What are designer drugs?

The term “designer drugs” brings to mind the idea of something similar to designer clothing, designer purses, or designer shoes when, in fact, the two categories have nothing in common. Unlike the name suggests, designer drugs are not expensive and classy; rather, they are knockoffs of existing drugs sold at just a fraction of the price. Examples of designer drugs are K2, Spice, synthetic marijuana, and bath salts.

Created in home labs, designer drugs are modifications of active drugs. Their effects can differ greatly from one to another but tend to combine a mixture of the features found in psychedelics and other drug classes such as stimulants and amphetamines. They are often very dangerous, especially for users who are unaware of what exactly they are taking.

The Legality of Designer Drugs

Many designer drugs are marketed and sold via the Internet as research chemicals, meaning they are unregulated in many jurisdictions. Plus, despite their descriptive name, most of these drugs have had little or no research conducted on their toxicology and pharmacology — they are often synthetic compounds that have never been used, let alone been tested, before.

Designer drugs often come in powder form (rather than pills) and may be labeled as “not for human consumption,” two more factors which help sellers avoid breaking the law. Furthermore, the drugs are often made specifically to fit around existing drug laws by either being new forms of illicit drugs or completely new chemical formulas. The former is the most common, as it allows manufacturers to create a substance with similar effects to an original drug without facing prosecution.

The DEA, however, does have one way to make known designer drugs illegal; they may temporarily schedule a drug for investigation, during which time it becomes categorized as a Schedule I drug, when its sale, distribution, and use is prohibited. After review, the drug may then retain its classification or the DEA can choose to reclassify the substance as a Schedule II to V drug depending on factors including dangers to health, potential to lead to psychological or physical dependency, and medical benefits.

How Designer Drugs Differ from Traditional Psychedelics

Unlike the drugs that began gaining popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, such as LSD, magic mushrooms, and mescaline, designers drugs do not only affect serotonin in the brain, they may also target receptors that control heart rate and vegetative functions, which can cause death.

If a user takes a large dose of the drug, which is very easy to do both intentionally or accidentally, side effects include contraction of blood vessels, increased heart rate, and loss of body temperature regulation. There is a possibility that such drugs may also affect other areas of the body, but studies into this are yet to be conducted.

Finally, there is a high likelihood that a designer drug will produce an unknown or unexpected effect. When buyers purchase drugs sold as research chemicals, they must mix the substances themselves, therefore increasing the potential for error that can lead to overdose or a lethal mixture.