Designer drugs refer to a class of psychoactive drugs that mimic the effects of other well-known drugs. Many of these substances were primarily discovered through research, and the effects may potentially harm or endanger the life of an individual with prolonged used.
These drugs have similar effects as their legitimate counterparts. However, their chemical structures may be completely different. Some of the most popular designer drugs include methamphetamine, ecstasy, ketamine, LSD and GHB.
In the 1900s, drugs came from two sources – unrefined plants and animal products – and were usually taken by oral ingestion. As time passed, drugs have become more potent because chemists were able to use more plants and were able to extract and purify active ingredients. It was in 1000 A.D. when the distillation technique was applied in extracting the active ingredients from plants.
In the 1800s, morphine was isolated from opium. Meanwhile, cocaine was isolated from coca leaf about a century after. Years later, heroin was synthesized from morphine. As these have been developed, abuse of these substances followed.
Later, psychoactive drugs were developed and were introduced for clinical use, but this is a classic case where a good discovery leads to a bad effect. This is true in the case of the drug industry where designer drugs have become the center of abuse. As a result, production, distribution and use of drugs became more controlled and monitored.
To circumvent stricter regulations, clandestine laboratories mushroomed to meet the demand. From the 1960s to 1970s, the federal government has strengthened efforts to decrease the importation of natural products but the number of illicit laboratories soon increased.
An incident in the late 1950s happened when Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company distributed more than 200,000 doses of LSD for research purposes. However, when news spread about it being used as a recreational drug, stocks were pulled out. It was during this time when underground laboratories started growing.
Between late December 1979 and the end of 1980, at least 15 reported deaths were suspected to be involved in drug abuse. However, they could not identify what kind of drug killed the victims. What authorities did was they tracked down street drugs sold as heroin, but after carefully studying about the seized substances, it was found out that these white substances were “China White” or “synthetic heroin” and had no traces of heroin in them.
The drug was later on identified as alpha-methylfentanyl. This drug is a simple analog of fentanyl, a potent narcotic analgesic synthesized by a legitimate laboratory, Janssen Pharmaceutical in Belgium. This was not under the list of restricted drugs of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and so it was considered legal. It remained legal until it was classified under Schedule I in 1982.
Fentanyl is used clinically, sometimes in combination with a tranquilizer droperidol (Innovar), as a pre-anesthetic medication, an anesthetic, and a post-surgical analgesic. However, fentanyl is primarily developed for veterinary use. It is believed to be 200 times more potent than morphine and has an immediate effect but with a short duration of action which can last up to 40 minutes.
Alpha-methylfentanyl was placed under the restricted drug list as a Schedule I drug on September 1981. Sometime that year, another analog of fentanyl had appeared in the form of para-fluorofentanyl. This new compound had approximately the same potency as fentanyl, but its popularity was short-lived.
In 1984, another analog was discovered as alpha-methyl acetylfentanyl. This was always found contaminated with the acryl analog. Alpha-methyl acetylfentanyl was found to be less potent than fentanyl but longer acting than fentanyl.
The various fentanyl analogs are diluted with large amounts of lactose or mannitol. The color of the samples appears as pure white, off-white, light tan, light brown, or dark brown.
By 1990, there was increasing demand for designer drugs to the point that it was being sold over the internet. These online marketers coined the term “research chemicals” so it would not pose as a threat to the authorities. Despite all of the deceptive marketing, DEA raided suppliers involved with this trade.
In 2004, the DEA shut down internet-based “research chemical” vendors to immediately stop doing business. Among those that have been closed were two chemical manufacturers. Substances sold as “research chemicals” were hallucinogens, and bear a resemblance to mescaline and psilocybin. These substances were used for recreation, mental reflection and spiritual meditation.
The widespread use of anabolic steroids proliferated between late 1990s and early 2000. Steroids were banned by the International Olympic Committee since 1976. However, athletes have found ways to use them undetected by any form of test.
As years went by, more designer drugs emerged in the form of stimulants such as geranamine, mephredone and MDSV; designer sedatives such as premazepan and methylmethaqualone; hallucinogens; opioids; and anabolic steroids.
There are 268 new drugs discovered in four years, 35 percent of which are cannabinoids while the rest are stimulants.
Types of Designer Drugs
These designer drugs are often labeled to look like they are legal drugs used to treat a certain disease. However, these are being traded usually at parties, music festivals and concerts. Examples of these are:
- Spice (synthetic cannabinoid)
- Mephedrone ( synthetic stimulant)
- Foxy Methoxy (synthetic hallucinogen)
These substances are also known as club drugs or party drugs. Some variants may also be labeled as incense, bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food.
The three major categories of designer drugs are as follows:
These are designer drugs that are chemically different from cannabis but are sold and advertised to provide the same effects of cannabis. They are commonly sold under brand names K2 and Spice, and are usually consumed through smoking.
Adverse effects due to the use of synthetic cannabinoids include hospitalization and possibly death due to overdose. Here are other health effects of synthetic cannabinoid use:
- Myocardial Infarction
- Panic attacks
Symptoms of synthetic cannabinoids intake are as follows:
- Blurred vision
- High blood pressure
- Accelerated heartbeat
Synthetic cannabinoids cannot be detected in urine test for THC, but can be determined using immunoassay screening method and confirmed through chromatography-mass spectrometry.
