3.13 Designer Drugs

Recently, the abuse of clandestinely synthesized drugs has re-emerged as a major worldwide problem. These drugs are illicitly produced with the intent of developing substances that differ slightly from controlled substances in their chemical structure while retaining their pharmacological effects. These substances are commonly known as designer drugs and fall under several drug categories. The following section describes these drugs of concern and their associated risks.

Bath Salts or Designer Cathinones

(Synthetic Stimulants)

Synthetic stimulants often referred to as “bath salts” are from the synthetic cathinone class of
drugs. Synthetic cathinones are central nervous stimulants and are designed to mimic effects similar to those produced by cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA (ecstasy). These substances are often marketed as “bath salts,” “research chemicals,” “plant food,” “glass cleaner,” and labeled “not for human consumption,” in order to circumvent the application of the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act. Marketing in this manner attempts to hide the true reason for the products’ existence—the distribution of a psychoactive/stimulant substance for abuse.


Synthetic cathinones are manufactured in East Asia and have been distributed at wholesale levels
throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and other parts of the world.

What are common street names?

Bliss, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Drone, Energy-1, Ivory Wave, Lunar Wave, Meow Meow, Ocean Burst, Pure Ivory, Purple Wave, Red Dove, Snow Leopard, Stardust, Vanilla Sky, White Dove, White Knight, White Lightning.

What does it look like?

Bath Salts
Bath Salts or Designer Cathinones

Websites have listed products containing these synthetic stimulants as “plant food” or “bath salts,” however, the powdered form is also compressed in gelatin capsules. The synthetic stimulants are sold in smoke shops, head shops, convenience stores, adult bookstores, gas stations, and on Internet sites and often labeled “not for human consumption.”

How are they abused?

“Bath salts” are usually ingested by sniffing/snorting. They can also be taken orally, smoked, or put into a solution and injected into veins.

What is their effect on the mind?

These synthetic substances are abused for their desired effects, such as euphoria and alertness. Other effects that have been reported from the use of these drugs include psychological effects such as confusion, acute psychosis, agitation, combativeness, aggressive, violent, and self-destructive behavior.

What is their effect on the body?

Adverse or toxic effects associated with the abuse of cathinones, including synthetic cathinones, include rapid heartbeat; hypertension; hyperthermia; prolonged dilation of the pupil of the eye; breakdown of muscle fibers that leads to release of muscle fiber contents into the bloodstream; teeth grinding; sweating; headaches; palpitations; seizures; as well as paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions.

What are their overdose effects?

In addition to the effects above, reports of death from individuals abusing drugs in this class indicate the seriousness of the risk users are taking when ingesting these products.

Which drugs cause similar effects?

They cause effects similar to those of other stimulants such as methamphetamine, MDMA, and cocaine.

What is their legal status in the United States?

In July 2012, the U.S. Government passed Pub.L. 112- 144, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act (SDAPA), that classified a number of synthetic substances under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. SDAPA placed these substances in the most restrictive category of controlled substances. Cannabimimetic agents, including 15 synthetic cannabinoid compounds identified by name, two synthetic cathinone compounds (mephedrone and MDPV), and nine synthetic hallucinogens known as the 2C family, are now restricted by this law. In addition, methylone was permanently controlled by DEA through the administrative process, and another 10 synthetic cathinones became subject to temporary control. Other synthetic cathinones may be subject to prosecution under the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act which allows these dangerous substances to be treated as Schedule I controlled substances if certain criteria can be met.

K2 / Spice


K2 and Spice are just two of the many trade names or brands for synthetic designer drugs that are intended to mimic THC, the main active ingredient of marijuana. These designer synthetic drugs are from the synthetic cannabinoid class of drugs that are often marketed and sold under the guise of “herbal incense” or “potpourri”.

Synthetic cannabinoids are not organic but are chemical compounds created in a laboratory. Since 2009, law enforcement has encountered numerous different synthetic cannabinoids that are being sold as “legal” alternatives to marijuana. These products are being abused for their psychoactive properties and are packaged without information as to their health and safety risks.

Synthetic cannabinoids are sold as “herbal incense” and “potpourri” under names like K2 and Spice, as well as many other names, at small convenience stores, head shops, gas stations, and via the Internet from both domestic and international sources. These products are labeled “not for human consumption” in an attempt to shield the manufacturers, distributors, and retail sellers from criminal prosecution. This type of marketing is nothing more than a means to make dangerous, psychoactive
substances widely available to the public.


The vast majority of synthetic cannabinoids are manufactured in Asia without manufacturing requirements or quality control standards. The bulk products are smuggled into the United States typically as misbranded imports and have no legitimate medical or industrial use.

What are common street names?

There are numerous and various street names of synthetic cannabinoids as drug manufacturers try to appeal and entice youth and young adults by labeling these products with exotic and extravagant names. Some of the many street names of synthetic marijuana are: “Spice,”“K2,” Blaze, RedX Dawn, Paradise, Demon, Black Magic, Spike, Mr. Nice Guy, Ninja, Zohai, Dream, Genie, Sence, Smoke, Skunk, Serenity, Yucatan, Fire, and Crazy Clown.

What does it look like?

These chemical compounds are generally found in bulk powder form and then dissolved in solvents, such as acetone, before being applied to dry plant material to make the “herbal incense” products. After local distributors apply the drug to the dry plant material, they package it for retail distribution, again without pharmaceutical-grade chemical purity standards, as these have no accepted medical use, and ignoring any control mechanisms to prevent contamination or to ensure a consistent, uniform concentration of the powerful and dangerous drug in each package.

