designer drug

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

designer drug

designer drug, chemical substance synthesized in a laboratory that is intended to have effects similar to those of a drug that is a controlled substance, such as methamphetamine, marijuana, LSD, or an anabolic steroid, but not be illegal or detectable by drug tests as a result of differences in its chemical composition. Designer drugs are typically produced by chemical laboratories that intentionally modify the molecular structure of known controlled substances in order to circumvent the law, but producers of such drugs also search through the scientific literature to identify reports of potentially useful compounds. Other designer drugs are not chemically similar to a controlled substance but nonetheless produce similar effects. Designer drugs are typically produced by trained chemists in professional-quality laboratory and manufacturing facilities, are usually transported using major international delivery services, and may be sold via a website, in legal establishments under variety of names, or illicitly. Such drugs are often more dangerous than the controlled substances they are intended to replace; creators of such drugs may modify the molecular structure of the compounds they produce in order to increase the potency and addictiveness of the resulting drug. Because toxicology tests are not designed to recognize an unknown substance that has chemical differences from controlled substances, it can be difficult to identify a drug and appropriately treat a patient for an overdose. Designer drugs are often misleadingly identified and packaged as research chemicals, bath salts, or plant food, and specifically labeled as not for human consumption, in an attempt to circumvent drug laws.

Although a number of synthetic drugs with psychoactive properties similar to controlled substances were produced earlier in the 20th cent., designer drugs became significantly more common in the 1980s. Early designer drugs were based on PCP, fentanyl, meperidine, and amphetamine and methamphetamine. MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), also known as ecstacy or molly, which has properties similar amphetamine and mescaline, was a designer drug that became prominent in the 1980s, though its synthesis occurred earlier and clandestine production of the drug began in the 1970s.

In more recent years, many designer drugs have been synthetic cannabinoids, cathinones, and hallucinogens. Cannabinoids mimic the effects of THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana and other forms of cannabis, and have been sold as spice, incense, potpourri, K2, and under other names. Cannabinoids are typically sold added to a dried herb to create "synthetic marijuana," which can be smoked, or as a liquid for use in an e-cigarette. Cathinone is found in khat (see staff tree), and synthetic cathinones, such as MDPV, mephedrone, methylone, and alpha-PVP, have effects that are similar to those of cocaine or methamphetamine. They have been sold as bath salts, plant food, and under other names. NBOMes, substances that are chemically similar to mescaline (the active ingredient in peyote), have been sold as N-Bomb, LSD (which is much less potent), and under other names.

In an attempt to ban unknown compounds that are similar to controlled substances in their effects and might otherwise be sold as legal alternatives to controlled substances, the United States enacted the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act in 1986. Under the law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a substance if it is substantially chemically similar to an existing controlled substance and if its effects in a user are similar to or intended to be similar to that controlled substance. The law, which has been criticized as unconstitutionally vague, has not stemmed the development of designer drugs. Producers of designer drugs, who are often overseas in China, India, and Pakistan, can reformulate a chemical before it has been declared illegal, allowing their production facilities to switch to a new chemical formulation as soon as the earlier formulation is outlawed.

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