What are designer drugs?

Quick Answer
Designer drugs are illegal synthetic analogs of controlled substances that possess similar pharmacological qualities. Designer drugs encompass a wide range of potent, unpredictable, and potentially deadly stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, and opiates. Common designer drugs include methamphetamine, ecstasy, China white, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), phencyclidine (PCP), ketamine, and gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB).
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History of Use

Designer drugs became popular in the 1970s as a way to bypass existing regulations on controlled substances. After the Controlled Substances Act (1970) restricted the availability of illicit substances, clandestine chemists began modifying and manufacturing synthetic alternatives with similar pharmacological effects. Designer-drug production and trafficking became widespread, producing cheaper and stronger alternatives.

Some designer drugs were originally intended for medical use; others were created strictly for recreational use. The first designer drugs included hallucinogens and synthetic substitutes for heroin and amphetamine.

By the 1980s, many designer drugs became known as club drugs and gained popularity among young abusers at underground dance parties, bars, and nightclubs called raves. These raves became the place to sell and use club drugs, such as ecstasy, to enhance the club experience. The combining of designer drugs emerged as a common practice to enhance euphoric effects. Mixing ketamine, a hallucinogenic tranquillizer, with the stimulant methamphetamine became known as "trail mix," while using ecstasy with LSD was called "candy flipping."

Designer drugs remained legal until the 1980s, when their psychological and physical hazards became fully recognized. The drugs caused numerous overdose deaths worldwide. By 1986, the widespread manufacture and misuse of designer drugs prompted legislators in the United States to modify the Controlled Substances Act and add the Federal Analog Act to include all chemically similar substances and possible derivatives as controlled substances.

Designer drugs make up a substantial portion of the illegal drug market. Newer classes of designer drugs, such as spice, K2, 2C-B, and bath salts, are continually being developed, marketed, and sold by illegal chemists. Despite efforts to curb designer drug production, their abuse and popularity continues to be a concern.

Common Designer Drugs

Common designer drugs include hallucinogens and depressants as well as synthetic substitutes for heroin and amphetamine. The most popular amphetamine or speed analogs include methamphetamine and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, or ecstasy).

Methamphetamine, known variously as "meth," "crystal," "ice," "speed," and "crank," is one of the most addictive designer drugs available. It is commonly used at clubs for its intense rush of euphoria. By the 1960s, methamphetamine abuse reached epidemic proportions.

MDMA has both stimulant and hallucinogenic properties and is related to amphetamine and mescaline. Ecstasy is a party drug designed to produce a rush of euphoria followed by heightened sociability and hallucinations.

A popular synthetic heroin alternative is China white, which encompasses a variety of fentanyl derivatives (painkillers with opiate-like properties similar to but more potent than heroin). China white gained popularity as a recreational drug among heroin users as a cheaper alternative.

Hallucinogenic designer drugs include LSD and PCP. LSD, or acid, is the most widely known of the hallucinogenic drugs. It is an extremely potent semisynthetic psychedelic drug derived from lysergic acid. PCP, or angel dust, derivatives were popular in the 1970s. PCP, originally developed as a surgical anesthetic, is a dangerous and unpredictable hallucinogen; users typically experience horrifying and violent hallucinations.

Several designer drugs, such as ketamine and GHB, exhibit depressant and hallucinogenic qualities. Ketamine is a tranquilizer with powerful hallucinogenic properties that is known to induce out-of-body and dreamlike states. GHB, known as cherry meth and liquid ecstasy, initially was used as a bodybuilding agent to stimulate muscle growth. GHB is a popular recreational drug at nightclubs and is sometimes used as a “date rape” drug.

Effects and Potential Risks

Designer drugs are often lethal substitutes; they are mixed with unknown impurities and are many times more potent than the original substance they mimic. Designer drugs can act as stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, and painkillers (opiates).

Designer drugs exhibit different effects at varying doses. Stimulants, like methamphetamines, increase brain activity by increasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, producing euphoria, excitement, and increased energy. Depressants, such as GHB, slow the central nervous system through endorphin-like mechanisms, inducing relaxation, contentment, and sedation. Hallucinogens, such as LSD, bind to serotonin receptors in the brain, producing sensory distortions. Opiates, including China white, act through opioid receptors to alter pain responses. Although the effects of each designer drug are different, all can be lethal.

Designer drugs are abused for their intoxicating effects. The short-term effects of designer drugs include increased euphoria, excitement, and energy. Negative short-term effects include nausea, vomiting, anxiety, depression, confusion, irritability, amnesia, dilated pupils, impaired speech, visual disturbances, hallucinations, behavioral changes, disturbed sleep, muscle cramps, panic attacks, shaking, clenched teeth, drooling, chills, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, hypertension, and sudden death.

Long-term designer drug use can lead to anorexia, dehydration, social withdrawal, anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure), violent behavior, suicidal behavior, paranoia, psychosis, stroke, seizures, convulsions, paralysis, coma, lung disease, kidney, heart, and respiratory failure, blood vessel damage, permanent brain damage, and death.

Most designer drugs are highly addictive; physical and psychological tolerance and dependence develops quickly. Users crave larger doses of the drug to achieve the original high. Mixing designer drugs with other substances increases the risk of accidental overdose and death.


Clayton, Lawrence. Designer Drugs. New York: Rosen, 1998. Print.

Gahlinger, Paul M. Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use, and Abuse. New York: Plume, 2004. Print.

Goldberg, Raymond. Drugs across the Spectrum. 7th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2014. Print.

Hanson, Glen R., Peter J. Venturelli, and Annette E. Fleckenstein. Drugs and Society. 12th ed. Burlington: Jones, 2014. Print.

Olive, M. Foster. Designer Drugs. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Print.

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