How is it abused?

Spraying or mixing the synthetic cannabinoids on plant material provides a vehicle for the most common route of administration – smoking (using a pipe, a water pipe, or rolling the drug-laced plant material in cigarette papers). In addition to the cannabinoids laced on plant material and sold as potpourri and incense, liquid cannabinoids have been designed to be vaporized through both disposable and reusable electronic cigarettes.

What are its overdose effects?

Overdose deaths have been attributed to the abuse of synthetic cannabinoids, including death by a heart attack. Acute kidney injury requiring hospitalization and dialysis in several patients reportedly having smoked synthetic cannabinoids has also been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Which drugs cause similar effects?

THC, the main psychoactive constituent of marijuana.

What is its effect on the mind?

Acute psychotic episodes, dependence, and withdrawal are associated with the use of these synthetic cannabinoids. Some individuals have suffered from intense hallucinations. Other effects include severe agitation, disorganized thoughts, paranoid delusions, and violence after smoking products laced with these substances.

What is its effect on the body?

State public health and poison centers have issued warnings in response to adverse health effects associated with abuse of herbal incense products containing these synthetic cannabinoids.
These adverse effects included tachycardia (elevated heart rate), elevated blood pressure, unconsciousness, tremors, seizures, vomiting, hallucinations, agitation, anxiety, pallor, numbness, and tingling. This is in addition to the numerous public health and poison centers which have similarly issued warnings regarding the abuse of these synthetic cannabinoids.

What is its legal status in the United States?

These substances have no accepted medical use in the United States and have been reported to produce adverse health effects. Currently, 26 substances are specifically listed as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act either through legislation or regulatory action. In addition, there are many other synthetic cannabinoids that meet the definition for “cannabimimetic agent” under the Controlled Substances Act and thus are Schedule I substances.

There are many synthetic cannabinoid substances that are being sold as “incense,” “potpourri,” and other products that are not controlled substances. However, synthetic cannabinoids may be subject to prosecution under the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act which allows non-controlled drugs to be treated as Schedule I controlled substances if certain criteria can be met. The DEA has successfully investigated and prosecuted individuals trafficking and selling these dangerous substances using the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act.

Synthetic Opioids


Synthetic opioids are believed to be synthesized abroad and then imported into the United States.

What do they look like?

Clandestinely produced synthetic opioids have been encountered in powder form and were identified on bottle caps and spoons, detected within glassine bags, on digital scales, and on sifters which demonstrates the abuse of these substances as replacements for heroin or other opioids. These drugs are also encountered as tablets, mimicking pharmaceutical opioid products. Clandestinely produced synthetic opioids are encountered as a single substance in combination with other opioids (fentanyl, heroin, U-47700) or other substances.

How are they abused?

Abuse of clandestinely produced synthetic opioids parallels that of heroin and prescription opioid analgesics. Many of these illicitly produced synthetic opioids are more potent than morphine and heroin and thus have the potential to result in a fatal overdose.


Synthetic opioids are substances that are synthesized in a laboratory and that act on the same targets in the brain as natural opioids (e.g., morphine and codeine) to produce analgesic (pain relief) effects. In contrast, natural opioids are naturally occurring substances extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants. Some synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and methadone, have been approved for medical use.

Clandestinely produced synthetic opioids structurally related to the Schedule II opioid analgesic fentanyl were trafficked and abused on the West Coast in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, DEA controlled several of these illicitly produced synthetic opioids such as alpha-methylfentanyl, 3-methylthiofentanyl, acetyl-alpha-methylfentanyl, beta-hydroxy-3-methylfentanyl, alpha-methylthiofentanyl, thiofentanyl, beta-hydroxyfentanyl, para-fluorofentanyl, and 3-methylfentanyl.

As of 2013, there has been a re-emergence in the trafficking and abuse of various clandestinely produced synthetic opioids, including several substances related to fentanyl. Some common illicitly produced synthetic opioids that are currently encountered by law enforcement include, but are not limited to, acetyl fentanyl, butyryl fentanyl, betahydroxythiofentanyl, furanyl fentanyl, 4-fluoroisobutyryl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl, and U-47700. Clandestinely produced counterfeit oxycodone tablets that contain fentanyl. Opioid powder U-47700.

What are their effects?

Some effects of clandestinely produced synthetic opioids, similar to other commonly used opioid analgesics (e.g., morphine), may include relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression.

What are their overdose effects?

Overdose effects of clandestinely produced synthetic opioids are similar to other opioid analgesics. These effects may include stupor, changes in pupillary size, cold and clammy skin, cyanosis, coma, and respiratory failure leading to death. The presence of the triad of symptoms such as coma, pinpoint pupils, and respiratory depression are strongly suggestive of opioid poisoning.

Which drugs cause similar effects?

Some drugs that cause similar effects include other opioids such as morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, methadone, and heroin.

What is their legal status in the United States?

Several synthetic opioids are currently controlled under the Controlled Substances Act. Recently, the DEA temporarily placed U-47700 and several other substances that are structurally related to fentanyl, such as acetyl fentanyl, butyryl fentanyl, beta-hydroxythiofentanyl, and furanyl fentanyl, in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Other synthetic opioid substances may be subject to prosecution under the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act which allows non-controlled substances to be treated as Schedule I substances if certain criteria are met. The DEA has successfully investigated and prosecuted individuals trafficking and selling these dangerous substances using the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act.

Source:  Drugs of abuse: A DEA resource guide (DEA, 2017)


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Drugs, Health & Behavior Copyright © 2018 by Jacqueline Schwab and Denise Salters is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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