What are Designer Drugs?
Designer drugs are the result of adding chemicals to naturally occurring plant-based drugs like marijuana, morphine and cocaine. Commonly used designer drugs include club drugs such as ecstasy, LSD and GHB and more recent additions such as Spice and bath salts. Unlike plant-based drugs, designer drugs are created in underground labs that are unregulated. Since there is no list of ingredients and no plant to trace designer drugs back to, there really is no way to know what is actually in a designer drug and how strong it will be. Due to their increased accessibility, lack of regulation and little research and understanding of their short- and long-term side effects, designer drugs are rapidly becoming the most dangerous, wild card drugs on the market.
Spice — An example of a designer drug based on marijuana but chemically enhanced is a product sold as “incense” on the Internet and in head shops as “Spice.” Spice is marketed as a natural product. That makes it more appealing and seemingly harmless to teens and other drug user rookies. The problem is that Spice, just like marijuana, can lead to drug abuse and withdrawal. Also, because there is no regulation on Spice, it is unclear what the ingredients and their potential side effects are. So far, some unpredictable effects in users include severe episodes of acute psychotic symptoms, like extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations, as well as seizures, high blood pressure, vomiting and irregular heartbeats. All of these symptoms seem to be specific to the designer drug version of marijuana.
Bath Salts — Bath salts are among the most normalized but harmful drugs on the market. Part of what makes bath salts so harmful is that they sound so harmless, like something that a middle-aged woman might enjoy after a long day. The reality is that bath salts are synthetic stimulants, and when repurposed to get high, they can cause major side effects, including chest pains, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions. In addition, users of bath salts experience intense cravings, dependency and withdrawal. Bath salts have an intense effect on the brain’s neurotransmitters, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, after all. Users thus experience strong cravings as the result of a euphoric dopamine spike, as well as distorted perceptions akin to that of an acid trip, thanks to the serotonin surge.
Teens and Synthetic Drugs
As a result of their easy accessibility and non-detectability in standard drug tests, combined with little public awareness about their dangers, designer drugs pose the greatest threat to adolescents and first-time drug users. Designer drugs such as Spice and bath salts are sold legally on the Internet, are easy to purchase and bear no risks of criminal prosecution. Further problematic is that adolescents’ brains and bodies are still developing, and drug use during this stage can cause irreparable damage and impairment to development. Additionally, drug use beginning in adolescence has been shown to increase dependency in adulthood, especially when drugs such as stimulants and inhalants are involved. Subsequent drug abuse in adulthood can lead to various health consequences, and can cause a negative ripple effect in one’s social and occupational life.
Lack of Regulation and Understanding of Effects
One of the largest issues surrounding designer drugs is that there is no quality control or regulation surrounding their production and distribution. Making matters worse, since many designer drugs are new to the market, there is not much testing or research performed. Further, the incidence of overdose and seriousness of side effects are hard to calculate, for a couple of reasons. For one, synthetic drugs are often not detectable by standard drug tests; for another, autopsies don’t generally test for these chemicals.
For some of the same reasons, the short-term and long-term effects of synthetic drugs are also unclear. So far, the side effects of designer drugs have been found to be as potent, if not more potent, than the original drug they are created to mimic or enhance. Unpredictable effects on brain function and unknown interactions with other medications and drugs are also a cause for concern with these newly developed and constantly evolving drugs. Designer drugs such as Spice and bath salts are especially harmful, because they are the most accessible and the most likely to be falsely advertised as harmless and natural.
More education and prevention efforts, resulting in greater public awareness of the dangers of designer drugs, are one way to halt the escalating abuse of these drugs. Greater regulation is another. A few states have reportedly passed laws restricting marketing, display, labeling and advertising of these substances, for example, by appealing to consumer protection laws and/or labeling such activities as deceptive trade practices. So far, however, efforts to restrict the supply of synthetic drugs are often complicated by the unique challenges these drugs pose to law enforcement.