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What Are Designer Drugs?

Geraldine is a lifestyle and wellness writer. She writes about substance abuse, mental health, and how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Designer drugs can look as harmless as candy.

Designer drugs can look as harmless as candy.

The term designer drugs took off during the 1980s and 1990s when "raves" and "clubs" were all the hype. During that time, the term "designer" was trendy used to talk about clothing, home decor, and even pharmaceuticals. But, despite popular belief, "designer drugs" weren't named after designers. Instead, they were "designed" to avoid legal safeguards.

While the term started decades ago, there's been a massive increase in recreational drugs, giving designer drugs long life. Nowadays, you probably hear people talk about "club drugs" as synonymous with the popular party drugs in the 80s. However, they may or may not be designer drugs according to the original meaning.

How Designer Drugs Came Into Being?

Designer drugs were the response of clandestine labs to design drugs made to get around the law. According to the DEA, these are clandestinely synthesized drugs that differ slightly from controlled substances in their chemical structure but produce the same pharmacological effects.

To market these drugs to party-goers, they were labeled as "bath salts," "research chemicals," "glass cleaner," and "plant food." Using these names and marking them "not for human consumption," many of these drugs were sold in broad public, escaping the law and other controls. This was the way designer drugs could circumvent the application of the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act.

Many of these drugs were manufactured in East Asia with distribution levels that extend through Europe, North America, Australia, and other parts of the world. They quickly became common street drugs.

Characteristics of Designer Drugs

Most of these synthetic drugs were deliberately created to mimic older common drugs of abuse. However, these drugs were also untested made in uncontrolled labs. Thus they had unpredictable effects. Still, they were prevalent among party-goers and even among elite members of society, which increased their popularity.

The most popular designer drugs include:

  • Methamphetamine
  • LSD
  • MDMA (ecstasy)
  • Bath salts
  • K2/Spice (synthetic marijuana)
  • Fentanyl
  • U-47700 (pink)
  • Flakka

Furthermore, you could find designer drug versions of popular drugs like Viagra, cocaine, meh, and even tranquilizers. Similarly, there are many synthetic cannabinoids and other psychoactive substances mixed into these drugs. They were all chemically similar versions of these drugs but with slight chemical variations that didn't alter their effects.

Designer Drugs Effects

Unlike traditional illicit or prescription drugs, designer drugs are incredibly unpredictable. Since these drugs are made in uncontrolled labs and have various chemical variants, it's impossible to know exactly what the drug user is taking. Some of the potential side effects of designer drugs include:

  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Violent and aggressive behaviors
  • Muscle spasms
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Death

Unlike other drugs, any use of designer drugs, even just one time, can cause life-threatening effects. Not knowing exactly what's in the drug makes them highly unpredictable and risky.

Poisonings and overdoses are common due to illegal designer drugs, even some sold as prescription medications on the streets. Many of these designer drugs are manufactured to look and feel precisely like prescription medication. Unfortunately, people with prescription drug addiction are likely to scour the streets to find more supplies and end up buying these fake drugs instead.

Designer Drugs Addiction Treatment

Also, designer drugs make treatment particularly difficult, especially in acute stages. Without knowing what is causing someone's overdose, it isn't easy to administer the right medications. In this case, the detox process becomes increasingly difficult to assess. Most likely, patients will have their stomachs pumped to stop the drugs from continuing to enter the bloodstream.

Even in drug tests, these substances can develop many substances that make medication-assisted treatment (MAT) challenging.

While rare, some designer drug addiction is possible. After all, these drugs mimic the physical and psychological effects of highly addictive drugs such as cocaine and meth. So, if you or someone you know keeps experimenting with designer drugs, it may be time to seek help before it's too late.

More than building up damage through time, people who use designer drugs play a Russian roulette game with their lives. It's essential to seek treatment to understand this risky behavior's underlying cause and rule out a substance abuse problem.

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, their drug and alcohol addiction treatment center offer different rehab programs to help you find the right road to recovery. Whether that means checking into a residential program, starting group therapy, or contemplating an intensive outpatient program, their addiction specialists can help you figure out what's the best route for your needs. Don't let addiction get the best of you.


Foundation for a Drug-Free World. (2017). The Truth About Synthetic Drugs. Retrieved June 5th, 2018 from

Hernandez, Nina. (2018). The Problem with K2, Downtown Austin’s Most Dangerous Drug. Retrieved June 6th, 2018 from

Jenkins, John Philip. (2011). Designer Drugs. Retrieved June 5th, 2018 from

Moore, Doug. (2018). Deadly Strain of K2 That’s Killed in Illinois has Landed in St. Louis. Retrieved June 6th, 2018 from

United States Code Controlled Substances Act. (1988). Retrieved June 6th, 2018 from

Capital Health Region (BC). Designer Drugs. Workshop for Addiction Professionals. 2001.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Geraldine Orentas