What Are Designer Drugs?
Let’s say you’re at a club, a warehouse gig, maybe a festival. The lights are flashing, the crowd is really into it, you’re ready for that bass drop … and someone puts a tablet in your hand. Or maybe you brought one with you or found a dealer at the venue who was selling party favors.
The festival/rave/club scene has had a long association with various synthetic/designer drugs. Used by partygoers to enhance their experience, many of them walk a tightrope without realizing it.
First, a lot of synthetic drugs like molly, ecstasy/MDMA, GHB, and others have dangerous side effects. Secondly, a far more dangerous issue is the fact that there is no such thing as quality control when it comes to synthetic drugs. That might be a tab of molly in your hand … or it might be a fake pill made from fillers if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, that pill might be fentanyl.
Finally, synthetic drugs can be addictive, too. All of them affect the brain’s reward pathway in some ways.
What Are Some Common Designer / Synthetic Drugs?
“Designer drugs” is a catch-all label describing substances developed to create a sense of euphoria in those who take them. Often made with ever-changing chemical ingredients to stay one step ahead of the law and/or regulators, this family of drugs can have wildly unpredictable effects when consumed.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classes these drugs into seven types. They include cannabinoids, research chemicals which attempt to mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis / marijuana, and phenethylamine, a stimulant class which includes MDMA.
We’ll walk through a few of the more common ones below:
Bath Salts: New Psychoactive Substances
This class of synthetic drugs became infamously well-known after a grotesque attack on a homeless man in Miami. Although it was suspected the attacker was under the influence of this substance, it’s unclear if these drugs were involved.
According to NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “bath salts” are a slang name for synthetic cathinones. These drugs are based on cathinone, a natural stimulant from the khat plant grown in eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Khat has been used recreationally there as a stimulant for centuries. The synthetic form has been classed by NIDA and other officials as “new psychoactive substances,” or NPS.
About the name: “bath salts” is a way sellers circumvent drug bans. Synthetic cathinones are often sold under names like “plant food” or “screen cleaner” and their packaging often features “not for human consumption” warnings.
It’s one of the rare cases illicit drug packaging contains good advice. NIDA says synthetic cathinones are similar to other illicit stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines … but are much stronger. The agency cites a study showing one variety of this drug chemically resembled cocaine … but almost 10 times more powerful.
With that power comes increased effects. Hallucinations and paranoia are common; some users experience high blood pressure and even suicidal thoughts.
Perhaps no drug is more strongly associated with the rave and EDM scenes as ecstasy. Chemically named “3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine” (MDMA), this synthetic drug acts as both a hallucinogen and a stimulant. MDMA comes in pill, powder, and even liquid form.
Like other drugs, MDMA causes the body to release dopamine into the system. It also causes the body to release large amounts of serotonin, which is why MDMA users report feeling sensations of empathy and well-being.
NIDA reports it’s unclear if MDMA is addictive. However, its effects on the dopamine system seem to hint it may have addictive properties. Something to consider is addiction is often more about behaviors than it is substances.
That’s not to say MDMA is safe, though. Apart from the risk of consuming unknown drugs, MDMA at high doses can interfere with the body’s temperature regulation. This can be lethal, especially when MDMA is taken with other stimulants or alcohol.
Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is a central nervous system depressant. Causing feelings of euphoria, peacefulness, and an increased sex drive, GHB is often used to treat narcolepsy.
Unfortunately, GHB has another name: the “date rape drug.” Predators are known to slip GHB into alcoholic drinks, causing the victim to rapidly lose consciousness – and in high doses, their memories. Recreational users run these same risks as well. In high enough doses, GHB overdose can be fatal.
GHB is addictive as well. Signs of GHB addiction can include regular slurred speech, memory loss, difficulty controlling one’s inhibitions, and seizures. Also, GHB has withdrawal symptoms.
Most GHB available on the streets is illegally manufactured, so again there’s a risk of using contaminated GHB or something else sold as GHB.
Used as a sedative and as a treatment for depression, ketamine has also been commonly abused in clubs. Often known as special K, this synthetic drug acts as a dissociative. When abused, users experience audio and visual distortions, as well as an altered sense of self and their surroundings.
Like GHB, it comes in powder and liquid forms. It’s similar in another way, too: ketamine’s sedative effects have led it to be involved in sexual assaults.
Ketamine addiction appears to be somewhat rare, although it’s entirely possible to develop compulsive behaviors around this drug. Long-term ketamine abuse can be dangerous, however.
Ketamine causes severe damage to the brain, digestive system, and urinary tract over time. K bladder, or ketamine bladder syndrome, is a serious and often untreatable side effect of ketamine abuse. The drug appears to kill cells in the urinary system, leading to both damage and loss of bladder function.
Is Synthetic Drug Abuse Treatable?
Addictive or not, any abuse of synthetic drugs is dangerous. The risks of unknown ingredients, illicit manufacture, and harmful side effects combine for an especially destructive path.
Rehab, however, can provide a literal lifeline. Patients seeking relief from synthetic drug abuse are guided through detox and develop coping mechanisms to resist temptations from club drugs. Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction can teach it’s possible to have fun and experience life without gambling with their health and lives.
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