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?"

Designed in Secret

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, RohypnolLSD (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.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


i love u

wohaaaaa drugs are bad

Well, let me tell you a story. I've been working my acorns off . Ever since high school I've had a full time job. I've raised 2 kids that have moved out on there own. Ive always preached to my kids to JUST SAY NO. I've recently been promoted to management .Now that my wife & I can go out with our adult friends we'll light up with the synthetic weed (ex.K2) because we cant jeopardize our jobs. The reason I told this story of my life is no matter what your parents say this your derision but life is hard enough without drugs live life sober first then if you decide to try stuff later you now what to expect.

@well ? You are right, life IS hard enough without drugs. Thank you for sharing your story. Maybe you also know that K2 can be very dangerous – especially since they don’t always disclose what’s in the product. And, due to a recent DEA ruling, it’s illegal. An interesting tidbit: On October 20, 2011, the Louisiana State University football program announced that it had suspended three players who tested positive for synthetic cannabis. Just saying.


Actually weed or THC is !00% safe there is no long term damage and a new study to break through shows it causes no cancerous residue in the lungs..

And as far as designer drugs they are amazing, Im 23 years old use drugs every day and i own my own business and am also in college, drive a 2009 dodge challenger and lease to own my own house with no financial help from anyone. so drugs gotta be so bad if i have accomplished this much alone

@CashMoneyBills Per your THC comment, we've said enough on this blog’s marijuana posts about marijuana and its risks--and we've also talked about the potential benefits of THC--marijuana's active ingredient--when it's used in ways other than smoked. Smoke is not good for lungs, period. To your "I use drugs every day and I'm ok" comment, you're only 23. You seem smart, too--why risk all you've accomplished?

Newest "legal" designer drug that parents need to be aware of is products with methadone. Smoke shops legally sell them in the US. Other countries have already banned them. Stores call them "incense", and they are labled: not for human consumption/use... but kids/people that buy them are buying them to get high... and they mimic the effects of cocaine, meth, and weed. Be aware and look for packages. Don't belive that just because they are still technically legal in the states, that it is safe. Many people have already died.

@azie There are two new classes of designer drugs – products frequently labeled “incense” which imitate marijuana and those frequently labeled “bath salts” that imitate stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Fortunately, the DEA has used its emergency powers to temporarily make both illegal while they conduct studies to determine if the ban should be made permanent. Methadone is probably not in any of these products, since it is a prescription medication intended to help people quit using heroin or morphine and manage withdrawal symptoms. You may be thinking of Mephedrone, 3,4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) or Methylone, synthetic stimulants that can be in “bath salts”. Of course, the labels rarely say what’s actually in the packages – but it’s a good bet that, whatever it is, it’s not good for you!

I just want to say that drugs do and will mess up your life!! I'm speaking from experience!!! It starts with pot and ends in heroin!! I had problems with meth, crack, heroin, pot, coke, alcohol,etc. I have numerous friends and family members that are dead, due to addiction!! I was lucky to wake up and find recovery, before it was too late for me!! I know it's not gonna change everyones mind on using drugs, but you should a least know that addiction does and can happen to anyone. The sad truth is once you find yourself in the throws of the disease, you will be lucky to find your way out!! The life I have now compared to the life I had only 50 days ago is like night and day!! I wouldn't go back to a druggie life for ALL the money in the world!! Just remember that you are not the only person that suffers when you become addicted to drugs, it's a very selfish disease it doesn't just hurt you it hurts your whole family! Think be for you jump into it!!

ACTUALLY designer drugs are like 2-CB, STP, MDEA or anything else that was designed by someone specifically looking for chemicals with psychoactive effects on the brain, like Alexander Shulgin who probably is the pioneer of designer drugs and known for popularizing MDMA because of its many positive effects. the bath salts and herbal mixtures COULD be considered designer drugs, but i dont know about that since i dont think any serious drug users take those too seriously.

"smoke is not good for lungs, period" are you sure? from what ive heard cannibis is a bronchiodilator meaning it expands the lungs potential to absorb oxygen, which parallels my own experience. one thing i have found for sure, is that nothing should ever be believed in too much, new information arrives constantly showing us where we were wrong about something we thought we knew so much about.

if you want the truth, you know where to get it. but it is good to study as much as possible before you go to the source, find others opinions and experiences, both positive and negative. watch out for propaganda!! and know what you are doing, there are things that are more powerful than you and can we say, if you get more truth than you are ready for, you will need a new diaper. [removed, per guidelines]

Bath salts definitely are designer drugs, as are the many “herbal mixtures” that have had chemicals added or have otherwise been altered to increase the psychoactive effect of the mixture. There really isn’t any data on whether or not “serious” drug users take these drugs “seriously” – but that’s not important. What is important is that these drugs can be just as dangerous as any other drug out there. Regarding your other comment – we agree that research continually provides us with new data, and, as our knowledge evolves, so do our views. In fact, NIDA’s mission is to support cutting edge research in the field of drug abuse and addiction and to interpret and disseminate these new research findings.

It is very interesting to me to hear all of these different opinions on these so-called designer drugs.

@NIDAminds, the only drugs mentioned in your snippet that is actually considered a designer drug by the DEA are MDMA and LSD.

