The Early Days of Designer Drugs
Designer drugs made their debut back in the 1990s. They’re more appropriately described as synthetic drugs. While chemically similar to actual drugs, the formulations have been changed just enough to escape regulation by the DEA. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the agency tasked with regulating the use of controlled substances, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs with a potential for abuse under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Most parents have seen news reports of wild, zombie-like from people who have ingested bath salts. Others may have seen or heard kids talking about “molly,” another popular designer drug in the rave crowd. The videos and news reports show some of the extreme reactions some people have from using these substances. There are some people who are simply willing to ingest or inhale anything a friend puts in front of them. Of course, some might suggest that parents need to take a more active role in teaching their children. Some parents suggest that with access to social media, it’s hard for them to police their own kids. The irony of course is that modern technology makes it easier than ever to monitor a child or teen’s every move and every social media interaction. Preventative action and discipline is needed more than ever before because the drugs are becoming increasingly dangerous. Back in the 1990s, it was harder for young people to get their hands on these substances. Designer Drugs from the 1990s to the 2000s included a range of complex, clever and dangerous substances and they grew in popularity rapidly. Illegal drugs fall under a number of regulations and laws that prevent their sale, distribution, and consumption, but makers of designer drugs exploit every available loophole. The DEA classifies drugs into a structure called “schedules,”which are based on potential for abuse or dependency. Designer drug producers get around this because they know that in order for such substances (that are intended for human use) to meet the criteria for criminal prosecution, they must be proven as structurally or pharmacologically similar to an already-known dangerous, scheduled substance. Makers of designer drugs know that if they’re every pressed on the issue, they can simply switch the formula a bit and start the review process all over. Sometimes, designer drugs are marketed as herbal substances and as such, are not regulated by the law. In most cases there is no oversight of the involved manufacturing processes. Two examples are bath salts and spice, as they are commonly known on the grey market and both of which are infamous for their effects on people. There’s more than enough evidence to prove that designer drugs are more potent and dangerous than their street drug counterparts. Bath salts and spice are popular because of their cocaine- or marijuana-like effects. Both ahve documented cases of fatalities. People who abuse designer synthetic drugs have suffered a number of negative health outcomes that include anxiety, seizures, hallucinations, loss of consciousness, and significant organ damage. The recent growth in the use of synthetic hallucinogens or stimulants is due to their ability to emulate the effects of cocaine, LSD, MDMA, or methamphetamines. As noted earlier, designer synthetic drugs are often found to be far more potent –– and more deadly –– than their street drug counterparts. In one case, one of the chemical derivatives in a particular designer drug was found to be 50 times stronger than cocaine. As you can imagine, this can be deadly in the healthiest person. Making them more dangerous is the fact that they are easily accessible in retail outlets and online, which has made them especially popular among adolescents. This has led to increasing numbers of designer drug–related E.R. visits. Historically, there have been a number of examples of designer drugs. Some of the earliest forms of designer drugs were derivatives of opium. For example, heroin was a chemically modified version of the morphine alkaloid extracted from the opium poppy. Back then, lawmakers struggled to find a way to control the widespread use of these early synthetics. In the U.S., taxes were first levied in an attempt to curb opium use prior to the drug being proclaimed illegal by the federal government. Years later, the Controlled Substance Act was a way to consolidate several laws meant to control a number of these illicit drugs, providing a mechanism for substances to be added, removed, or transferred from one category to another. However, designer drugs have continued to evolve over the years, as their manufacturers strive to stay ahead of the enforcement agencies.
The Evolution of Designer Drugs
With the increasingly ubiquitous internet and other instant methods of communication, designer drugs have expanded beyond opioids, hallucinogens, and steroids since the 2000s. How they’ve evolved from 2010 to the present is an interesting study in the evils of marketing. The biggest concern with these designer drugs is unchanged: since they have not been reviewed and approved for human consumption or medical use, their long-term effects are unknown, yet we know the side effects can be dangerous. Going back to around 2009, law enforcement has documented at least 95 different synthetic cannabinoids being labeled and sold as legal alternatives to marijuana. As you can imagine, they’re not legal. Project Synergy conducted an operation in 2012 through 35 states to target designer drug trafficking organizations. That operation uncovered many cathinone (stimulants/hallucinogens) drugs, cannabinoid drugs, and other substances and plant materials that were concerning. Funding to study the effects of these substances is hard to come by as the applicable agencies have to use their resources to study other things. This leaves the DEA to handle the research in order to prove toxicity or compliance with laws and regulations and they simply don’t have the resources to do so. Meanwhile, the market has evolved. Today, we’re seeing these designer drugs soar in popularity:
- “Spice” (a form of synthetic marijuana)
- Ecstasy (“Molly”—synthetic psychoactive drug similar to amphetamines and mescaline and popular at parties and raves)
- Bath salts (often contains one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone)
- Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) (another one of the many chemicals typically found in bath salts)
- Mephedrone (also found in bath salts)
- Methylone (again, also found in bath salts)
- 2C family (part of the synthetic hallucinogens family)
- Krokodil (a cheapere heroin substitute; much like heroin, it too is a synthetic morphine derivative)
Seeking Addiction Treatment
Designer drugs, while a few may be technically in a legal grey area, still pose a dangerous and deadly threat. Just like any form of addiction treatment, treatment for abuse of designer drugs mirror the tactics of other Intensive Outpatient or outpatient treatment. Getting clean starts with a medically supervised rehab or detox program, following by clinical support in IOP or OP treatment centers. Professional supervision by experienced clinicians is especially important in treating designer drug addiction since the unknown variations in the drugs themselves may create unanticipated withdrawal effects. Having seasoned addictions medical and mental health professionals present can reduce the chances of further complications.Following this up is the sober living process, whereby recovering addicts can learn the life skills necessary to promote a sober lifestyle. It’s all part of the process of recovery which works through addiction using the proven steps of detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, and long-term follow-up care to both get clean and learn how to prevent relapse.
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