What are Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs is an informal term for psychoactive drugs that were initially discovered through the research of, and experimentation upon, the structure and activity of existing psychoactive drugs. They are created in concealed locations and/or homemade labs.

A designer drug generally mimics the effects of well known drugs such as cocaine, morphine or cannabis, by using chemicals that are legally available on the market. The resulting drugs have similar effects to the well known drugs, but their chemical structures are completely different.

Types of Designer Drugs

Mephedrone (synthetic stimulant), spice (synthetic cannabinoid), foxy methoxy (synthetic hallucinogen) are some examples of designer drugs. Designer drugs are sold as innocent-sounding products, most commonly labeled as potpourri or incense, synthetic marijuana, bath salts, plant food or jewelry cleaner.

Because these drugs are labelled as “not for human consumption” they are often not subject to any of the legal regulations that apply to drugs – despite the fact that they are often significantly stronger and less well understood than their illicit counterparts.

In the UK, to avoid being controlled by the Medicines Act, designer drugs such as mephedrone have been described as “bath salts” or “plant food”, despite the compounds having no history of being used for these purposes.

Designer drugs are also known as club drugs, because they tend to be abused by teens and young adults at bars, nightclubs, concerts, and parties.

The three major categories of these drugs are:

  • Synthetic cannabinoids
  • Synthetic stimulants (often marketed as “bath salts” but mimicking cocaine, methamphetamines and Ecstasy) and:
  • Synthetic hallucinogens (mimicking LSD and Ecstasy).

The Effects of Designer Drugs

Depending upon the drug taken, a person may experience feelings of exhilaration, prolonged periods of wakefulness, decreased appetite, extreme relaxation, amnesia and feelings of detachment. Unwanted effects might include hallucinations, panic attacks, aggressive behaviour or feelings of paranoia. In addition, there may be physical effects like nausea, significant changes in blood pressure, seizures, slurred speech and blackouts. These drugs can even cause coma and death.

Signs of Abuse

In the case of designer drugs, many of the signs of abuse are similar to the signs of addiction to alcohol or street drugs:

  • Changes in behaviour: isolation from family; defensive about drug use
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Changes in hygiene or personal appearance
  • Confused or disoriented behaviour
  • Paranoia
  • Problems with sleeping: insomnia, restlessness, nightmares
  • Stealing money from family members
  • Decline in performance at school or work
  • Trouble maintaining relationships
  • Loss of interest in former friends and activities

Some of the signs that someone you know may be abusing designer drugs:

  • Discarded glass vials, or small plastic bags, with traces of white powder
  • Pipes, inhalers or syringes
  • Paranoid or delusional behaviour
  • Visual disturbances or hallucinations.

Health Risks

Uncertainties about the sources, chemicals, and possible contaminants used to manufacture many designer drugs make it extremely difficult to determine toxicity and associated medical consequences. Some drugs are mixed with alcohol and illicit drugs, worsening their side effects.

Use of designer drugs can decrease inhibitions and encourage risk-taking behaviour, increasing the chances that a teen will drive while intoxicated, have unsafe sex or suffer an accidental injury.

Many designer drugs can’t be detected through urinalysis or other screening methods, making it difficult to measure intoxication levels.

Designer drugs can produce some dangerous side effects:

  • Physical and psychological addiction
  • Mood changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Psychotic behaviour
  • Hyperthermia (overheating)
  • Seizures
  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatal respiratory problems
  • Coma and even death

Withdrawal symptoms

Since designer drugs are created in illegal labs, their ingredients and potency vary a lot, making it nearly impossible to know what is actually in them or what they can do to you. Some identified withdrawal symptoms are: insomnia, anxiety, tremors, and sweating, physical dependence and addiction.

A person who is withdrawing from designer drugs may experience depression, agitation, nausea and vomiting, tremors or cold sweats and other symptoms such as a rapid heart rate and high blood pressure.

Treatment at Castle Craig for Designer Drugs Addiction

There is very little information available in scientific/medical literature about treatment for people who abuse or are dependent upon designer drugs. Treating these is difficult because we don’t know what exactly the patient has taken, so the symptoms are usually treated. Fortunately we have a lot of experience of helping patients through the detoxification process at Castle Craig Hospital, and they are given 24/7 medical coverage and all the support they need.

As well as detox, psychological (“talking”) therapies are offered to patients at Castle Craig. The key is to help the person understand how the abuse got started, and what can be done in the future to keep the habits from returning (relapse prevention). Counseling plays a key role in this process, as do support group meetings.

Visit our treatment section to find out more information about drug rehabilitation at Castle Craig.