There is a growing problem these days with abuse of drugs produced overseas, also known as Research Chemicals. These drugs are analogues of existing drugs and are designed to produce different effects and circumvent legal restrictions on their production and use. The drugs that I would personally like to see discussed here are the 2C family, which are phenethylamines analogues with methyl (Ch4) groups typically, as these are what are typically known as Research Chemicals or Designer Drugs on the streets. @yourmom was correct in his or her comment and I'd like to see something about that.

NIDAminds, please discourage "drug-bashing" on your forums. There are some people posting non-constructive comments as replies here; as far as I know, your organization is not an anti-drug organization, merely an administration giving facts about drug data to inform the general public of their effects and dangers. Testimonies about people's lives being ruined by cannabis and other drugs (or as some people spelled them "durgs") belong elsewhere, in my opinion. Thank you!

Sorry all, I must add my criticism. In my profession, I see the detrimental effects of ALL of these drugs. The sad reality is, the greatest population of our communities that suffer the most are the young females. In a typical population of drug addicts that, under the influence, have committed serious crimes, are 93% young females ages 18-23. These individuals are usually introduced to these drugs at much younger ages, spend most of their teen lives in a fog or institutionalized, and once of legal age of 18, end up incarcerated and experiencing detoxification from these drugs. Approximately 85% of them experience detrimental detoxification side-effects. 64% of them are pregnant and require the use of methadone administered medicinally to avoid miscarriage of their already addicted fetuses. What has the world come to? The concern is growing by leaps and bounds. For those of you that promote your "successes" while living the life of a user, your time will soon come. It's a sad truth, but true nonetheless. Marijuana was once the "in thing", and I must admit, I tried it just like the majority during my teen years, but reality (thankfully!!!) set in at a very early age, and I have had a very successful life. I continually instill these values in my teenagers: to never turn your back on friends that may experince addiction (offer support), but to be the role model that shows that you can have fun and live a long and prosperous life without recreation drug experience. It only takes one time to become an addict or die from experimentation. Why take the risk? I am truly blessed to have teenagers that are growing up in the midst of this type of society, and refrain fromthese experiences. No, I am not saying that we are perfect, as we are far from it, but experimenting drugs are not a part of normal life. Not ours and does not have to be a part of yours.

Theres no real answer in my opinion on how to describe these drugs. First off they all have different risks and considerations that need to be taken. It is entirely unfair to group them under one name "designer drugs" and say they'll give you amphetamine psychosis like mdpv and mephedrone. The psychedelic ones generally don't cause the same type and magnitude of problems, especially when treated with respect. It depends on the intelligence and self control of the user, but I also feel like everyone thinks they are using in moderation until things get out of control. Ultimately when you post information on drugs on the Internet there is no way to filter out the stupid readers from the smart readers, so I see the safe road as protecting the stupid ones. How to best do that, I don't know. Bluelight?

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.
I remember coming home to see my brother passed out on the couch with a pipe in his hand. He would wake up, smoke, pass out again. My brother never said a word for about a week. He has kicked his habit and now works and supports him and his girlfriend. He only smokes real marijuana now and maintains like a normal human. A few years ago I thought it was nothing to just try a designer drug. So I did. My first time I smoked synthetic marijuana I was rushed to the hospital. Throwing up, seizers, and screaming. These were all side affects of the fake weed I smoked. I even tried it a couple more times after that. Effects were not as bad as the first but still horrible. I only now smoke on rare occasions with my brother (real marijuana). It relaxes me and I love it.
What is LSD and some of its side affects

Hi Pan,

LSD (or acid) is a drug that causes hallucinations—which means you may hear, see, or feel something that appears to be real but is created by your mind.  It has unpredictable psychological effects. People can experience delusions and visual hallucinations that can be frightening. In fact, "bad trips" can include terrifying thoughts and nightmarish feelings of anxiety and despair that include fears of insanity, death, or losing control.  Once the experience is over, LSD users can experience flashbacks suddenly and without warning for up to a year after use.  

what do they look like

Designer drugs can come in all different forms, such as pills, powders, and crystals.  

I understand that some teens feel like doing drugs is the only way out wether they came from a bad home or something bad happened to them. But doing drugs is never the way to go I am 13 and I already know people in my classes and some of my best friends have started using drugs and doing diffrent things but they think that one bad thing happens and there hole life is gone or they were getting preshured to do drugs and diffrent things but it dose not matter everyone has the chose to say no.I know people who knows someone who does drugs and they think that what ever I am only going to do it one time and that is it. But it never stops there. just because you are going through a lot dose not EVER EVER mean that you should do drugs because what the don't know it will hurt them. Sometimes things get hard and you feel like you have nothing to do just don't give up. I know people who did drugs and things and they told me that was to worst thing that they have ever done. So no matter how hard life can be God has a plain for everyone.
what is the tolerance of designer drugs?

Most drugs cause the brain to release dopamine, a chemical that makes a person feel good. When a person uses drugs often, the brain starts making less dopamine, so a person has to use more of the drugs to get that same good feeling. When that happens, we say they have "built up a tolerance" to the drugs. You can read more here, in the section "How do drugs affect your brain?" http://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/brain-and-addiction

You should put in what happens when taking these drugs

Thank you for your suggestion! We'll consider this idea for future blogs. In the mean time, check out our Drug Facts pages for more information on what different drugs can do your body.


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.