In this concise guide, we’ll explore designer drugs. What is a designer drug? How do they differ from other drugs, and are they dangerous? You’ll learn about the most common designer drugs and their effects. Along the way, you’ll discover why these drugs are more dangerous than other drugs and how they contribute to overdose risk. We’ll explore how these drugs can cause addiction and how you can spot addiction in yourself and others.
Let’s get going.
What Is a Designer Drug?
A designer drug is any synthetic analog of an illicit drug. Breaking the term synthetic analog down, we derive two facts:
- A designer drug is made in a lab
- It mimics the characteristics of an existing drug or the active ingredient of an existing drug.
The term ‘designer drug’ is most often used to denote drugs produced in this manner. But the term can also be applied to analogs of existing legal drugs, such as e-cigarettes. However, this usage is less common.
Designer drugs, because they’re synthetic, are often more potent than their natural counterparts. An example you’ve probably heard of is fentanyl.
There are several designer drugs available, some more popular or well-known than others. Examples include:
- Lysergic acid diethylamide—LSD. This designer drug, commonly referred to as ‘acid,’ is a hallucinogenic compound.
- Methylenedioxymethamphetamine—MDMA. This designer drug, often referred to as ‘ecstasy,’ is a psychoactive compound said to cause a rush of energy along with heightened empathy and pleasure.
- Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate—GHB. This is a central nervous system depressant. It is commonly used as a date rape drug.
- Rohypnol. Another depressant that is common in the club scene. It is also used by cocaine addicts to reduce the side effects of frequent cocaine use.
The first use of the term ‘designer drug’ is attributed to Dr. Gary Henderson. Originally, Dr. Henderson, a pharmacologist at the University of California, coined the term to refer to any synthetic compound meant to mimic the effects of plant-based drugs. He also employed the term when describing the increasing sophistication of amateur chemists who were experimenting with creating drugs in their own home-based labs. Some of these would-be chemists, while not formally trained, become quite adept at manufacturing a specific synthetic compound.
However, most designer drugs are not the result of the efforts of clandestine amateur chemists. Indeed, many analogs are created by pharmaceutical chemists. These professionals are attempting to create drugs, such as pain relievers. Indeed, there is a clear profit motive present.
For instance, in order to create pharmaceutical-grade opioids, a pharmaceutical company must first get access to its source in nature, the poppy plant. But if you can create a synthetic opioid in the lab from other chemicals, then there is no need to haggle with suppliers halfway around the word. The drug manufacture process becomes much more efficient and, consequently, cheaper. Unfortunately, these compounds don’t stay solely in the hands of pharmaceutical companies—who have government oversight. The manufacturers of illicit drugs get access to them too.
Designer Drugs: Concerns
One cause of concern is that designer drugs can be manufactured relatively cheaply, and they are generally more potent than their natural counterparts. This would seem to be a self-reinforcing problem. As it becomes easier for law enforcement to track and limit access to natural drugs, the motivation to create synthetic analogs increases.
Because designer drugs are essentially just the active ingredient of a drug you might find in nature, they are much more compact. This gives them a low risk of detection, which means that they’ll be more popular with teenagers. For instance, a synthetic version of THC could enable a teen to ‘get high’ without the smell of marijuana smoke, which is a dead giveaway of use.
Synthetics will also be more difficult to detect in prisons, among parolees and on military personnel.
Because designer drugs can be so much more potent than their natural counterparts, they can cause extremely dangerous side effects. The most common side effects of designer drug use are seizure and memory loss. Note, however, that overdose is also possible, as is coma and even death.
Another common side effect is respiratory depression. You may also see this phrased as ‘respiratory suppression’ or ‘respiratory insufficiency.’ Respiratory depression occurs when the body loses its ability to inhale and exhale sufficiently. Any drug that suppresses the central nervous system can cause respiratory depression.
Another common side effect is bradycardia. Bradycardia is an increase in heart rate coupled with a drop in blood pressure. It’s common to see heart rate increase up to 25 percent while blood pressure decreases 20 percent. This is quite dangerous since it can cause fainting spells. Anyone experimenting with designer drugs should avoid operating machinery for this reason. But bradycardia can also cause heart failure and sudden death.
Naturally, many synthetic drugs also come with addiction potential because many of these drugs stimulate the reward pathway in the brain. Developing an addiction to any synthetic drug greatly amplifies its side effect potential because addiction implies frequent use.
What About ‘Safe’ Synthetics?
Some synthetic drugs have a, shall we say, cleaner reputation than others. For instance, e-cigarettes are often seen as safer than cigarettes. As an alternative delivery system for nicotine, this may be the case. However, vaping poses its own health risks. In this public health bulletin, the FDA points out several potential health risks associated with vaping. There have been over 1,000 reports of lung injuries from vaping so far. In most of these reports, the individual was using the vape as a delivery system for either nicotine or THC.
Many people consider THC to be safe, often using an argument like, “It must be safe, since the brain has a receptor for it.” While it is true that the brain creates its own cannabinoids, synthetic forms of THC have been designed with one goal in mind: to be as addictive as possible.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It’s between 50-100 times more potent than morphine. It’s a fine, white powder. Heroin, a street opioid, is also a white powder. Folks who get hooked on heroin—often after losing access to their legitimate opioid prescription—may inadvertently ingest fentanyl.
