What Are Designer Drugs?

A designer drug is a synthetic substance that is sold mostly illegally as a way to get high. Bath salts, synthetic marijuana, and synthetic hallucinogens are examples of designer drugs. They are not the same as the drugs they are supposed to mimic and are much more variable, unpredictable, and dangerous. It is important for anyone who uses these drugs to stop, and for those who cannot stop to get help before the adverse effects cause real and lasting damage.

Designer drugs are synthetic, man-made substances that people use to get high. Most are illegal, but some fall through the legal loopholes.

The ingredients and potency in products like synthetic marijuana, bath salts, and others are impossible to know and result in dangerous, unpredictable effects on those who use them. Any use of a designer drug is risky and potentially life-threatening.

Designer Drugs are Synthetic Drugs


The term “designer drugs” refers to substances that are synthetic, or made in a laboratory. They are created to be sold illicitly for people who want to get high, often mimicking natural substances and drugs. For instance, synthetic marijuana products like K2 or Spice are created in labs based on the structure of natural cannabinoids, the compounds found in marijuana.

These drugs are designed in a laboratory, but to say that they are the same or even similar to their natural counterparts is misleading. They are often very different and can cause a wide range of effects and adverse reactions. Because they are illicit, unregulated substances, and because they often change chemically from one product to another with the same name, designer drugs and how they will affect a user are highly unpredictable.


Designer drugs are also sometimes referred to as legal highs. Often, the substances created to make these products are new and not yet specifically listed as illegal. The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 was signed into law by President Obama and made it illegal to make or sell any synthetic substance that mimics cannabinoids and also lists several synthetic hallucinogens.

The law helped to outlaw many designer drugs, but it still leaves the door open for the laboratories that make these products to tweak the compounds and produce something that is not technically illegal. This can make designer drugs particularly harmful because people, especially teens and young adults, may falsely believe that something legal must be safe to use.

Types of Designer Drugs


According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), designer drugs are also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS) and are considered to be schedule I controlled substances. This is the highest placement on the schedule and refers to compounds that have no medical or industrial use. The DEA states that there are at least 300 known designer drugs, each belonging to one of three types of NPSs:

  • Synthetic cannabinoids. These are designer drugs that are supposed to mimic the natural compounds in the cannabis plant, also known as marijuana. There are many different street names for these products, including Spice, K2, Bliss, and Scooby Snax. They can cause a range of adverse effects, including anxiety, violent behaviors, seizures, hallucinations, and paranoia.
  • Synthetic cathinones. Cathinone is a natural substance found in plant called khat. Designer drugs that are supposed to mimic this substance are stimulants, similar to cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine. The most common street name for these drugs is bath salts. Potential adverse effects of bath salts include paranoia, hallucinations, seizures, chest pains, suicidal thoughts, and violent outbursts.
  • Synthetic phenethylamines. Phenethylamines made in a laboratory are designed to mimic hallucinogenic drugs. N-bomb and smiles are two of the street names for them and they can be found as liquids, powders, and papers soaked in the liquid solution. These designer drugs may cause seizures, heart attack, and respiratory failure.

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Dangers of Designer Drugs


Designer and synthetic drugs are dangerous for several reasons. One is that they are unpredictable. It is impossible for the user to know what exactly is in one of these products or how it will affect them. The actual compounds can vary as can the amount. There may even be contaminants, as was recently the case in hundreds of samples of synthetic marijuana, as dangerous as rat poison. Some of the potential effects these drugs have been reported to cause include:

  • Psychosis, including paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Violent and aggressive behaviors
  • Muscle tensions and spasms
  • Increased heart rate and chest pains
  • Addiction
  • Kidney failure
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Death

Any use of designer drugs, even just one time, is risky. Some people become addicted to these substances, and they are at an increased risk of adverse effects. It is possible to get help, though. Residential addiction treatment centers can help anyone to stop using these harmful drugs and learn to make more positive choices and lifestyle changes.