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Designer Drugs: A Growing Problem in Today’s Age

The ongoing influx of designer drugs on the black market is a public health challenge that faces not only the U.S. but people around the world. In order to get around the laws that restrict the possession, use, or sale of certain substances, drug dealers often create chemically different versions that produce similar effects but are not yet legislated.[1] 

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Unfortunately, the result is increased use, as people believe these dangerous substances are safe because they are not technically illegal. Deadly overdoses occur when medical professionals are unfamiliar with exactly what substance is causing the medical emergency.[2]

A better understanding of what designer drugs actually are can help people avoid the dangers inherent to their use. Increased awareness can also improve legislation around potentially deadly substances of all kinds.

What Are Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs are substances that are chemically altered versions of well-known drugs on the street.[1] These drugs are chemically changed just enough so that neither the dealer nor the consumer is technically breaking the law when they buy, sell, or use the substance. 

Theoretically, these drugs are meant to create a similar experience when used as the illegal drug they are mimicking. However, this might not always be the result. It is not uncommon for people to find that the same amount they used to take of the original drugs turns out to be an overdose amount of the new drug. 

Sold under names like bath salts or flakka, it’s not uncommon for young people to forget that “not illegal” is not the same thing as “safe for use.” These substances are unregulated, with each batch potentially being significantly different from the last even if it is sold under the same name or looks similar.[2,3]

Top Designer Drugs

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), there are seven types of designer drugs, and six of those are being sold on the street, making up one of the most commonly sold classifications of drugs on the black market.[4,5]


Synthetic cannabinoids (like synthetic marijuana, Spice, or K2) are designed to mimic the effects of marijuana for users. However, they are very different in effect than marijuana. Fake weed can cause overdose characterized by vomiting, confusion, rapid heart rate, hallucinations, and more.[6]


Phenethylamine is a class of synthetic substances that were first seen on the streets back in the 1980s.[7] This group of synthetic drugs is designed to mimic psychotropic substances. 

While some were designed for the purposes of medical exploration, none were found to be medically useful, and production as well as research was stopped.[7] Many dealers attempt to recreate these substances in new, technically legal forms to sell on the street. 


Phencyclidines are another form of synthetic drug commonly sold on the street due to their ability to create a high in users. They have also been found to create a trance-like state in users and trigger violent behaviors and hallucinations.[8]


Tryptamines are a class of synthetic drugs that work by increasing the release of serotonin while simultaneously decreasing its reuptake. This process can cause a high in users, but it can also contribute to the experience of hallucinations and, potentially, a head twitch response and overdose.[9]


Piperazines are commonly sold on the street as synthetic drug options, but they have been shown to decrease locomotor activity and potentially cause the nervous system to malfunction.[10] 


Pipradrol is a stimulant substance that was originally created back in the 1950s as a potential antidepressant. However, it was found to have a high abuse potential and was outlawed in many countries by the 1970s.[11] Its abuse by people using it to get high has also been found to cause overdose or toxicity. 

Dangers of Designer Drugs

There are a number of risks that come with experimenting with designer drugs, and those risks are very similar to the ones that come with the use and abuse of any illicit substance. Here are some of the dangers:[3,12]

Unknown Chemical Composition

These substances are not created in a medical lab or any professionally regulated space but in the labs of criminals who are only interested in making money and not in safety. There is no way to know which processes are employed or how changes to chemical makeup will alter the effect—and the chemical makeup is changed continuously. 

Shifting Potency & Purity

Because there is no regulation, there is no standardization of production. This means that new ingredients may be swapped in at any time, amounts may change, and with these changes, the level of purity of the drug and its potency will change. 

Users cannot depend on experiencing the same effects with consistent use of the drug. Last week’s batch may have been stronger or weaker than this week’s batch, which can make it easy to take too much and overdose. 

Health Risks 

Due to their ever-changing chemical makeup, it is difficult to impossible for medical emergency professionals to be able to identify which drug is causing the medical emergency experienced by someone in a state of synthetic drug overdose. Reported health issues have included seizures, extreme psychological effects (like paranoia or psychosis), organ damage, and sudden death. 

Though efforts are being made to identify designer drugs with blood tests and other methods, there is not enough time in an emergency situation to implement these methods, especially when they may yield no viable information.

Legal Consequences 

Even though many designer drugs are purposefully designed to evade the legal system, many states and municipalities have legislation in place to quickly outlaw a substance when it is found to have a detrimental effect on the community. This means that users who believe they are “safe” in terms of legal consequences may find that the substance they have in hand is one that has been outlawed. 

Drug Abuse & Addiction 

Taking any drug that triggers the pleasure pathway in the brain can lead to a dependence that is psychological in nature. That is, it is not abnormal to begin to crave the high created when taking these substances. Regular use of designer drugs is no different, and regular use can ultimately lead to addiction

Are Designer Drugs Addictive?

Yes, designer drugs are addictive. Depending on a number of personal factors, addiction can be triggered by a single use or regular use over time.[13] With treatment, addiction to any substance can be overcome, including an addiction to designer substances. 

Updated March 8, 2024
  1. Designer drugs – NAL Agricultural Thesaurus. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published 2017. Accessed February 27, 2024.
  2. Luethi D, Liechti ME. Designer drugs: mechanism of action and adverse effects. Archives of Toxicology. 2020;94.
  3. Designer Drugs. Drug Enforcement Administration. Published 2017. Accessed February 27, 2024.
  4. Pesce AJ, Krock K. Designer drugs. Laboratory Medicine. Published September 29, 2023.
  5. Can science keep up with designer drugs?. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published October 23, 2023. Accessed February 27, 2024.
  6. Synthetic cannabinoids: What are they? What are their effects? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published October 25, 2018. Accessed February 27, 2024.
  7. Cocchi V, Gasperini S, Hrelia P, Tirri M, Marti M, Lenzi M. Novel psychoactive phenethylamines: Impact on genetic material. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2020;21(24):9616.
  8. Ryu IS, Kim OH, Lee YE, et al. The abuse potential of novel synthetic phencyclidine derivative 1-(1-(4-fluorophenyl)cyclohexyl)piperidine (4′-F-PCP) in rodents. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2020;21(13):4631.
  9. Arvie Abiero, In Soo Ryu, Chrislean Jun Botanas, et al. Four novel synthetic tryptamine analogs induce head-twitch responses and increase 5-HTR2a in the prefrontal cortex in mice. Biomolecules & Therapeutics. 2020;28(1):83-91.
  10. Souto C, Göethel G, Peruzzi CP, et al. Piperazine designer drugs elicit toxicity in the alternative in vivo model Caenorhabditis elegans. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 2019;40(3):363-372.
  11. Pipradrol. National Institutes of Health. Accessed February 27, 2024.
  12. Designing methods to identify evolving designer drugs. National Institute of Justice. Accessed February 27, 2024.
  13. Beebe DK, Walley E. Substance abuse: the designer drugs. American Family Physician.1991;43(5):1689-1698. Accessed February 27, 2024.
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