Designer Drugs

What is a Designer Drug?

A Sampling of Designer Drugs Now Available | La Hacienda

A designer drug (or synthetic drug) is made by copying or changing parts of existing controlled substances to produce a drug with very different chemical structures that mimics the pharmacological effects of the original drugs. They are created in clandestine labs to simulate the effects of substances such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), amphetamines, ecstasy, ketamine, marijuana, and other drugs.

Many designer drugs are produced in unlicensed laboratories that attempt to alter the chemical structure of a controlled substances to create a similar drug that is not controlled. Unlike other drugs. made legally, many designer drugs are produced unregulated labs. One batch may turn out markedly different from another in content and effect.

The user has little guarantee about which he or she is taking. They think they are not buying illicit drugs because they were created from controlled substances. For some, especially younger ones who refer to them as “legal highs,” the uncertainty about designer drugs’ legal status is a part of the attraction.

Because of their use at bars, night clubs and concerts, they are sometime referred to as “club drugs.”

There are three categories of synthetic drugs: cannabinoids, cathinones and opioids.

'Not for Human Consumption' Label is a Ruse

To further cloud the legal status of designer drugs, they are sometimes labeled as “herbal incense” or “not for human consumption.” They are, of course, not natural incense and are intended to be consumed by humans.

There is also concern about adolescent drug use and attraction to designer drugs. Colorful packaging, clever naming, and the fact they are sold without age limits makes them alluring to teen drug users who are more prone to experiment with drugs.

Are Designer Drugs the Same as Synthetic Drugs?

Yes, designer drugs are another name for synthetic drugs.

Do Designer Drugs Have Side Effects?

Yes, like most drugs, designer drug use comes with potential side effects.

  • Euphoric feeling or “high”

  • Increased libido

  • Heightened sense of openness or empathy

  • Raised levels of alertness and energy

The possible negative side effects of designer drugs include:

  • Increased body temperature and sweating

  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  • Reduced appetite

  • Jaw clenching

  • Agitation and aggression

  • Dilated pupils; sensitivity to light

  • Rapid heartbeat

When Did the First Designer Drugs Appear?

The second International Opium Convention in 1925 banned the traditional illicit drugs heroin and its more powerful synthetic byproduct morphine, sparking the clandestine creation and sale of esters from morphine. In response, the Health Committee of the League of Nations sought to bring under legal control all esters of morphine, oxycodone, and hydromorphone.

The back and forth of authorities illegalizing one drug then having covert makers create new ones that were not controlled, continued through the 20th century.

A number of new designer drugs were introduced in the 1960s, and modern use of the term “designer drug” started in the 1980s in reference to synthetic opioid drugs, most based on fentanyl.

Use of the Internet to market designer drugs caused a boom in sales in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

What Makes Them Popular?

People in a Nightclub | La Hacienda

The rise in popularity for designer drugs is partially due to increased sales efforts on the illicit market, the fact that there are no legal consequences if you use them, and a that a drug test must be developed for each new drug.

To their credit, drug test manufacturers have become much more vigilant in trying to keep pace with the proliferation of new synthetic substances.

On a negative note, their popularity may explain why although doctors have prescribed 44 percent fewer opioids over the past decade, fatal and nonfatal drug overdoses have continued to increase.

What is US Drug Policy About Designer Drugs?

The U.S. Government passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act (SDAPA) in 2012, classifying a number of synthetic substances under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act and placing them in the most restrictive controlled substances category.

Cannabimimetic agents, including 15 named synthetic cannabinoid compounds, two synthetic cathinone compounds (mephedrone and MDPV), and nine synthetic hallucinogens known as the 2C family, were also restricted. Methylome and ten synthetic cathinones that were subject to temporary control were permanently controlled by DEA through the administrative process. Another synthetic cathinone, N-ethylbentylone, was temporarily controlled in 2018.

Other synthetic cathinones may be subject to prosecution under the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act which allows these dangerous substances to be treated as Schedule I substances under certain criteria.

Challenge for US Drug Enforcement Administration

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is the federal agency responsible for implementing the Controlled Substances Act and suppressing illegal drug use and distribution.

