Designer Drugs

Main type

“Designer drugs” refers to a wide range of compounds based on existing illegal drugs, manufactured with subtle changes to their chemical structure designed to circumvent drug legislation. Usually they are only slightly different to their illegal equivalents, and often are marketed as having similar effects. They can be based on any number of drugs including opiates, hallucinogens, narcotics, stimulants and more.

Whilst attempts to avoid drug laws by manufacturing legal drugs that produce similar effects to their illegal counterparts is nothing new, in recent years they have rapidly increased in popularity, and represent a significant challenge for both legislators and drug enforcement agencies. This is largely because it is difficult to keep up with the chemists creating new compounds, and for every individual new drug outlawed, several more spring up to take its place. It can also be difficult to restrict drugs that may actually have practical uses as well as recreational ones.

Designer drugs are frequently marketed as “legal highs”, which can represent something of a misnomer considering that their legality is rarely long lasting. They are also somewhat paradoxically known as “herbal highs”, despite the fact that they are exclusively synthesised artificially. Many people are also misled by this name into thinking that these drugs are safe to use, when often they are every bit as dangerous if not more so than the illegal drugs that they are based upon. They are also considered to be highly dangerous, mostly because of their effects, which can mimic and exceed those of a wide range of different drugs, but also because they are often cut with other harmful substances. They may also cause severe adverse reactions when combined with other substances such as alcohol.

Designer drugs come in many forms depending on their type, ranging from tablets to cannabis-like substances designed to be smoked. In some cases they can be injected or inhaled.

These drugs, owing to their chemical similarity to illegal variants, can often be similarly addictive. Another problem is the relative ease with which they can be purchased online.

Other Types

“Designer drugs” is a term that refers to a huge number of different drugs and drug types, and so they have a wide range of different street names. They are referred to sometimes by their chemical names, but in the case of designer drugs available from internet vendors and drug paraphernalia shops are also known by brand names.

Some drugs are intentionally mislabelled as “plant food” or “bath salts”, despite them being completely ineffective in such capacities. The theory is that by marketing designer drugs as being unsuitable for human consumption, these drugs can sidestep existing drug laws regarding intent for use.

Street names and brand names for various designer drugs can include “nexus”, “synergy”, “toonies”, “liquid X”, “vitamin K” and “2C-B”, although given the huge array of different drugs covered by the term “designer drugs” this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Major Effects

The effects of designer drugs can vary significantly, as different designer drugs are intended to mimic the effects of different illegal ones. Variants are available of amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, cannabis and more. Often designer drugs will be similar in chemical structure to the drugs on which they are based, but there are also instances in which new compounds are created that are similar solely in their effects rather than appearance and chemistry. For instance an ostensibly legal cannabis substitute delivering similar effects might take the form of a tablet.

As such, many different designer drugs will react completely differently when absorbed into the body, with symptoms from euphoria to hallucinations, as well as drowsiness and/or elevated heart rate.

Considering that nearly all designer drugs are manufactured either illegally or pseudo-legally, what is consistent amongst all of them is the risk of the drug being cut with added adulterants. These can often be very dangerous, and a user will have no way of knowing what exactly a designer drug contains. Drugs might be unintentionally contaminated, or harmful substances may be added deliberately. There are many known cases of bad batches of designer drugs causing potentially serious health issues in both the short and long term. There is also a high risk of overdose, as drug users can mistakenly think that the drugs will have little or no effect and overcompensate by taking dangerous amounts.

Designer drugs, owing to their similarity to many existing drugs, can also be highly addictive, and withdrawal symptoms may become apparent with repeated use.

Production countries

Designer drugs are produced around the world, usually in locations where there are existing provisions for the artificial synthesis of drugs such as amphetamines. They are usually manufactured in clandestine labs, although larger scale operations are known to exist. Producers of designer drugs usually operate just within, if not outside of the law, making them notoriously troublesome to police. This can make it difficult for drug enforcement authorities to keep up, as for every designer drug that is outlawed new apparently legal compounds are released onto the market with only slight differences to ones manufactured previously.

In addition, some designer drug operations actually operate legally, thanks to some creative circumventing of local laws. However, due to their dangerous nature designer drugs are fast becoming a priority for law enforcement agencies, and so it remains to be seen just how legal such operations continue to be in the future.

Governments have taken varying approaches to the problem of designer drugs. Whilst some attempt to restrict each individual drug as it enters the market, others such as Australia and the USA have attempted to introduce legislation prohibiting theoretical compounds based on their chemical similarity to existing illegal drugs.

This should mean that each new variant of designer drug is immediately classified as illegal before it even enters the market, although it remains subject to debate how successful this approach has been, as a blanket ban on every possible compound can potentially result in more dangerous ones being created. It may also be comparatively beneficial for drugs that are known to be safe to remain on the market.

Some designer drugs are marketed as being ostensibly for other purposes such as bath salts or plant food despite them in fact being intended for recreational use, representing an additional problem for legislators and drug enforcement agencies.

Whilst some designer drugs are traded apparently legitimately, there also exists an extensive black market in the trafficking of them, as criminalisation of certain compounds doesn’t necessarily reduce demand for them. Designer drugs are known to be manufactured in Europe and North America, but a large proportion of production originates from Asia. The huge variety of different designer drugs manufactured means that there is much variance from drug to drug, as chemists will often use compounds that they have created themselves. This contributes to the unpredictable nature of the effects of different designer drugs.

Designer drugs are sold both by street dealers as a low cost alternative to their illegal equivalents, and can also be found as legal highs in “head” shops, which tend to sell other drug paraphernalia. They can also be increasingly found online. As with the illegal substances that designer drugs are based upon such as cocaine, heroin and amphetamines, usage tends to be concentrated largely in the developed world.

