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The Rise of Synthetic and Designer Drugs

In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the primary governing body responsible for categorizing, regulating, and preventing the sale and use of both controlled and illicit drugs. In recent years, however, many ‘new’ synthetic drugs (also known as designer drugs) have made their way into both illicit and retail markets, working around regulations and into the hands of a growing number of recreational users.

Traditional designer drugs, such as LSD, Ecstasy, ketamine, GHB, and Rohypnol, have been popular since the mid 1900s; however, with recent advances in pharmacological production, new forms of these synthetic drugs have been made readily available to the masses. Today, designer drug use is especially prevalent amongst youth and young adult populations, as they tend to be more accessible and unrecognizable by parents or authority figures. As of 2014, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported 541 new psychoactive, or synthetic/designer, substances; a number which is believed to have steadily increased over the past 2 to 3 years.

Over the past few years, a couple of the most popular synthetic/designer drugs are:

“Spice” or “K2” – categories of drugs created to mimic the effects of marijuana. These drugs interact with the same cell receptors in the brain as THC. They lack the “mellowing” properties found in THC, making drug use more prone to psychosis, paranoia, or increased anxiety. Upon use, they can cause elevated blood pressure, seizures, nausea, and vomiting. Regulations on “K2” and “Spice” are well underway, however, they have been known to be sold at smoke shops, convenience stores, or bought online.

“Bath Salts” –  category of drug created to mimic the effects of stimulants (methamphetamine, Adderall, speed, etc.). These drugs are extremely potent; they target dopamine transmitters and affect serotonin and norepinephrine levels. Upon use, they can cause euphoria, hyper alertness, anxiety, agitation, psychotic behavior, hallucinations, loss of motor control, and elevated heart rate and blood pressure. The DEA has cracked down on the sale of bath salts; however, in recent times, they have been known to be sold at convenience stores, smoke shops, or online.

Synthetic Hallucinogens (2C Family) – similar in structure to MDMA or Ecstasy. These drugs create a hallucinogenic effect and euphoria. Upon use, they can cause agitation, hallucination, aggression, violence, dysphoria, hypertension, tachycardia, seizures, and hyperthermia. Drugs in the 2C family are often sold online or through illegal markets.

Designer drugs are made to chemically resemble other known substances like, marijuana, cocaine, opiates, hallucinogens, etc. Because the drugs are not structurally “identical” to illicit drugs, they often bypass regulatory boards and will sometimes even find their way into retail or legal online markets. The retail drugs are often sold as herbal remedies or supplements, or packaged as incense, bath salts, or other household items. Also, many designer drugs never make it into public markets but are solely traded in street markets or via illegal online sites. Designer drugs are most often created in small company or clandestine laboratories and are unknown or unmonitored by government health agencies.