Designer Drugs:  An ugly truth

What’s in a name: Designer Drugs and their effects

Designer drugs. You may have heard the term in passing conversation, or know someone who is on them. You may even be on them and need help getting off them but don’t know what they are. A designer drug is a synthetic substance that is sold (mostly) illegally as a way to get high. Bath salts, synthetic marijuana, and synthetic hallucinogens are examples of designer drugs. They are not classified as being the same as the drugs they are supposed to mimic and are much more variable, unpredictable, and as a result, dangerous. It is vitally important for anyone who uses these drugs to stop, and for those who cannot stop to get help before the adverse effects cause real and lasting damage.

designer drugs Rehab in Johannesburg drug Rehabilitation in GautengWhat do we mean when we say a designer drug is synthetic? Well, designer drugs are man-made substances that people use to get high. Most are illegal, but some fall through the legal loopholes. The ingredients and potency in products like synthetic marijuana, bath salts, and others are impossible to know and result in dangerous, unpredictable effects on those who use them. Any use of a designer drug is risky and potentially life-threatening. The actual term “designer drugs” refers to substances that are made by a process of chemical synthesis – i.e., they are designed to mimic another drug. They are mostly made in a laboratory – but don’t let that fool you, a lab isn’t always a room full of scientists, it can be a back alley room full of dodgy drug dealers and manufacturers with no background in science or lab work.

They are created to be sold for people who want to get high, often mimicking natural substances and drugs. Take for instance synthetic marijuana products like K2 or Spice which are created in labs based on the structure of natural cannabinoids, the compounds found in marijuana.


Designer drugs are manufactured in a laboratory

But to say that they are the same or even similar to their natural counterparts is misleading and often a source of more headaches (and heartache) than you could ever imagine.  They are often very different and can cause a wide range of effects and adverse reactions. Because they are illicit, unregulated substances, and because they often change chemically from one product to another with the same name, designer drugs and how they will affect a user are highly unpredictable.

And here’s the catch. Some designer drugs are legal. Designer drugs are often referred to as legal highs. The substances created to make these products are new and not yet specifically listed as illegal.  Some laboratories make these products to tweak the compounds and produce something that is not technically illegal. This can make designer drugs particularly harmful because people, especially teens and young adults, may falsely believe that something legal must be safe to use.

So, how are designer drugs classified?

Did you know that there are said to be over 300 known designer drugs, each belonging to one of three types of new psychoactive drug (NPS) classifications. An NPS is, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes a “substances of abuse, either in a pure form or a preparation, that are not controlled by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat”. The term “new” does not necessarily refer to new inventions — several NPS were first synthesized 40 years ago — but to substances that have recently become available on the market.

Here are the three main categories that NPS drugs (Designer drugs) are classified under:

  1. Synthetic cannabinoids.

These are designer drugs that are supposed to mimic the natural compounds in the cannabis plant, also known as marijuana. There are many different street names for these products, including Spice, K2, Bliss, and Scooby Snax. They can cause a range of adverse effects, including anxiety, violent behaviours, seizures, hallucinations, and paranoia.

  1. Synthetic cathinones

Cathinone is a natural substance found in plant called khat. Designer drugs that are supposed to mimic this substance are stimulants, similar to cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine. The most common street name for these drugs is bath salts. Potential adverse effects of bath salts include paranoia, hallucinations, seizures, chest pains, suicidal thoughts, and violent outbursts.

  1. Synthetic phenethylamines.

Phenethylamines made in a laboratory are designed to mimic hallucinogenic drugs. N-bomb and smiles are two of the street names for them and they can be found as liquids, powders, and papers soaked in the liquid solution. These designer drugs may cause seizures, heart attack, and respiratory failure.

Rehab in Johannesburg drug Rehabilitation in Gauteng designer drugs containing synthetic cannabinoids

Many synthetic designer drugs are sold semi-legally online with a wide array of names and labels. Credit: B. Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo

The adverse effects of designer drugs may seem glaringly obvious to some, but to others, they are not and need to be highlighted.

Designer and synthetic drugs are dangerous for a few reasons.

One of the most important reasons is that they are unpredictable. It is impossible for the user to know what exactly is in one of these products or how it will affect them. The actual compounds can vary as can the amount. There may even be contaminants, as was recently the case in hundreds of samples of synthetic marijuana, as dangerous as rat poison. Some of the potential effects these drugs have been reported to cause include:

  1. Psychosis, including paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions
  2. Violent and aggressive behaviours
  3. Depression and anxiety
  4. Muscle tensions and spasms
  5. Increased heart rate and chest pains
  6. Addiction
  7. Seizures
  8. Suicidal thoughts and behaviours
  9. Kidney failure and even death.

Final thoughts on designer drugs:

Any use of designer drugs, even just one time, is risky, at best.  Some people become addicted to these substances and they are at an increased risk of adverse effects.  It is possible to get help, though. The most important realisation you may need to make either for yourself or a loved one is that there is no real science behind these drugs, no matter what the reasoning behind the synthesis is. The drug is created to mimic an already devastating drug, and at the very best, you will feel those effects. The best advice we can offer is to seek out a professional to guide you through what is a solvable and dangerous maze.

Nearly all of the designer drugs in the world are addictive and can take a massive profound toll on the body and mind. If you or someone you know is struggling with designer drug addiction, do not wait to seek help.


For more information on dealing with designer drugs or any other substance abuse and getting yourself into rehab to start a new life, call Houghton House now:

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