Part of the difficulty the DEA and other agencies encounter is that the new drugs are not technically illegal until they can be identified, tested, and mapped. In the meantime, there are no drug tests with which to identify users.

The Three Categories of Designer Drugs

Because new knockoffs are constantly being secretly manufactured, it’s not possible to know all that are available. Some of the best known (for now) are identified below.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic Marijuana | La Hacienda

Synthetic cannabinoids mimic the euphoria caused by smoking or otherwise ingesting the marijuana (cannabis) plant. They are available in two primary forms:

  • A liquid form that is typically used in e-cigarettes or other types of vaporizers

  • Sprayed on dried plant material and smoked, it is called synthetic marijuana or synthetic cannabis

Unlike natural marijuana, due to its high potency synthetic cannabinoid use can cause serious side effects including extreme anxiety or irritation, high blood pressure, and nausea or vomiting.

Synthetic cannabinoids are also known by names under which they are sold, including:

  • Spice

  • Joker

  • K2

  • Kush

  • Kronic

  • Black Mamba

Health Effects

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Extreme anxiety and agitation

  • Increased blood pressure

Synthetic Cathinones (Stimulants)

Bath Salts | La Hacienda

As a group, synthetic stimulants try to reproduce the euphoria and hallucinations associated with cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine.

One of the most popular are bath salts, which really look like bath salts for soaking. They are often mislabeled to obscure their purpose, sometimes as plant food or jewelry cleaner. Most bath salts are similar to the cathinone found in the khat plant.

When they first appeared in the US about a decade ago, neither the manufacturing nor the possession of synthetic cathinones was illegal unless they were marketed for human consumption.

Synthetic cathinones are sold as substitutes for illicit psychostimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. Like synthetic cannabinoids and other common legal highs, synthetic cathinones are sold in convenience stores, online, and in head shops. 

The side effects of these new designer drugs include panic attacks, hallucinations, extreme agitation, paranoia, and dangerous behavior.

Street Names

Synthetic cathinones are also sold under dozens of brand names on the Internet. Common names are:

  • Vanilla Sky

  • Cloud Nine

  • Bath salts

  • Ivory Wave

  • Mephedrone—Meph

  • Meow-meow

  • M-Cat

  • MMC Hammer

  • Bubbles

  • PVP—Flakka

  • Gravel

Health Effects

  • Respiratory arrest

  • Heart attack

  • Long-term cognitive impairment

  • Liver failure

  • Suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviors

  • Acute kidney injury

Synthetic Opioids

Among the first drugs to be synthetically produced, synthetic opioids include morphine and the illicit drug heroin which were derived from opium, the original opiate made from the seeds of the poppy plant.

One the latest, and perhaps most infamous synthetic opioids is fentanyl. It is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and is often mixed into illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.

Unfortunately, synthetic opioids like fentanyl are the most common cause of overdose deaths in the United States.

Health effects

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • confusion
  • Troubled breathing
  • Unconsciousness

Designer Hallucinogens

Person Using Designer Hallucinogen | La Hacienda
Numerous designer hallucinogens are available under various names. Here are a few of them.

Ecstasy (MDMA)

Ecstasy is known for its stimulant and hallucinogenic affects. It is also referred to as “molly” but the chemical name for ecstasy is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It is a derivative of amphetamine. Ecstasy and methamphetamine (“meth”) have very similar chemical structures. 

It is known to impart feelings of pleasure, emotional warmth, increased energy, visual and auditory hallucinations, and distorted sensory and time perception.


Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It takes the form of an odorless, white, bitter-tasting crystal-like powder that can easily dissolve in alcohol or water.

Like amphetamine, methamphetamine may cause an increase in the drug users talkativeness and activity and talkativeness, a decrease in appetite, and a pleasurable sense of euphoria. Because of these effects, these are common drugs of abuse.


Rohypnol is a designer drug sold as a sleeping pill but is illegal in the United States. It is often used in date rapes because it can cause extreme drowsiness (or “blackouts”).

