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What are Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs—otherwise known as synthetic drugs, research drugs, or research chemicals—are manufactured to chemically resemble illicit drugs, but may be purchased legally because drug manufacturers constantly change the chemical structure to circumvent drug laws.In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the agency tasked with regulating the use of controlled substances, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs with a potential for abuse under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).1 Additionally, illegal drugs fall under a number of regulations and laws that prevent their sale, distribution, and consumption within the country’s borders, according to the DEA’s mission and purpose.2

However, even with these laws in place, there are many ways to create and use drugs that get around the stated regulations. Since the DEA classifies drugs into schedules based on potential for abuse and dependency, in order for novel substances intended for human consumption to meet criteria for criminal prosecution, they must be proven as structurally or pharmacologically similar to an already-known dangerous, scheduled substance.3

And here is where designer drugs find their loophole.

Designer Drugs

Often marketed as herbal substances, designer drugs are not regulated by the law in many instances, and there is no oversight of the involved manufacturing processes.5 Two examples are bath salts and spice, as they are commonly known on the grey market.

“In fact, designer synthetic drugs are found to be more potent and dangerous than their street drug counterparts.”
Bath salts and spice are often abused for their cocaine- and marijuana-like effects, respectively, and both have been associated with fatalities.4 People who abuse designer synthetic drugs have suffered a number of negative health outcomes that include anxiety, seizures, hallucinations, loss of consciousness, and significant organ damage.5

The recent growth in the use of synthetic stimulants or hallucinogens is due to their ability to mimic the effects of cocaine, LSD, MDMA, or methamphetamines. In fact, designer synthetic drugs are found to be more potent and dangerous than their street drug counterparts: One chemical derivative was found to act 50 times more strongly than cocaine, vastly increasing its potential for abuse and toxicity.4

Making them more dangerous is the fact that they are easily accessible in retail outlets and online, which has made them especially popular among adolescents.5 This has led to increasing numbers of designer drug–related E.R. visits.

A 2012 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed 11,406 emergency department visits due to a synthetic cannabinoid product during 2010.5 A year later, that number increased 2.5 times.5 A youth survey on drug-use trends found that 1 in 9 12th graders in the United States reported using synthetic cannabinoids in the previous year.6 It was found to be the second-most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors after marijuana.6

Historically, there have been a number of examples of designer drugs. Some of the earliest forms of designer drugs were derivatives of opium. For example, heroin was a chemically modified version of the morphine alkaloid extracted from the opium poppy.7 Back then, lawmakers struggled to find a way to control the widespread use of these early synthetics. In the U.S., taxes were first levied in an attempt to curb opium use prior to the drug being proclaimed illegal by the federal government.8 Years later, the Controlled Substance Act was a way to consolidate several laws meant to control a number of these illicit drugs, providing a mechanism for substances to be added, removed, or transferred from one category to another.8

However, designer drugs have continued to evolve over the years, as their manufacturers strive to stay ahead of the enforcement agencies.

Designer Drugs list from the 1990s to the 2000s

Due to the rapid growth of the internet and increased availability of designer drugs in the decade between the 1990s and early 2000s, booming sales emerged as a real threat.6 Variations of synthetic drugs rose quickly too.

Increasing the danger of designer drugs was the unpredictability of their contents, the chemical compositions of which were frequently altered to avoid government bans.6 In 2004, 10 people were arrested when the DEA completed Operation Web Tryp.11 The purpose of this operation was to identify and investigate the web-based sales of designer drug analogues marketed under the guise of “research chemicals.”

A total of 5 different sites were included in Operation Web Tryp,and two were linked to the deaths of customers, as well as 14 other non-fatal overdoses.11

During this time, designer drugs fell into several different categories, including opioids, dissociatives, stimulants, and hallucinogens. Especially popular in this decade were:

  • Ecstasy (stimulant and hallucinogen).12
  • Methamphetamine (stimulant).13
  • Tryptamine (psychoactive).14
  • Phenethylamine (psychoactive).14
  • Anabolic steroids (synthetic variation of testosterone).15
  • Heroin (opioid).16
  • Cocaine (stimulant).17

Since many of these drugs are not inherently synthetic, it was the designer variations on these drugs that gave rise to the serious problems of abuse and addiction in the U.S. at the time.

How Designer Drugs have Evolved from 2010 to the Present

Bath salts designer drug
With the increasingly ubiquitous internet and other instant methods of communication, designer drugs have expanded beyond opioids, hallucinogens, and steroids since the 2000s. And since these synthetic drugs have not been approved for human consumption or medical use, their long-term effects are unknown, yet potentially severe.5

Since 2009, law enforcement has encountered approximately 95 different synthetic cannabinoids being labeled and sold as legal alternatives to marijuana (which, in fact, they are not).18 Project Synergy was an operation conducted in 2012 across 35 states and several countries targeting synthetic drug trafficking organizations.5 That operation uncovered many cathinone (stimulants/hallucinogens) drugs, cannabinoid drugs, and treated plant material.5

Synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones are two of the main groups of chemicals in use since the early 2000s until now. Fifty-one new synthetic cannabinoids were identified in 2012, compared to only 2 in 2009, and out of this sharp increase in new designer drugs, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act (SDAPA) was created to help control them.6 Some of these designer drugs not previously controlled are now classified as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act by the 2012 SDAPA law.18

Common designer drugs in recent years include:6,18,19,20

  • “Spice” (synthetic marijuana)
  • Ecstasy (“Molly”—synthetic psychoactive drug similar to amphetamines and mescaline)
  • Bath salts (a lot of substance variability, but often contains one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone)
  • Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) (one of the chemicals found in bath salts)
  • Mephedrone (commonly found in bath salts)
  • Methylone (commonly found in bath salts)
  • 2C family (synthetic hallucinogens)
  • Programs for Drug Abuse Treatment

Programs for Drug Abuse Treatment

Designer drugs, while they fall into legal grey areas, can still profoundly and negatively impact the lives of those abusing them. Treatment approaches designed to address more commonly known substance abuse issues can be applied effectively to a number of designer drug abuse situations.

As such, those suffering from new designer drug addictions can work the steps of detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, and long-term follow-up care to both get clean and learn how to prevent relapse.21 Commonly, drug treatment programs are offered in both inpatient and outpatient settings, which incorporate individual and group counseling, as well as medication management, as needed.21

Advice from Those Leaving Treatment

Pre-and-Post-TreatmentIn 2016, Recovery Brands sent out a survey asking people leaving a treatment program what facility characteristics they had come to view as top priority aspects to take into account when considering treatment. The top priority was the program’s financial policies, such as financial support, insurance accepted, and payment options. They also valued the facility’s offerings (recreational activities, extra amenities, quality of food) significantly more after completing treatment. So if you’re looking for treatment, consider a facility’s payment policies, as well as its offerings, to inform your final facility choice.

Professional supervision by experienced clinicians is especially important in treating designer drug addiction since the unknown variations in the drugs themselves may create unanticipated withdrawal effects. Having seasoned addictions medical and mental health professionals present can reduce the chances of further complications.

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