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What are Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs are man made or synthetic drug compounds developed to produce euphoria or a high feeling. People use these drugs to experience an altered state of themselves and their surroundings.

They are used at parties or in clubs and were developed to mimic the effects of other substances, including cocaine and stimulants. Conversely, cannabinoids are designer drugs developed to mimic the effects of marijuana.

It’s possible to use and develop an addiction to designer drugs. Many designer drugs are not illegal. However, manufacturers make them in illegal labs and make sure they don’t have the attributes that law enforcement looks for when determining if a substance is illegal. This also means drug tests might not detect the presence of a designer drug in someone’s system.

One of the biggest risks associated with designer drugs is the fact that they are developed in secret and there’s no way to know for sure the ingredients or potency of a drug. 

Many designer drugs are a combination of several drugs. For example, ecstasy tablets might contain ephedrine, ketamine, and methamphetamine. These unpredictable mixtures put users at risk of dangerous side effects, including overdose and death. 

What Age Group Most Commonly Uses Designer Drugs?

More than half of illicit drug use occurs among people aged 12 to 25. The most prevalent time of use within this age group is among 18 to 20-year-olds. These drugs are common among partygoers, so it makes sense that younger people have a higher rate of use.

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Types of Designer Drugs & Their Effects

Drug enforcement agencies have identified more than 200 synthetic drug compounds and more than 90 different synthetic marijuana compounds.

Some of the most commonly used designer drugs (according to the DEA) include:

  • Bath salts are synthetic stimulants that resemble the look of Epsom salt, plant food, or other chemicals.
  • Spice/K2 is a synthetic compound containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. This drug is often sprayed with psychoactive chemicals.
  • U-47700 is also called pink, pinky, or u4. It is a potent synthetic opioid sold in powder or pill form.
  • Fentanyl goes by many different street names including China Girl, poison, and dance fever. It is also frequently mixed with cocaine to create a ‘speedball,’ heroin to create a ‘Fire Birria’ or ‘Facebook,’ or meth to create a ‘goofball.’ It’s inexpensive and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
  • Kratom is a psychoactive herb. This legal drug is unregulated by the federal government and is available at health food stores, farmers’ markets, and gas stations throughout the United States. Although manufacturers claim it offers health benefits, the FDA disputes this claim and warns against using the drug.

What is the Newest Designer Drug?

In addition to the drugs listed above, new designer drugs hit the streets every day. Some of the most recent drugs in circulation include:

  • Phenibut is a drug originally developed for Soviet cosmonauts. This anti-anxiety nootropic is legal, but U.S. doctors are not allowed to prescribe it. It is also illegal for manufacturers to tout any health benefits of the drug. The use of the drug skyrocketed in 2018 and some users died as a result of using it.
  • GHB is also called G, fantasy, or liquid ecstasy. This drug is occasionally prescribed for treating narcolepsy. It causes drowsiness, hallucinations, excitement, and aggression. 
  • Flakka is also called alpha-PHP or zombie drug. This drug is chemically related to bath salts. It provides an experience similar to ecstasy but has more dangerous side effects, including aggression and self-harm. Users are also at risk of developing kidney failure, increased body temperature, and tachycardia. This drug was first introduced to the market in 2013 but has seen a resurgence in recent months. Many young people accidentally ingested flakka when they thought they were taking MDMA or cocaine.
  • Carfentanil is used primarily as a large animal sedative. It is similar to fentanyl (but is much more potent). The lethal dose range for carfentanil in humans is unknown. However, it is often used to adulterate heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs. This drug is also found mixed with Xanax, cocaine, Oxycontin, and MDMA.

Dangers of Using Designer Drugs

All substance abuse poses potential health risks. However, the use of designer drugs presents many risks. 

Health Risks

One of the most serious concerns associated with designer drugs is the fact that users cannot be sure what is in the drug. These drugs might be laced with other drugs or chemicals to increase their potency and/or reduce their cost. 

