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Drugs & Health Blog

Real Teens Ask: What Are Designer Drugs?

Sara Bellum

Questions about drugs? Lots of teens are asking. That’s why each year, NIDA scientists spend a day chatting online with high school students and answering their questions.

At the last Drug Facts Chat Day, “Boxy” from St. Henry District High School in Kentucky asked:

What are designer drugs?

The term “designer drugs” refers to drugs that are created in a laboratory (typically, an “underground,” or secret, illegal lab). A designer drug is created by changing the properties of a drug that comes from a plant—such as cocaine, morphine, or marijuana—using the tools of chemistry. The resulting “designer” drugs typically have a new, different effect on the brain or behavior.

Examples of Designer Drugs

MDMA (Ecstasy), ketamine, GHB, Rohypnol, LSD (acid), and methamphetamine are some examples of designer drugs. These drugs may also be referred to as “club drugs” because of their use in night clubs.

Since many designer drugs are created in illegal labs, their ingredients and potency (how strong they are) vary a lot, making it nearly impossible to know what is actually in them or what they can do to you. For example, Ecstasy tablets are often contaminated with other things, like ephedrine (used to treat allergies and asthma), ketamine (an injected anesthetic given for minor surgeries), and methamphetamine (another illicit drug).

It is not surprising that these unknown mixtures can cause dangerous side effects, such as seizures, memory loss, coma and even death.

Find out more about club drugs.


I have to disagree greatly with your definition of "designer drugs".

I thought a designer drug was one made synthetically in order to get around existing prohibitionist laws to be technically legal whilst having a similar effect as an illegal one. The definition you give hear seems to just apply to all semi-synthetic drugs, but not completely synthetic ones. You say "A designer drug is created by changing the properties of a drug that comes from a plant", but list Ketamine as an example. Maybe it's just me, but I don't know of that chemical having any plant origins. Also, makes it fuzzy exactly where PCP would fit into the definition, since that's also fully synthetic as far as I know.

I wouldn't consider heroin to be a designer drug (and you don't list it as an example), even though it's a semi-synthetic made from morphine (opium poppy); yet LSD is on your list as a designer drug, though that's just as semi-synthetic as heroin is, being made from ergotamine (ergot fungus).

And then JWH-class cannabinoids (and others found in Spice and K2) wouldn't necessarily count as designer drugs either, unless they were synthesized directly from illegal natural cannabinoids found in cannabis.

Methamphetamine meanwhile, actually does occur naturally in certain species of Acacia trees... though in such a low concentration that it's not exactly economical for users to extract it; cheaper to make synthetically.

So the definition of designer drugs here just doesn't appear to be consistent at all. I'd say true designer drugs are those made to get around laws; even if they end up becoming illegal themselves, they were made for that intent.

Ultimately, I think they're far more dangerous than the existing prohibited drugs, since at least we know the effects of most of the prohibited drugs, but people will try DDs and Research Chemicals without knowing the potentially far more dangerous effects, simply because they're legal. The drug chemists will always be a few steps ahead of the law, and if Dr. Alexander Sasha Shulgin is right about us only having discovered 1% of all possible psychoactive substances that could be manufactured, it's going to be a very long and costly battle. "Spice" kills far more than cannabis; "bath salts" kill far more than cocaine or methamphetamine, and "krokodil" kills far more than heroin, per capita users. Once those are all banned, the next generation to come out could be even worse. Since their legal status is their primary attractive feature that gives those new drugs their amplified demand, we should consider legalizing the devils we know and level the playing field, as people will choose the lesser-toxic substances over the more-deadly ones when all things are equal. It's hard enough educating people about the risks of them as it is; no need to have laws promoting the creation of new drugs that we'd need to wait for a body count for before we could demonstrate their toxicity.

You make some very good points. An important one is that designer drugs are frequently much more dangerous than other drugs. This is primarily because there is no way of knowing how the designer drug was made, and new versions are constantly popping up, making medical emergencies especially hard to treat. As far as the definition goes, agreed. NIDA will revisit that definition for inconsistencies. Thank you for your well thought out comments.

this person doesnt know what they are talking about meth and lsd and ecstasy are not designer drugs, designer drugs are drugs made to avoid current drug laws, and so the drugs listed here are all illegal, for example Spice, which is a synthetic cannabinoid is a designer drug because there is no law towards it and you can easily buy it nowadays

how are designer drugs used is my question! that's why i came on this website. im not trying to be mean. i'm just saying. i have a project coming up about designer drugs and i wana get a head start.

Drugs are bad mmmmkay

I have tried myself 2 dozens of illegal drugs, I am 39 I have noticed the most dangerous: cigarettes, alcohol and acetophenon/Tylenol
DON'T DO DRUGS. what person would even try drugs? they are risking their lives. drugs are horrible.
wht evs
xD I find some of this funny while im faded xD
I'm not sure many people on here are above the age of 13.


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