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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 10, 2023 (Originally Published)

March 14, 2024 (Last Updated)

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What are designer drugs, exactly? 

Well, these substances have been chemically altered in illegal labs to imitate the effects of other illicit drugs, but sometimes with new and even more powerful effects. Designer drugs impact both the body and mind, and they are entirely unregulated. Luckily, there are addiction treatment programs like Renaissance Recovery’s California and Florida rehabs as well as our sober living homes to help you or a loved one conquer whatever substance abuse problem you are dealing with.

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Designer drugs are also commonly known as synthetic drugs due to the way they are created in labs, or club drugs because of their routine recreational use in nightclubs. 

According to the 2014 Global Drugs Survey, roughly 20% of respondents from the US reported using some form of synthetic drugs in the previous year. The problem with designer drugs is almost as bad elsewhere in the world, with up to 1 in 10 people using synthetic drugs

Today, we’ll highlight the main types of designer drugs, and we’ll break down what these complex lab-altered substances do into plain English.

Designer Drugs Definition

According to Merriam Webster, a designer drug is a synthetic variant of a controlled substance produced with an altered molecular structure to evade classification as an illicit drug. 

The umbrella term designer drug is used to describe a wide range of substances. While many of these substances induce markedly different effects, synthetic drugs also tend to share some common characteristics. These include: 

  • Lack of consistency between batches
  • No hard scientific data concerning health risks and safety profile
  • Misleading or unclear labeling information
  • Continuously changing the molecular structure to avoid legal issues

Now you have an overview of what designer drugs are, we’ll outline

Different Types of Designer Drugs

There are seven different types of designer drugs according to the DEA

  1. Cannabinoids
  2. Tryptamines
  3. Piperazines
  4. Phenethylamines
  5. Phencyclidines / arylcyclohexylamines
  6. N-ring systems
  7. Pipradrols

Most of these classes of drugs are named for their chemical structure, so it’s understandable they are not especially easy to pronounce. When it comes to street names for designer drugs, these change continually, and they also vary significantly from region to region. 

The primary reason that people use designer drugs is to escape any legal consequences for using drugs. They are often called legal highs for this very reason.

Effects of Designer Drugs

The effects of designer drugs vary from substance to substance, and also from batch to batch. 

We’ll now highlight three of the most common classes of designer drugs: 

  1. Synthetic cannabinoids
  2. Synthetic cathinones
  3. Synthetic hallucinogens

Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are lab-created substances intended to mimic the high triggered by smoking or ingesting marijuana. 

Often called Spice, this substance is available in two main forms: 

  1. Liquid for use in vaporizers
  2. Sprayed onto dried plant matter for smoking

With myriad synthetic cannabinoids, and with no clinical data available concerning these substances, it is rough to predict either the short-term or long-term effects of Spice abuse. 

Beyond this, many substances in this class disclose no recommended dosage, and no chemical ingredients either, unlike regulated marijuana products on sale in a dispensary. 

Data shows that many of the effects induced by synthetic cannabinoids are similar to those of marijuana, including: 

  • Relaxation
  • Euphoric high
  • Red eyes

Beyond these shared effects, synthetic cannabinoids also bring about some specific and potentially dangerous side effects. The following side effects are responsible for most ER visits related to synthetic marijuana: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme agitation
  • Acute anxiety
  • Increased blood pressure

In the absence of clinical data related to synthetic cannabinoids, and their relatively recent appearance on the market, it’s hard to establish the long-term effects of abuse. Only time will tell. That said, there are reports of the following adverse side effects from Spice

  • Acute kidney injury
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Heart attack

Effects of Synthetic Cathinones

Synthetic cathinones are commonly known as bath salts. 

This class of synthetic drug is designed to replicate the effects of illicit psychostimulants like cocaine, meth, and Molly. 

Synthetic cathinones are derived from a stimulant found in the khat plant, and these are now some of the most popular legal highs. These drugs are sold online, in convenience stores, and in head stores. The altered chemical structures of these substances mean they can be sold legally. 

Available in powder or crystalline form, users snort, eat, or inject these substances. 

Some of the more common chemical names for this drug include: 

  • Mephedrone
  • Methylone
  • MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone)

Law enforcement agencies have identified more than 50 different synthetic cathinones.

While the effects of this substance will vary depending on the type of psychostimulant it is mimicking, users seek the following effects

  • Euphoric high
  • Increased alertness
  • Higher sex drive
  • More empathy

You can expect similar adverse effects to those of the most frequently abused stimulants from synthetic cathinones. These include: 

  • Dilated pupils
  • Clenched jaw
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sweating
  • Increased body temperature
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Aggression
  • Agitation
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety

Fortunately, most of the above effects are mild and dissipate within hours of taking the drug. 

Some of the more dangerous and possibly deadly side effects of synthetic cathinones include: 

  • Liver failure
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Long-term cognitive impairment
  • Heart attack

Effects of Synthetic Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are also known as psychedelics. This class of drug changes the way you perceive the environment around you. 

Psychedelics distort the physical sensations of touch, sight, and sounds. These drugs can also interfere with: 

  • Perception of time
  • Notion of self
  • Rational thought

There are three primary sub-classifications of hallucinogens:

  1. LSD
  2. Mescaline
  3. Psilocybin

The first hallucinogens were derived from fungi, plants, and their extracts. Psilocybin, for instance, is found in more than 200 species of mushrooms. Mescaline comes from the peyote cactus. 

LSD was originally synthesized in 1938 and entered the frame as the first manmade psychedelic. 

Most designer hallucinogens echo the effects of conventional psychedelics. These include: 

  • Euphoria
  • Introspection
  • Distortion of time
  • More empathy
  • Euphoria
  • Accelerated thoughts
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart rate

Despite a lack of experimental data, some of the following side effects are associated with synthetic hallucinogens: 

  • Kidney failure
  • Psychosis
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Seizures
  • Death

Overcoming Designer Drug Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Now for the good news. If you’re addicted to designer drugs, we can help you to get back on track here at Renaissance Recovery

By taking advantage of our evidence-based outpatient treatment programs, you can create a robust foundation for sustained recovery. 

Depending on the scope and severity of your addiction, you may find an IOP (intensive outpatient program) or a PHP (partial hospitalization program) provides you even more support and structure, but without the restrictions or the cost of residential rehab. 

You’ll have access to all of the following services: 

  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Psychotherapy like CBT or DBT
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Holistic therapies
  • Vocational development

Once you finish your treatment program, we ensure you have the right level of aftercare in place, possibly stepping down to a lower level of care. 

To get started, just reach out to admissions today at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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