The negative effects of synthetic Rohypnol may include a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, drowsiness, memory loss, abdominal pain or an upset stomach. Though it is part of the depressant family of drugs, it causes some people to be overly aggressive or excited.


Ketamine got its start in Belgium in the 1960s as an anesthesia medicine for animals. The FDA approved it as an anesthetic for people in 1970.

This designer drug was used in treating injured soldiers in the Vietnam War. Unlike other anesthetics, ketamine does not slow breathing or heart rate, so patients don’t need to be on a ventilator.


Alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (Alpha-PVP and street name “Flakka”) is a synthetic cathinone. It is chemically similar to the designer drugs known as “Bath Salts.” These synthetic controlled substances mimic cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the khat plant.

Signs of use include violent behavior, hallucinations, paranoia, and self-injury.


U-47700, nicknamed “U4,” “pinky” or “pink,” is a highly potent synthetic opioid that looks like a light pink or white powder. Often, it is either pressed into pills to look like legal pain pills or sold in baggies. Abuse of this drug is similar to prescription and designer opioids and heroin.

GHB (Gamma hydroxybutyrate)

The depressant Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) has recently gained popularity among body builders and party attendees. It is one of several substances reported as being used as a “date rape” drug.


One of the more famous synthetic hallucinogens, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is extremely potent. First synthesized in 1938, it is made from lysergic acid, which is found in ergot, a fungus that can grow on rye or other types of grains.

Psychoactive drugs like LSD produce distorted visual perceptions, altered sounds, hallucinations, anxiety, rapid heart rate, and dilated pupils.

This and other novel psychoactive substances are popular due to the “trip” one experiences within 30-45 minutes after taking these recreational drugs.

Can you Be Addicted to Designer Drugs?

Yes, like other drugs, designer drug use may result in drug addiction or SUDs. Even if you do not become addicted to designer drugs, you may develop a substance use problem or become dependent on them.

Because designer drugs are made by people who are not considering drug laws, government oversight or quality control standards, the quality and strength of synthetic drugs are not constant.

Designer drugs can be as dangerous and addictive as abused prescription drugs. Like any other addiction, designer drug addictions are a medical issue that need proper addiction treatment.

People with any of the following may need to seek help:
  • A decline in work or school interest

  • Major changes in behavior, appearance or hygiene

  • Paranoia

  • Unexplained weight gain or loss

  • Loss of interest in hobbies or relationships

  • Poor sleep schedule

Helpful information about designer drugs and all drug addiction can be found on website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Addiction Treatment at La Hacienda

La Cacienda Campus | Prolonged Inpatient Treatment for Drug Alcohol Depend

For 50 years La Hacienda Treatment Center has been dedicated to serving the needs of individuals and their families in their journey to recovery from substance addiction. We help individuals become free from drugs and/or alcohol.

In addition to a dedicated and professional onsite staff of doctors, nurses and clinicians, we network with professionals in the treatment field to ensure successful recovery from substance addiction.

Our facility rests on 40 Hill Country acres situated on the North Fork of the Guadalupe River in Hunt, Texas, 90 miles from San Antonio and 120 miles from Austin. Deer and other wildlife abound in an unfettered, natural landscape that is both restful and healing.

Accredited by the Joint Commission, licensed by the State of Texas to provide addiction treatment, and selected by Aetna Insurance as an Institute of Quality®, La Hacienda Treatment Center also subscribes to the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers Code of Ethics.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a substance use disorder to synthetic drugs or other substances, please phone 800.749.6160 and let our admission specialists help you take the first step to a better tomorrow.

Ketamine | La Hacienda


This designer drug was used in treating injured soldiers in the Vietnam War. Unlike other anesthetics, ketamine does not slow breathing or heart rate, so patients don’t need to be on a ventilator.

MDMA (not recommended for cognitive behavioral therapy) | La Hacienda


Also called ecstasy, MDMA is a synthetic drug known for its stimulant and hallucinogenic affects.

LSD | La Hacienda


LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is an extremely potent hallucinogen that was first synthesized in 1938. These synthetic hallucinogens are made from lysergic acid, which is found in ergot, a fungus that can grow on rye or other types of grains.