The chemical processes involved in inventing and manufacturing new designer drugs tend to be complex, and require specialist equipment and some degree of expertise. As such, new compounds are usually manufactured by amateur chemists rather than street dealers, although it is not unheard of for compounds to be smuggled in powder form allegedly for research purposes, only to then be pressed into tablets for recreational purposes by dealers and users.

Facts and stats


  • “Designer drugs” is a term used to describe a wide array of different drugs that are artificially manufactured and distributed with a view to avoiding the strict drug laws that apply to many illegal drugs.
  • They are often very similar in chemical structure to the drugs on which they are based, but sufficiently different so as to qualify at least temporarily as legal in some countries.
  • Other variants use entirely different chemical structures, but produce similar effects when taken.
  • Designer drugs are nothing new, and examples of them can be traced back as early as the 1920s. However the term “designer drugs” was only coined to refer to them in the 1980s.
  • They are just as dangerous, if not more so, than their illegal equivalents, as they are often cut with other hazardous substances. There is also an increased risk of overdose as a result of users underestimating their effects.
  • Due to the unknown ingredients and quantities contained in designer drugs, their effects can be unpredictable.
  • Designer drugs are almost always sold with no reference to their potential recreational use, as to do so would be illegal.
  • However, some law enforcement agencies control such drugs on the premise that to market them as being intended for use as bath salts or plant food when they patently are not constitutes false advertising.
  • Given that new strains of designer drugs are often localised to individual chemists or production facilities, there is a huge range of designer drugs on the market that differ greatly in their properties.
  • Designer drug strains are often far more potent than the drugs they are based upon.
  • They are also just as addictive, and users may well experience withdrawal symptoms after coming off them.


  • Designer drugs are used most commonly by people between the ages of 21 and 30.
  • A 2009 survey of online shops selling designer drugs in Europe found 115 different websites across 17 different countries.
  • 37% of these were based in the United Kingdom, while 15% were located in Germany.
  • Mephedrone, a popular designer drug, was first synthesised in 1929 but forgotten about until it was rediscovered in 2003.
  • A 2010 survey of Australian ecstasy users found that 21% reported having used mephedrone in the year prior, with 17% having done so in the previous 6 months.
  • In the United Kingdom, mephedrone is reportedly the 4th most popular street drug available, behind cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.
  • In the first four months of 2011 there were 1,782 calls to poison centres in the US regarding designer drugs labelled as “bath salts”. In contrast, there were only 302 calls during the whole of 2010.
  • Thousands of different designer drugs have been manufactured, although not all have been released to the market. There are potentially millions of other chemical compounds that have yet to be discovered.

Addiction Signs

Given the similarity of designer drugs to their illegal counterparts, the addiction signs can be difficult to distinguish from those of other drugs. The considerable variety of different drugs available, from opoids to sedatives, means that there is no single set of addiction signs for designer drugs in general.

The effects for many designer drugs can include euphoria, slurred speech, irrational or unusual behaviour and dilated pupils. In some cases they can cause excessive jaw clenching, changes in heart rate and even hallucinations, along with a range of other possible symptoms. These drugs can be just as addictive if not more so than the drugs that they are based upon, as they are often more potent, and so withdrawal symptoms including cravings, irritability and sleeping difficulties may be more severe.

It is also difficult to determine specific behaviours associated with designer drugs, as some types such as mephedrone may be used exclusively in social situations, while cannabis-type drugs might be used at any time. In looking for signs of addiction to designer drugs, one must therefore look for irrational or out of character behaviour. Such behaviours displayed on a consistent basis in certain situations, such as in nightclubs, might be indicative of abuse of designer drugs.

Designer drugs can be obtained from street dealers, Internet vendors or from “head” shops, and so frequent visits to any one of these suppliers may be considered a sign of drug abuse. Otherwise, in looking for addiction signs to designer drugs, it is best to be acquainted with the addiction signs for the range of drugs on which they are based.


The treatment of addiction to designer drugs can be complex, as it is not unheard of for users to be unaware of exactly what they are taking. The ingredients and quantities may only be known to the manufacturers, and so for this reason it is always advisable to consult a doctor when attempting to treat addiction of this sort. The sheer variety of different designer drugs on the market can also be a factor, as some may not be physiologically addictive at all, whilst some may be extremely addictive.

Designer drugs are often cut with harmful substances, which can vastly increase the risk of serious ill health effects. For example MPPP, a form of opoid designer drug, achieved notoriety when an impurity it contained was found to cause Parkinsonism after only a single use. Whilst this is an extreme example, it serves to illustrate the importance of consulting with medical professionals to attempt to limit the possible damage that designer drugs may have done to the body.

In many cases the withdrawal symptoms associated with designer drugs will be relatively similar to the drugs on which they are based, although they may be more or less acute depending on potency. If possible, it might be advisable to provide a sample of the drug to a doctor for the purposes of analysis, from which an effective course of treatment can be determined.

A doctor can also potentially prescribe medications to help with withdrawal symptoms such as sleeplessness and nausea.

Many users of designer drugs are under the misapprehension that they are not as dangerous or addictive as illegal drugs. There is no way of knowing this until it is too late, and reactions and tolerances may vary from person to person. In some cases a drug may not be physiologically addictive, in which case recovery may be simply down to willpower, while other drugs may require more extreme treatment. This could potentially involve hospital or detox facilities to deal with the more severe symptoms of withdrawal.

In many cases drug addiction may be symptomatic of underlying problems. A person who feels the need to alter their psychological state on a regular basis may be doing so to deal with problems they have experienced in their life. To that end, behavioural therapy and counselling may be appropriate. Failing to address such issues, which might include depression or even a bereavement, can result in an addict getting clean only to substitute one drug for a more powerful and more dangerous one in the future.