Designer drugs, also known as synthetic drugs, are laboratory produced substances that have been designed to mimic pharmacological effects of a legally restricted, prohibited drug. Because designer drugs are illegal, these synthetic drugs are typically produced in “underground” or secret, illegal labs. When creating designer drugs, certain elements and chemical properties from the original drug are altered, producing a different effect on the brain or behavior than what the original drug produces. Unfortunately, despite the adverse health side-effects of taking such synthetic, laboratory-produced drugs, it is reported by the Global Drug Survey that about 20% of people in the U.S. dabbled in synthetic drugs in 2014. That’s one in five people that have had used some form of synthetic drug in 2014 alone.

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Furthermore, with a drug crisis on the rise, it is likely that this number has risen since the 2014 survey was conducted. Proof of this statistic skyrocketing comes from a 2015 U.S. poison control center report indicating that there were four times as many reports of negative drug reactions from synthetics in the first few months of 2015 than all of 2014 combined. So what exactly are the types of drugs categorized under synthetic drugs and what are the effects of designer drugs on the body? Additionally, are designer drugs addictive and how does one get help if they are addicted to designer drugs?

What are some types of designer drugs?

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, classifies designer drugs as psychoactive substances (NPS). There are hundreds of different types of designer drugs but to simplify things, there are three main types of designer/synthetic drugs in which most designer/synthetic drugs fall under:

  • Synthetic cathinones: this type of designer drug works as a stimulant by increasing serotonin and/or dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn activates the reward center in the brain by increasing feelings of happiness and pleasure or attention and motivation. 
  • Synthetic cannabinoids: mimicking the effects of marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids work on the same brain cell receptors as THC. The difference between this synthetic drug and marijuana, however, include the effects produced and the intensity. Synthetic cannabinoids have a much stronger intensity than it’s marijuana counterpart, and in effect, include much stronger levels of relaxation, elevated mood, altered perception and even include some symptoms of psychosis. 
  • Synthetic phenethylamines: categorized as a hallucinogen, this type of designer drug affects the brain by altering reality through sensory input (sight, sound, taste, and touch). Furthermore, feelings of being “detached” from the body or having “blurred senses”, such as “tasting sights” or “feeling colors” can occur. 

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Categorized under the main categories of designer drugs are names more common in mainstream news, especially known for making headlines as synthetic drug use is on the rise:

  • MDMA (Ecstasy, XTC, or “E”): classified as an amphetamine, this empathogen causes emotional and social disturbances in the user’s body. 
  • Molly: a “purer” form of MDMA, supposedly manufactured without amphetamine, however, because of the lack of manufacture regulations set on synthetic drug production, it is impossible to know if the user is getting pure MDMA.
  • Bath salts: created in powder form, bath salts were created to mimic methamphetamine’s effects.
  • Synthetic marijuana: also known as “K2” or “Spice”, synthetic marijuana is abused through smoking. The main ingredients in this designer drug have been outlawed because user’s have been seen to have psychotic reactions, such as paranoia, anxiety and hallucinations when consuming these ingredients.
  • Gravel:containing a mixture of bath salts, methamphetamine, and klonopin, gravel has shown to have traces of ammonia nitrate, a flammable chemical in fertilizer. Obviously, this mixture can cause serious, even fatal damage, to the user.
  • Krokodil: extremely addictive and deadly, Krokodil contains ingredients that mimic the high produced from heroin. Krokodil has shown to have gasoline and paint-thinner on it’s list of ingredients.
  • 25i (or “Nbomb” or “Smiles”): this designer drug mimics psychedelic-like substances, such as LSD or “acid”. Taking this drug is extremely dangerous, even fatal in large doses.

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This list is not all-inclusive, as there are hundreds of different types of designer drugs. As the case with any designer drug, the intention is to mimic the effects of drugs that are illegal. Many of them have similar effects as cocaine or other stimulants, however, the cannabinoids, the ones that mimic marijuana, are the most popular and widely abused of all designer drugs. Besides the popularity from the effects and availability of designer drugs, these types of drugs are known for being undetectable with drug testing, making it further popular for people playing in amateur or pro sports teams that can’t play if they fail a drug test.

What are the dangerous side effects of designer drugs?

One of the greatest risks from taking synthetic drugs is that there is no standard for manufacturing, meaning that with no regulation in place, there is no certainty of what the drug may contain. As such, this creates a much higher risk of overdose and possible death. Each drug has unique, adverse effects on the body. For example, MDMA, can cause hypertension, cardiac issues and hypothermia, each posing possible fatality with the user. Furthermore, MDMA can cause severe psychological side effects, such as depression, anxiety and exhaustion. With the case of bath salts, which often contain pesticides and fungicides, users can experience intense spells of terror, anxiety, confusion, as well as hallucinations and other serious, or fatal, side-effects. Prolonged use of Krokodil can lead to rotting of the skin and organs and death. Furthermore, when taking large doses of the synthetic drug 25i, the user can experience severe seizures, paranoia, fear and panic, and like previously mentioned, possibly death.

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Some further potential short-term or long-term effects of synthetic drugs include:

  • Amnesia
  • Panic attacks
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Increased or decreased blood pressure
  • Coma
  • Permanent cognitive problems

Are designer drugs addictive?

Someone using designer drugs has the potentiality of becoming physically dependent or addicted to the drugs, especially if the user is consistently abusing synthetic drugs over a long period of time. Some common signs of becoming addicted to designer drugs include:

  • Isolating or avoiding friends and family
  • Extreme, often intense, mood swings
  • Having memory problems
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Going out of one’s way to find more drugs
  • Spending large amounts of money on drugs
  • Having uncharacteristic difficulties at work/school
  • Relationship problems
  • Changes in behavior or appearance

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Withdrawal symptoms can occur, as with any drug that’s being abused especially when usage is stopped either abruptly or reduced drastically. Withdrawal symptoms experienced from quitting synthetic drug use can vary, however, may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Severe depression
  • Tremors or muscle spasms 
  • Difficulty or inability to fall asleep
  • Loss of appetite

In order to alleviate any potential severe withdrawal symptoms from occurring, it is essential that one seek professional medical guidance when considering detoxing off synthetic drugs.

How to get help if you’re addicted to designer drugs

If you, or someone you know, is using designer/synthetic drugs, it is imperative that you overcome your addiction through seeking a medically-safe detox protocol by either going to a  drug rehab center or seeing a medical doctor. Attending an inpatient/intensive outpatient drug rehab center can help you uncover the underlying reasons why you are abusing drugs in the first place, such as coping with emotional distress or trauma, in order to prevent future drug use from occurring. Because designer drugs can cause a host of adverse physical and psychological effects to the user, seeking help at the first signs of abuse is essential. Getting the help you need now will set you  up for a lifetime sobriety, where drug use will no longer define you. Reach out to an inpatient/intensive outpatient drug rehab center today so you can get the help you need and deserve.

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