How Designer Drugs Are Unpredictable

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The term designer drugs became popular in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the "rave" and "club" scene that took off during those decades. The term "designer drugs" coincided with the rise in popularity of "designer" everything — from clothing to home decor to pharmaceuticals. But designer drugs were not named after designers, rather, they were "designed" to avoid legal safeguards by producing similar effects to those considered too dangerous to be legal.

Originally, the term was used to refer to drugs that were deliberately created to mimic older drugs of abuse, but with slightly modified chemical structure, in order to circumvent drug laws. These drugs were untested, were often made in uncontrolled clandestine laboratories and were extremely dangerous and unpredictable in their effects. The epidemic of meth and subsequent physical, psychological and social problems of the past decade grew out of the designer-drugs movement.

Recreational Drug Use and a New Interpretation

Over the past few decades, there has been a huge increase in recreational drug use at nightclubs and raves, particularly such designer drugs as ecstasy and amphetamines. Thus, the term "designer drugs" has increasingly become used as a term for "club drugs," which may or may not be designer drugs according to their original meaning. Specifically ecstasy, amphetamines, and hallucinogens, such as LSD, GHB, ketamine, Rohypnol (date rape drugs) and PCP, are commonly referred to as designer drugs.

Certain prescription medications that have predictable and, in some cases, desirable effects are often included in the designer drugs category, although they are not designer drugs by the original definition. Popular designer drug medications include tranquilizers and erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra, which is often used in conjunction with meth in the party and play sessions. Chemically similar synthetic versions of these drugs, which fit the original meaning of designer drugs, may also be used.

Designer drugs, along with more commonly known drugs such as cocaine and meth, have also been an important part of the gay club scene and the party-and-play scene, which has risen in popularity and caused great concern over the past few years. Party and play have been associated with deliberate, reckless and inadvertent HIV transmission when participants are under the influence of meth in particular.

The idea that drug users could control and modify their own mental state at will, for example, dancing for hours on ecstasy, then "coming down" with a tranquilizer such as Valium, appealed to many who felt empowered to "design" their own or someone else's mental state using drugs. Many felt it liberated them from traditional notions of drug users being powerless over their addiction.

The Reality of Designer Drugs

The reality of designer drugs is that they are often extremely unpredictable, both in chemical content and in effect.

Buying from a drug dealer gives no guarantee that you are receiving the drug you are requesting.

Many poisonings and overdoses have occurred as a result of poor judgment in the use of illegally acquired drugs and abuse of prescription medications.

Designer drugs create difficulties for treatment, particularly in the initial acute stages. Without knowing what is causing a person's intoxication, it is difficult to correctly administer appropriate medication. Many designer drugs are also addictive.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of designer drugs sold over the Internet, particularly synthetic versions of Viagra, marijuana and anabolic steroids. These synthetic versions of recognized drugs carry all the risks of the originals and more. And regardless of promises of "legal" highs, law enforcement agencies increasingly are cracking down on drugs marketed as recognized drugs, regardless of actual chemical content.

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  • Semple, S., Zians, J., Strathdee, S. & Patterson, T. "Sexual marathons and methamphetamine use among HIV-positive men who have sex with men." Arch Sex Behav 38:583–590. 2009.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.