These are commonly sold as “bath salts” and are often found in several retail products. These are synthetic derivatives of cathinone, a central nervous system stimulant that is an active chemical found in the khat plant.
Synthetic stimulants are known in the market as mephedrone and MDPV (3-4 methylene-dioxypyrovalerone). These are sold under the brand names Red Dove, Blue Silk, Drone, Energy-1, Ivory Wave, White Knight, Ocean Burst, White Lightening, and Stardust. These drugs are sold in powder form and placed in small plastic or foil packages that range from 200 to 500 milligrams per pack under different brand names.
Both mephedrone and MDPV are fine white or off-white in color. These are usually ingested by snorting or sniffing, but they can also be taken orally or mixed with a liquid substance to become a solution and injected directly to the vein.
Symptoms of synthetic stimulant use include:
- Panic attacks
- Impaired perception
- Decreased ability to think
- Reduced motor control
- Suicidal thoughts
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest pains
As of October 21, 2011, DEA published an order in the Federal Register of its emergency scheduling of synthetic stimulants used to make bath salts. The temporary scheduling will remain in effect until further studies are performed to determine if the chemicals should be permanently controlled. They are currently designated as Schedule 1 substances under the Controlled Substances Act, which signifies that they have high potential for abuse without any accepted medical use for treatment.
These are chemical alternatives to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). These drugs change the perception of an individual, affect the sense of thinking, and spark emotional outbursts. One popular type of synthetic hallucinogen that has recently gained notoriety is N-Bomb, which was first developed for mapping of the serotonin receptors in the central nervous system.
Some synthetic hallucinogens are derived from mescaline, which naturally occurs in peyote cactus. These have been deceptively sold as the legal counterpart or a natural alternative to LSD. These substances are sold in the form of powder, blotted paper, liquid and capsule.
A scientist at the Free University of Berlin may be credited for the discovery and formulation of synthetic hallucinogens in 2003. This type of designer drug has been sold online as a designer drug since 2010. Street names associated with this kind of drug include:
- Angel Dust
It was in the 1950s when LSD was used in treating patients with schizophrenia and other mental disorders such as depression and alcoholism. In the 1960s, psychedelic drugs proliferated. As more and more people have become curious about this drug, there also has been an increase of hospital emergency visits, increased paranoia, and more delusional individuals locked up in jail. The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 puts LSD as a Schedule 1 drug.
Symptoms of synthetic hallucinogens include:
- Irrational behavior
- Dilated pupils
- Anxiety or paranoia
- Mood swings
- Distorted sense of sight, touch and hearing
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Slurred speech
- Involuntary movements
It has been found out that prolonged used of these synthetic substance can damage the kidneys.
The body can easily form a tolerance with the use of hallucinogens, making the user feel the need to increase intake to achieve a different “high” effect. Increased use may result to severe side effects and overdose, and consequently lead to death.
The Overall Effect of Designer Drugs
Depending on the kind of drug and quantity, the user may experience prolonged periods of wakefulness, extreme relaxation, decrease in appetite, memory loss and paranoia. The worst effect would lead to coma or death.
Designer drugs usually contain other unknown substances and contaminants that make it extremely difficult to determine the level of toxicity and the potential medical consequences. Some of these drugs when mixed with alcohol can worsen the effect of the illicit drugs.
The use of these drugs may remove inhibition among teenagers to a point that they gain so much confidence enough to drive while intoxicated, engage in unsafe sex, or suffer injury. Some of these drugs may not be detected using urine test or other screening methods, making it difficult to determine intoxication level.
Withdrawal symptoms happen when an individual who used to be dependent on these illicit drugs stops taking them. These signs include tremors, sweating, insomnia and anxiety. The individual may also experience agitation, depression, vomiting, rapid heart rate and high blood pressure.
Drug Policy in the U.S.
Individuals found to be in possessing drugs or involved in any kind of drug trade may receive harsh punishment. This is evident in the number of prisoners in the country who have been prosecuted due to drugs. It was in the1970s when President Richard Nixon started his campaign on the “war on drugs”. From then on, the U.S. has been all out in pursuing drug traffickers by any legal means necessary.
Established in July 2014, the National Drug Control Strategy focuses on both public health and safety aspects of drug use and substance use disorders. It was created to recognize that there is a need to give importance in addressing addiction as the problem on drug abuse has grown to become a disease in society. The policy aims to provide information to prevent using these illicit drugs, as well as treatment options to those who need it.
Below are drug policies that concern those who are in possession of drugs, or people who are connected to trading, distribution or manufacturing of designer drugs.
- Harrison Act of 1914: This regulated and taxed the production, importation and distribution of opiates and coca products.
- California Proposition 215: This act allows cannabis for medical use in the state of California, despite the lack of standard Food and Drug Administration testing for safety and efficacy.
- Controlled Substances Act: This is the federal U.S. drug policy under which the manufacture, importation, possession, use, and distribution of certain narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids and other chemicals are regulated.
- Ecstasy Law: This is a federal rule that controls the use, possession, and distribution of ecstasy.
- Marijuana Law: This rule controls how marijuana should be used, carried, and distributed.
More designer drugs are being discovered as each day passes. While the U.S. continues its fight against the proliferation of these designer drugs, manufacturers are likewise developing ways to escape the rule of law and affect more lives.