Designer Drugs

Part two of a two-part series on easily accessed substances frequently abused by teens and young adults.

Most of us can probably list many of the major controlled substances and other intoxicants that are legally regulated.  We know that various of these substances have surged in popularity at different times—LSD in the 60’s, cocaine in the 80’s, and methamphetamines in the 90’s and 00’s—and that both alcohol and marijuana have been widely abused by young people for decades.   But while parents, teachers, and law enforcement officers focus their attention on illegal drugs and alcohol, young people are finding ways to get high that, despite being legal, may pose risks equal to or greater than those of illegal drugs and alcohol.

Many items easily accessed in most households or legally acquired online, at convenience stores, or in head shops, are now used by adolescents and young adults seeking a replacement for or complement to illegal drug or alcohol use.  This is because these household items and so-called “designer drugs” are often easier to gain access to and/or use undetected.  Although the legal risks of using these household items and designer drugs  are lower, the health risks should be considered equal to or greater than those of illegal drugs or alcohol.  Addiction, overdose, poisoning, brain and organ damage, and death can result from the abuse of these items as intoxicants.  Unlike better-known, regulated substances, the health risks and dosage implications of these chemicals are not well understood, increasing the risk of overdosing, negative medication interactions, and other unintended consequences.  In addition, less treatment knowledge is available for these substances when their abuse escalates to addiction or overdose.

Since thousands upon thousands of everyday substances can, in adequate dosages, cause an altered mental, emotional, or physical state, it’s impossible to catalogue all of them.   It’s also impossible for parents or law enforcement to entirely stay ahead of, monitor, or regulate the use of these dangerous alternatives to illegal drugs and alcohol.  Nonetheless, parents and others concerned with the safety of young people do well to understand trends in the use of legal and easily accessed intoxicants.  Information can help parents and others detect dangerous substance abuse and, just as importantly, engage their teen with accurate information and informed concern.


Designer drugs are so called because they are designed to get around legal regulation.  These substances are typically made from intoxicating compounds that are not currently illegal.  The products are deceptively labeled and marketed for purposes other than their intended purpose as an intoxicant. These products are often available at convenience stores, online, or at head shops; adolescents learn about their actual intended use by word of mouth and the internet.  Though regulatory bodies have begun the process of regulating certain of these substances, drug designers continue to invent new products to keep ahead of the regulatory process.

Bath salts: Available at convenience stores primarily, many adolescents are purchasing and abusing products that are deceptively labeled as “bath salts” but are actually designer drugs that mimic the chemical composition and intoxicating effects of cocaine and/or methamphetamines.  These items are sold under such names as Ivory Wave, Blue Silk, White Lightening, and Ocean Burst. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, more than 232 calls regarding bath salt abuse were reported in 2010. Two recent suicides in Florida are blamed on the ingestion of bath salts and E.R. rooms across the country report many cases of toxic ingestion.

Kratom: Kratom is a plant leaf from Thailand and Malaysia that is legal and can be purchased online, in convenience stores, and at head shops.  It can be smoked, eaten, drunk as a tea, or consumed in capsule form to produce an opiate-like effect.  While viewed by some as safer than some designer drugs, there are reported cases of opiate-like addiction.

K2, Spice, and similar: There are several legal, easily acquired substances that are laced with synthetic cannabinoids, or cannabis-simulating compounds, and are either sold as incense or a tobacco substitute. Experts warn that because of a lack of study, there may be unknown risks for users of these substances.  Early indications are that these substances may be addictive and psychosis inducing.  There may also be unwanted or dangerous interactions with other medications.