What Are Designer Drugs and What Do They Do?

You have probably heard the term “designer drug” before. But do you know what they are or where they come from? The term “designer drugs” refers to drugs that are created in a lab. By using chemistry, a designer drug is made by changing the characteristics of an illegal drug like cocaine, morphine, or marijuana. 

People make designer drugs to imitate the effects of illegal drugs. However, they are chemically different from illicit drugs so they can avoid being classified as illegal. The result is a “designer” drug that typically has a new and different effect on the brain or behavior.

Types of Designer Drugs

  • Spice (synthetic cannabinoids)
  • Bath salts (synthetic stimulant)
  • N-bomb (synthetic hallucinogen)

The Danger of Designer Drugs

Because people make designer drugs in illegal labs, their ingredients and strength can vary a lot. This makes it almost impossible to know what is actually in them or what they can do to you. 

Harmful effects are common and often present an array of psychiatric and medical effects which may be severe such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Psychosis (loss of contact with reality)
  • Tachycardia (abnormally rapid heart rate)
  • Death 

Unknown Contents

There is growing international anxiety about the synthetic imitations of controlled substances being manufactured and distributed to get around drug laws and avoid penalties. These substances are specifically marketed for recreational use by getting around the existing controlled substance laws. 

Individuals often package designer drugs with labels that falsely describe the contents. These labels may vary significantly when it comes to their chemical content and strength. 

People frequently package designer drug labels packages as “not for human consumption” in an attempt to avoid legal liability. Designer drug use has increased in the past decade, particularly amongst young adults. This increase in designer drug use is causing significant problems.

Who Uses Designer Drugs?

People sometimes refer to designer drugs as “legal highs” or “club drugs” because of the popularity of their use in nightclubs. Teenagers and young adults at bars, nightclubs, concerts, and parties tend to use designer drugs. Young adult males in their mid to late 20s use designer drugs the most. People who use designer drugs tend to be single and have lower levels of education and income.

  • Synthetic cannabinoids (Spice) has a higher usage among:
  • Regular marijuana users
  • University and high school students
  • Dance club participants
  • Bath Salts (synthetic amphetamine) have a comparably lower usage rate than Spice.
  • The overall use rate of N-bomb is very low in the United States.


The increasing popularity of designer drugs is associated with novelty, marketing, and accessibility. People tend to package designer drugs in an attractive and colorful manner, with tempting names for the products to lure younger individuals into trying them. There are no age restrictions when it comes to the use of designer drugs. This fact also makes designer drugs attractive to younger users.

The wide availability of designer drugs, which include sales over the internet, also contributes to the expanded use of these types of substances The marketing of designer drugs as “legal high” drug alternatives might also contribute to the impression of greater safety or purity compared to typical illicit drugs. 

Risk Factors for Young Adult Use

  • Parents with substance use disorders (SUDs)
  • Poor family relationships
  • Lack of discipline
  • High family conflict
  • Involvement in the criminal justice system
  • Involvement in foster care

Effects of Designer Drugs

Increased calls to US poison control centers by designer drug users first caused people to identify this type of drug. The volume of designer drug use problems in emergency departments, hospitals, and other medical settings is unknown. Furthermore, most people still don’t know that much about designer drugs. Below is some of the little-known information about some designer drugs.

Bath Salts (synthetic stimulants)

Most designer stimulants are based on cathinones, a natural herbal stimulant. The designer substituted cathinones are part of the larger family of stimulants that includes:


Most people snort designer stimulants. People can also consume designer drugs orally or through injections into the veins or muscles.


Designer drug effects generally start 10 to 20 minutes after dosing, peak at about 45 to 90 minutes, last 2 to 3 hours, and decrease over 6 to 12 hours.

  • Increased energy 
  • Higher alertness
  • Better concentration
  • Sexual stimulation
  • Empathy
  • Mood enhancement
  • Talkativeness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Paranoia
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Delusions
  • Possibility of developing a substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Kidney impairment


People that repeatedly use bath salts develop a tolerance to the substance. This means that it takes more and more bath salts to produce the effects that a user got when he or she first started using them. This is indicated by the link between the frequency of bath salt use and the larger amount of bath salts consumed. 

When a bath salt chronic user tries to quit, he or she will experience withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • Tiredness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Nasal congestion

Spice (synthetic cannabinoids)

Many times, synthetic cannabinoid (SC)-containing products used recreationally include singles or mixtures of different SC compounds. They are sprayed on pulverized plant material of unknown content to make it look like potpourri or incense. “Spice” now usually applies to all products that contain SC, despite their branding.


