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Written by: Hongkai Wang

In the world of fashion, the word designer carries a sense of prestige and pride. But in the world of big pharma, the idea of designer drugs can have a highly negative connotation, and this family of narcotics is shaping to be the next public health crisis in the United States.

What Are Designer Drugs?

Designer drug is the umbrella term used to categorize synthetic molecules that mimic the structure of existing psychoactive compounds. Like conventional narcotics, designer drugs function by inducing specific reactions in the brain and tricking it into delirium states. Many designer drugs function through the same pathway as the molecules that they were imitating. However, the similarities between designer and conventional drugs end with their structures. Conventional psychoactive compounds like cocaine and opium are natural products, and drug production relies on extracting them from specific plants. On the other hand, designer drugs are fully synthesized in underground laboratories and usually only require crude chemical materials. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), most designer drugs are manufactured in East Asia and imported into North America through various illegal channels. However, due to the low entry barrier of designer drug synthesis, domestic production in the United States is also possible. 

Even though the name “designer drug” was only popularized in the past decade, the consumption of recreational synthetic chemicals has been a significant issue for a long time. MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, is one of the earliest synthetic drugs created. Ecstasy was widely associated with the 80s’ glamorous dance parties and the free spirit of the hippies. Like their predecessors, modern-day designer drugs are staples of nightclubs and rave festivals. People take these drugs to get “high” and receive “novel” experiences. At these events, designer drugs are used in tandem with other chemicals to give the users a sense of control over their drug experience. For example, a combination of ecstasy and valium can allow users to get high and calm down at their own pace. This seemingly controlled and tailored psychoactive experience has attracted many adventure seekers. The growing popularity of synthetic narcotics can even be illustrated by designer drugs’ impact on the environment. In a recent study, traces of different designer drugs were discovered in wastewater throughout Australia. Previously, some of these chemicals were notorious for difficult detection in wastewater, and their detected presence can only attest to the rapidly growing popularity of synthetic drugs worldwide. 

The Dangers of Designer Drugs

Hiding behind the veil of pleasure and their “fun” names, designer drugs can have severe consequences for users. In human toxicology, designer drugs can be considered the chemical equivalents of conventional narcotics. They often have comparable addictive properties and adverse effects on the central nervous system to conventional narcotics. Long-term exposure or high dosage of these chemicals can inevitably lead to violent behaviors, tachycardia, psychosis, and even death. Additionally, synthetic drugs’ clandestine production lacks quality control, and each batch of products could contain contaminations and disparate concentrations. The unpredictability of these compounds dramatically increases the potential of a drug overdose and exacerbates the damage to drug users. Designer drugs are particularly hazardous to youth due to marketing techniques employed by drug dealers. 

Sellers and distributors frequently label designer drugs as natural products and safe to consume; susceptible teenagers without much knowledge of drug abuse could easily buy into this false rhetoric. Furthermore, dealers often package their products in bright and playful wrappers, and some even infuse fruity flavors to their products to attract young users. These predatory promotional tactics are explicitly created to exploit teenagers as the market for designer drugs. A study conducted in 2012 found that 11% of US high school seniors have used synthetic marijuana, aka “spice,” in the past year. Around 11,000 teenagers were admitted to the emergency room due to the use of “spice” alone. Designer drugs pose a serious threat to the well-being of the future generation, and measures must be taken immediately to stop its growth. 

How Can We Combat Designer Drug Usage?

Regulation and control of design drugs face some serious obstacles. Firstly, designer drugs include a wide variety of chemicals which existing drug tests cannot detect. Identifying these substances requires specialized laboratory equipment, and even then, some compounds can remain undetected. Secondly, designer drugs are distributed through camouflaged channels. These compounds can be marketed as natural extracts, potpourri, incense, or even animal foods; combined with online sales models, the distribution of designer drugs can be very elusive. Lastly, legislation on designer drugs generally lags behind the development of new compounds. The family of designer drugs is a dynamic one. Driven by immense profit, clandestine drug labs are continually rolling out different variants of narcotic compounds. These newly-born designer drugs are modified just enough to avoid being classified as controlled narcotic substances. In the past, the sales of these compounds would continue under the gray areas of the law until legislation finally catches up. “Bath salt” was firstly popularized in the 90s, and it was only in 2012 that the DEA was able to pass the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act when it formally banned the families of synthetic drugs that include “Bath Salt” and “spice.”

At this point, all hopes of containing designer drugs might seem to be lost, and a constant game of “whack-a-mole” might be the only solution. However, a new methodology in drug detection might prove to be the turning point of the battle. The Gerona laboratory at the University of San Francisco has proposed establishing a library of known synthetic narcotics to enable rapid analysis of new drug molecules. The laboratory is enriching its library by synthesizing potential variations of known compounds. This way, it is possible to stay one step ahead of the underground laboratories and provide a near-instantaneous identification of unknown samples. The Gerona lab is working directly with the DEA and Homeland security to expose illegal synthetic substances’ sales. Faster identification of new drugs can also better inform legislators and expedite necessary response measures. 

Steps can also be taken on a community level to aid the battle against designer drugs. A major allure of designer drugs is a sense of mystery and adventure. By relaying information of their true nature to communities nationwide, we can remove the guise on these drugs and show the world what they are: insidious chemicals that ruin lives under the promise of instantaneous gratification.