It’s very difficult to determine toxicity and the specific risks you face when taking a designer drug. Some designer drugs are manufactured to avoid detection, making it difficult for medical professionals to measure levels of intoxication. 

Additionally, users often mix these drugs with alcohol or other substances, worsening their risks. 

Designer drugs are known to reduce inhibitions and the ability to make rational decisions. As a result, users often engage in risky behavior. 

The most common dangerous side effects of designer drugs include:

  • Mood changes
  • Addiction
  • Psychotic behavior
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Hyperthermia
  • Seizures
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Respiratory problems
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawal Symptoms

It’s difficult to predict the withdrawal symptoms of designer drugs because their ingredients vary such a great deal. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms include: It’s difficult to predict the withdrawal symptoms of designer drugs because their ingredients vary such a great deal. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure

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Are They Addictive?

Some designer drugs are addictive, but it’s hard to predict their addictiveness because drug users might not know the exact ingredients in a drug. 

These drugs are made in labs not subjected to control standards or governmental oversight. They tend to be radically different from batch to batch to avoid drug test detection. Some of the designer drugs sold are not meant for human consumption. The chemical makeup of these club drugs is also different from one manufacturer to another.

In some cases, after the FDA bans an ingredient, manufacturers replace it with something else. In addition to the risk this creates for users, it also makes it difficult to study the effects of the drugs with any degree of accuracy because designer drugs might be different with every batch.

Symptoms of Designer Drug Addiction 

Some designer drugs are addictive. The symptoms of designer drug abuse and addiction include:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Tendency to isolate from loved ones
  • Defensive about drug use
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion
  • Changes in appearance or hygiene
  • Insomnia 
  • Restlessness
  • Decline in work or school performance
  • Taking risks to acquire the drug
  • Wanting to reduce or stop using the drug without success

Treatment for Addiction (Substance Use Disorder)

There is addiction treatment for people who use designer drugs. However, medical professionals know less about treating this type of addiction than addiction to other types of drugs. 

Designer drug use varies from person to person. Very little is known about the chemical structure of these new drugs, including their legal status and their chemical makeup. Additionally, many users mix designer drugs with other medications, making it difficult to predict safety or issues with toxicity or their effect on the brain.

Furthermore, many designer drug users do not believe they have a problem with drug use. They research chemicals or a given substance and purchase it on the internet, believing it to be safe. They are not controlled substances, nor are they as well known as other illicit drugs. They assume that because they are not using a commonly identified dangerous drug that there is no risk.

In recent years, a variety of new drugs claiming to trigger fewer side effects have become available. Designer drugs may produce similar effects to older club drugs like LSD, but pose fewer risks. Users also point out these drugs aren’t supposed to be addictive. All of these factors make it difficult to convince loved ones to get treatment when they are using designer drugs.

Initially, detoxification and treatment are difficult because it’s impossible to know exactly what someone has taken. In most cases, medical professionals address symptoms one-by-one, instead of taking a comprehensive established approach as they would for someone addicted to alcohol or opioids, or another substance.

In addition to detox, treatment also includes psychological therapies and counseling to help people understand why they used designer drugs. Treatments also include providing people with the knowledge and skills necessary to keep them from returning to drug use.

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Resources

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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Synthetic Cannabinoids (K2/Spice).” Drugabuse.gov, 31 Dec. 2017, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/synthetic-cannabinoids-k2spice.

“Drug Facts | DEA.” Dea.gov, 2000, www.dea.gov/factsheets.

“Real Teens Ask: What Are Designer Drugs?” Archives.drugabuse.gov, archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-what-are-designer-drugs.

“Facts about Synthetic Drugs | Just Think Twice.” Www.justthinktwice.gov, www.justthinktwice.gov/article/facts-about-synthetic-drugs.

“Real Teens Ask: What Are Designer Drugs?” Archives.drugabuse.gov, archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-what-are-designer-drugs.

“Designer Drugs | DEA.” Dea.gov, 2017, www.dea.gov/taxonomy/term/341

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