Although people can consume them orally or by snorting, people usually smoke SCs through water pipes, cigarettes, or bowls. 


Effects typically start within 10 minutes of inhaling and most effects appear to diminish 2 to 6 hours after use.

  • Mood altering
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Carcinogenic effects
  • Adverse effects on the lungs due to the inhalation of unidentified plant material
  • Development of a tolerance and withdrawal syndrome


Withdrawal symptoms are similar to those experienced in marijuana withdrawal including:

  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Drug cravings
  • Loss of focus
  • Sweating, including cold sweats
  • Depression
  • Nausea

N-bomb (synthetic hallucinogens)

Synthetic designer hallucinogens have a similar chemical structure to MDMA and first became popular in 1991.


  • Inhalation of vapor
  • Snorting
  • Swallowed in pill form
  • Injection
  • Sublingual (dissolved under the tongue on blotter paper)


The effects of N-bombs are similar to the effects of LSD and psilocybin. Effects may occur rapidly after nasal use and peak at about 20 minutes. A wide duration range of 3 to 13 hours has been reported and agitation can last for several days.

  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Stimulant effects
  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • effects are not known


Symptoms may include:

  • Chills
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Agitation
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extremely high blood pressure

Challenges for Drug Testing

Although lab testing is expanding, standardized testing for designer drugs is not yet available in most clinical settings and labs. The problem is multiplied by the different contents, concentrations, and chemical makeup of the drugs, which can vary between and within products. It is a common practice for makers of designer drugs to modify, substitute, and alter substances to evade legal restrictions.

Individuals often report that the lack of detection on standard urine drug screening tests is a prime reason for the use of designer drugs. For example:

  • people under supervision by the criminal justice system may use designer drugs to avoid detection by probation officers. 
  • members of the military where soldiers referred for addiction treatment are identified through urine screening may use designer drugs

Overdose or Acute Intoxication

There are no medications that treat designer drug poisoning. Activated charcoal can help treat designer drug poisoning if the drug was orally ingested. Nevertheless, most physical symptoms of a designer drug overdose appear to be limited. Such designer drug overdose symptoms can clear up within one to several days of supportive treatment.

Psychosis due to SCs and N-bomb intoxication can be managed with: 

For some patients, extreme severity of designer drug intoxication justifies admission to critical care with continuous cardiac monitoring, neurological evaluations, and IV fluids.

How Do You Treat Addictions to Designer Drugs?

Long-term treatment of addiction to designer drugs can be challenging and is complicated by the lack of evidence to guide the treatment. However, treatment involves similar elements to that of other types of addiction.


People can use medications to treat designer drug withdrawal symptoms. There are no specific medications for the treatment of addiction to any designer drugs.

Behavioral Therapies

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

 Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a goal-oriented form of therapy that addresses the connection between an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT focuses on changing people’s negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors into positive ones.  

Dialectical behavioral therapy 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a behavioral therapy that focuses on helping individuals accept their negative thoughts and emotions. That way one’s negative thoughts and emotions don’t have the power to cause people to form negative behaviors. 

Psychotherapy (talk therapy)

Individual counseling

During individual counseling, individuals work one on one with a counselor in a confidential setting to uncover emotions and feelings that may have led to their addictions. 

Group counseling

During group counseling, a group of individuals work with one or two counselors to discuss issues related to addiction, set goals, and offer one another relapse prevention advice. Participants are able to learn different perspectives from other members.

Family therapy

When one member of a family has a substance use disorder, everyone is affected. Family therapy involves helping members of an individual’s family understand addiction and how it has affected the workings of the family. The goal of family therapy is to try to mend the relationships that have been damaged by addiction.

Designing a Treatment Plan

Are you addicted to designer drugs? Is someone close to you addicted to designer drugs? This is an insidious, creeping problem in the U.S. these days. Designer drugs are legal and hard to detect in drug tests. But the effects are fairly obvious. Here at Florida Center for Recovery (FCR), we have the experience to treat your designer drug addiction.

We offer detox services that can help you ease your withdrawal symptoms if necessary. We also offer treatment programs that are individualized for each patient. Our individualized treatment programs are also specialized to treat addictions to a wide variety of substances. 

Florida Center for Recovery is located on the Treasure Coast of Florida, but you don’t have to be a resident of Florida to benefit from FCR. Our nationally renowned treatment center is known to treat individuals across the country.  So what are you waiting for?! Contact us today to overcome your drug addictions and get your life back on track!