Designer Drugs

Designer drugs are manufactured to mimic the effects of illegal drugs, while being chemically different enough to avoid being classified as illicit.

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In recent years, the abuse of synthetic drugs has been on the rise. Many of these substances, typically referred to as “designer drugs,” are sold legally and packaged as potpourri, bath salts, screen cleaner or glass cleaner. While many of these substances are marketed as cheaper, safer alternatives to other drugs, these designer drugs are often more dangerous and addictive than their traditional counterparts.

What are Designer Drugs?

Definitions of designer drugs tend to vary widely. However, this term typically describes any substance made by changing or mimicking the chemical properties of a pre-existing illicit drug, such as morphine, cocaine or marijuana.

In most cases, designer drugs are created for one of two reasons. The first is to slightly alter the effect that a pre-existing drug has on the brain. The second is to bypass regulations that outlaw an illicit substance by slightly altering its chemical structure without changing its effect. These legal designer drugs are frequently sold as cheaper, easier-to-obtain substitutes for similar illegal substances.

While some designer drugs are formulated and sold legally, many are created in illegal labs. However, even those formulated under technically legal circumstances are usually not initially subject to intense regulation or scrutiny, which means their content and concentration can vary widely, and include dangerous, potent chemicals.

Effects of Designer Drugs

There is a broad range of designer drugs in circulation today, with more being developed on a regular basis. Because there are so many varieties available, designer drug effects can vary widely depending on the specific substance they are chemically similar to, as well as their chemical makeup and potency. Generally, the effects of designer drugs are similar to the effects of the drug they are chemically closest to. For example, K2, which is chemically similar to marijuana, usually produces effects comparable to marijuana.

However, even designer drugs sold under the same name can have different effects, especially when they are created illegally. For example, ecstasy is frequently combined with other substances, including methamphetamine, ephedrine and ketamine. Depending on the specific formula, the effects of the drug can be dramatically different. This variability and unpredictability is a large part of what makes designer drug use so risky, particularly when taken in combination with alcohol or other substances.

Types of Designer Drugs

Previously, the term “designer drug” was used to describe a wide range of illegal, synthetically created substances, including ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamine. Other examples of less common designer drugs include ketamine, GHB and Rohypnol. In recent years, the term has expanded to include substances made to mimic the effects of illicit drugs and sold legally, like synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts. Because new formulas of these substances emerge on a regular basis to outpace legal regulations, the different types of designer drugs continue to increase.

Currently, the three most common designer drugs are Spice/K2, ecstasy and bath salts.


Spice and K2 are two of the most common synthetic cannabinoids. These drugs, and others classified as synthetic cannabinoids, typically come in the form of dried plant material coated in chemicals, or liquids. While outlawed in some states, these substances can be bought in many others online or in gas stations, drug paraphernalia shops and novelty stores. As their name suggests, synthetic cannabinoids are chemically similar to marijuana and have a comparable effect on the brain and body.

Typically, Spice, K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as safe, legal substitutes for marijuana. However, in many cases, these substances are significantly stronger than marijuana. Many people who have ingested synthetic cannabinoids have required emergency medical attention for severe side effects, including:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Vomiting
  • Violent or unpredictable behavior
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts


Also referred to as MDMA or Molly, ecstasy is a synthetic drug that can significantly alter a person’s mood and perception. Because it has chemical properties of both stimulants and hallucinogens, ecstasy causes people to feel heightened amounts of energy, pleasure and emotional warmth, as well as a distorted sense of time and perception.

Currently, there are no legal forms of ecstasy sold in the United States, and all forms of the drug are illegally created and circulated. In many cases, ecstasy is combined with other substances, including bath salts, cough medicines, ketamine and methamphetamine. This can make ecstasy consumption dangerous because its effects can vary widely. Consuming this drug with additional substances, like marijuana or alcohol, can dramatically increase a person’s risk of overdose.

Bath Salts

Bath salts are a class of designer drugs that resemble traditional bath salts. Labeling these products as bath products, plant foods, phone screen cleaners and jewelry cleansers allows producers to sell them legally online and in drug paraphernalia stores. Bath salts are often used as cheap substitutes for stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. They can be snorted, smoked, swallowed or injected.

Most bath salts are chemically similar to a substance found in the khat plant called cathinone. As such, they are sometimes referred to as synthetic cathinones. However, unlike naturally-occurring cathinone, the chemicals found in bath salts are significantly stronger and more dangerous to the human body and mind.

Consuming bath salts can cause people to experience:

  • Paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Hallucinations
  • Extreme agitation
  • Violent or unpredictable behavior

New Designer Drugs

The widespread availability of designer drugs in stores and online has made the designer drug industry extremely profitable. Many companies continuously adjust chemical formulas and branding to avoid detection by law enforcement, and new designer drugs are created on a regular basis. This makes it nearly impossible to create a concrete, unchanging list of designer drugs

Designer Drug Addiction

While they are often sold as safer, more accessible versions of various illicit substances, the reality is that designer drugs can be just as dangerous and addictive as their illegal counterparts. Like any other substance use disorder, designer drug addiction is a serious medical condition that requires professional treatment.

Anyone exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors may need to seek help for designer drug addiction or abuse:

  • Significant changes in behavior, hygiene or personal appearance
  • A decline in work or school performance
  • Loss of interest in previously valued hobbies or relationships
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Disrupted sleep schedule
  • Paranoia

Treatment for Designer Drugs

Like any other substance use disorder, an addiction to designer drugs can consume nearly every aspect of a person’s life. Fortunately, with the right treatment, recovery is possible. Comprehensive drug rehab can help those struggling work through the physical symptoms withdrawal safely, understand the roots of their addiction, address any co-occurring mental health conditions and develop the coping skills needed to begin lifelong recovery.

When it comes to designer drug addiction, the most successful treatment involves a full continuum of care, including:

The Recovery Village can help you or someone you love build a new life outside of designer drug addiction. It all begins with a call. Reach out to a representative today to get started.

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