Because they’re buying their heroin from street dealers, they have no idea what’s actually in the drug they’re taking. Drug dealers often experiment with designer drugs because these synthetics can make natural drugs even more addictive. If a heroin addict gets a dose that’s laced with fentanyl and doesn’t know it, they won’t know to take a smaller dose than usual. The result? Overdose and death.
Fentanyl overdose symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness
- Pinpoint pupils
- Low blood pressure
- Slow breathing
- Blue tint to the fingernails, lips or the tip of the nose
Fentanyl is just example of a designer drug with high overdose potential. More designer drugs are engineered all the time.
Designer Drugs & Addiction
Substance abuse disorder is a complex brain condition that can have serious ramifications for the affected individual. Often, someone struggling with addiction will see their lives crumble around them. They’re seemingly unable to slow or halt the process. While this behavior can be quite baffling to the outside observer, there is a complex biochemical mechanism driving the process.
In short, addiction occurs when the brain comes to consider an outside substance, in this case a designer drug, to be essential. An essential compound, in this context, means a compound that the body must obtain from the environment. For instance, liquid water is essential because the body cannot produce it on its own. Likewise, some fatty acids are essential because the body cannot produce them.
But we aren’t born with a need for cocaine, marijuana or meth, so how do we become addicted to them?
When a person first gets high, the drug forces the brain to release a flood of feel good chemicals called neurotransmitters. The most relevant of these is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical that’s involved in motivation. If you feel hungry, your body will prompt you to eat. When you eat, you’ll get a little hit of dopamine, and you’ll feel pleasure as a result.
Drugs override this system. They allow you to feel pleasure in the short term, but this is not without consequences.
Because such a strong dopamine release is unnatural for the brain, it will attempt to become resistant to the effects of the drug over time. This is known as tolerance. The effect of tolerance is that you’ll have to take more of the drug to get high.
If you persist through this phase, the brain begins to rely more and more on the drug for dopamine release. This is known as chemical dependence. At this point, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drug. These changes in brain function may be permanent, though research into this is ongoing. If true, however, this means that you can now only manage the addiction.
The first step toward managing the addiction is detox. You should always undergo detox in a medically supervised environment. An accredited, in-patient rehabilitation facility is usually the best option.
Effects of Addiction
An individual struggling with uncontrolled addiction will focus on their drug of choice. They’ll spend a great deal of time thinking about how they’ll obtain the drug, and they’ll spend a lot of time thinking about using. They may also binge the drug when they do get access to it and may need several days to recover afterward.
As their use edges more toward abuse, they may lose relationships that were once important to them. Loved ones may distance themselves from them or may give them ultimatums. Often, the addict will swear to stop using but will be unable to do so on their own.
Sadly, untreated addiction often results in a lowered quality of life. Needless to say, it can also result in death, through overdose or another cause. This, then, is one of the main reasons to avoid designer drugs. They’re often more potent than their natural counterparts, and some individuals are more susceptible to addiction than others. For many, any experimentation with these analogs can be quite dangerous.
When to Seek Help
If you use designer drugs and are concerned about the possibility of addiction, there are many self-assessments you can do. But the truth is, if you’re concerned about addiction at all, it may be best to go ahead and get help. At the very least, a consult with a medical professional can provide you with an objective point of view. Nevertheless, in this section, we’ll highlight several signs of addiction. Consult the following list to see if any apply to you.
#1 You’ve Developed New Health Problems Since You Started Using
How’s your health? Do you have any new physical symptoms? Headaches? Breathing issues? These seemingly minor side effects can indicate a more serious issue. Substance abuse can affect your health in many ways. But the initial changes can be subtle. It’s important, therefore, to do a self-assessment now.
If you notice any physical changes, your body is giving you a clear warning sign. You should stop drug use immediately. But remember, detox at home is not only unwise, it’s unsafe.
#2 Your Relationships Have Faded Away
Have you lost touch with any good friends since you started using more? Did that friend happen to have a strong anti-drug stance? Often, the budding addict will cut ties with friends who don’t use. This may be a subconscious process, but it happens. Initially, this might not seem like a big deal. But if you cut ties with non-users, you’ll have no one to lean on if you decide to quit.
If your only remaining social circle is composed of drug users, you may find it hard to give up your habit.
#3 You Need the Drug to Function
This is a tough one, because self-deception here is so easy. But if you find yourself thinking, “Just one more hit,” you may be struggling with addiction. Do you need the drug to get you through the day? Many addicts start out using their drug of choice only occasionally. But their use increases over time. Think objectively about how often you use. Or, better yet, keep an accurate journal.
Is your use increasing over time?
#4 You’ve Had Problems at Work, School or With the Law
If your use has affected your performance at school or work, you very likely have a problem. Similarly, if you’ve been arrested while obtaining or using an illicit substance, that is always a red flag. It’s time to consider safe detox.
By far, the best option for addiction recovery is an accredited rehab facility. A rehab center can help you detox and get through withdrawal symptoms. But the expert staff at a quality center can also teach you powerful coping mechanisms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, that will help you manage cravings. You’ll learn how to remain in control so your addiction doesn’t control you.