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Designer Drugs: What Are They? Why Are They Dangerous?

Designer drugs are synthetic substances thought to be safer than street drugs. But they're actually just as dangerous, or perhaps even more so.

The term, designer drugs, is misleading as it evokes thoughts of something that’s hip and trendy. This misconception is further reinforced by the tendency for designer drugs to be used as club or rave drugs, meaning people use them to have fun rather than for recreational intoxication as with most other street drugs.

However, what many people don’t know is that designer drugs can be just as risky — if not riskier — than traditional drugs because of how quickly they change and how difficult they are to regulate and control. 

With that in mind, we’re going to give you a better understanding of designer drugs and highlight some of the specific designer drugs that are both common and especially dangerous.

What Are Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs are synthetic, lab-engineering drugs created to simulate the effect of other well-known, illegal drugs like ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines, and cocaine. However, while the effects can be comparable to common street drugs, designer drugs have very different chemical structures, which are often vague, misleading, or not disclosed to the public. For this reason, designer drugs have been difficult to regulate despite being easy to obtain in stores and online. 

Perhaps the bigger problem with designer drugs is that those who produce them are constantly tweaking the structure of their products. Sometimes these changes are made to tweak or amplify the effects of these designer drugs. But more often than not, these changes are made to get around the passing of laws that prohibit certain chemical compounds.

In short, by making slight changes to chemical composition, makers of designer drugs can continue to produce and sell these designer drugs without being prosecuted.

Why Are Designer Drugs Dangerous?

Generally, designer drugs are more potent with fewer side effects than their mainstream counterparts. As a result, there’s a common misconception that designer drugs offer users the desired euphoria, rush, or energy kick without any of the risks associated with street drugs. And because of this mistaken belief — in addition to the belief that they usually can’t be detected in a drug test and that they have no legal consequences — the risk of addiction and overdose can be higher. 

Belief that designer drugs are less risky [than street drugs], undetectable [in drug tests], and legal is completely untrue.

The notion of designer drugs being less risky, undetectable, and legal is a myth. However, the belief that designer drugs are safer than street drugs is especially dangerous because of how those who produce designer drugs are constantly changing the chemical makeup of these drugs; as a result, those who use these designer drugs can never be sure of exactly what they’re putting into their bodies.

To make matters worse, it’s very common for designer drugs to be manufactured in foreign countries where manufacturing safety standards and testing regulations are much lower.

Most Common (& Dangerous) Designer Drugs

Man taking designer drugs at a party

There are a wide range of designer drugs, many of which are even known by multiple names. For this reason, it’s difficult to create an exhaustive list of all designer drugs.

However, we’ve managed to put together a small list of some of the more well-known and widely-used designer drugs, which also happen to be some of the most harmful and dangerous.

Bath Salts

Contrary to popular belief, “bath salts” is actually slang for a stimulant substance in the synthetic cathinone class of drugs. This means it’s a drug that stimulates dopamine in the brain in basically the same way as cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. But since substances like cocaine and crystal meth are illegal, manufacturers of this particular drug use labels like bath sales, research chemicals, plant food, and “not for human consumption.”

Visually, this designer drug actually does resemble bath salts and plant food although it can also be compressed into powder form and sold in gelatin capsules. In terms of administration, bath salts are typically sniffed or snorted, but it can also be taken orally, smoked, or injected.

Beyond the desired effects of euphoria and increased alertness, bath salts often cause confusion, agitation, aggressive behavior, paranoia, and delusions. Physiologically, bath salts have been linked to rapid heartbeat, hypertension, headaches, sweating, breakdown of muscle tissue, and seizures. Overdosing bath salts can be deadly. 

Flakka

Similar to bath salts, Flakka — also called gravel because of its appearance — is a synthetic stimulant that falls into the cathinone class called alpha-PVP. Although Flakka is a more recent substance, Alpha-PVP can be traced back to treatments for attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy in the 1960s.

Created in the mid-2000s, Flakka was created to mimic street drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, and other similar illicit drugs. Its physical form is usually white or pink crystals that can be eaten, snorted, injected, or smoked in e-cigarettes.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Flakka causes excited delirium, a condition that involves hallucinations, hyperstimulation, increased strength and sex drive, and paranoia. But one major reason that Flakka is such a dangerous designer drug is that it often causes violent behavior. In fact, it earned the nickname “the zombie drug” after someone growled like an animal and chewed on the face of a victim until police were forced to shoot him, all while under the influencer of Flakka.

The physical effects of Flakka include liver and renal failure, high blood pressure, narrowing of blood vessels, heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, and death. Flakka has been known to raise body temperature to 104 degrees. 

Spice

Also commonly called K2, blaze, RedX Dawn, Paradise, and Demon, Spice is a designer drug that was created to mimic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive substance in marijuana. Technically, this makes Spice a synthetic cannabinoid. Since “not for human consumption” is on the label, Spice is widely available at small convenience stores, gas stations, and online, able to be legally sold despite users knowing that it’s intended for recreational consumption.

In stores, Spice is often sold as herbal incense or potpourri although users know it’s basically a legal alternative to marijuana. What makes Spice so dangerous is the fact that there’s no safety or purity testing, which means the concentration and potential danger can vary from package to package. Spice is typically a powder that is dissolved and sprayed on or mixed with dry plant material. This allows it to be smoked with a pipe, rolling papers, or even e-cigarettes. 

Spice can cause psychotic episodes, hallucinations, severe agitation, paranoid delusions, tremors, seizures, and high blood pressure. Acute kidney problems and even death by heart attack have been caused by Spice overdoses.

Visit Sea Change for Rehab from Designer Drugs

Although they’re seen as safer alternatives, designer drugs are no less addictive than traditional drugs and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sea Change Recovery offers addiction treatment in Santa Monica, with drug rehab programs that are customized for the individual. 

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction to designer drugs or you want to learn more about the signs of addiction, contact Sea Change Recovery today.

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