed into law, targeting synthetic cannabinoids (spice or K2) and synthetic cathinone (bath salts). The act aims to regulate a specific set of synthetic substances that mimic the effects of marijuana and amphetamines. In addition to federal laws, many U.S. states have also passed legislation to combat designer drugs, including analog acts and specific bans on certain substances.

Government agencies, such as the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), closely monitor trends in drug use and emerging designer drugs to adopt policies and regulations accordingly.

The Edge Treatment Center: Evidence-Based Care for Designer Drug Abuse

Designer drug abuse is basically gambling with your life: there are no guarantees here. That pill might be MDMA…or it might be some untested drug with unknown effects. Designer drugs can cause lifetime damage, too.

Plus, designer drugs like Spice/K2 can be lethal. Getting help for designer drug use is critical because it’s so easy to wind up as a statistic.

Every step of your recovery journey is carefully guided by evidence-based practices and cutting edge techniques from The Edge Treatment Center and our partners. Our emphasis is not just on overcoming addiction but on fostering a holistic transformation, empowering individuals to reclaim their lives and discover newfound purpose.

For more information on how we effectively treat designer drug abuse, reach out to The Edge Treatment Center today.

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If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is hope. Our team can guide you on your journey to recovery. Call us today.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

Drug and Alcohol

November 5, 2023