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Designer Drugs: What They Are and Why Their Use Is Growing: Part I

New designer drugs seem to be hitting the United States market and the media with a frequency that is unsurpassed in other countries. President Barack Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act in 2012, effectively banning a number of compounds commonly used to create synthetic marijuana and other designer drugs. Before this legislation, however, designer drugs were a legal way to sell and buy drugs that have similar effects to drugs that are illegal.

Spice and K2

Spice and K2 are essentially the same drug but are sold under different names as synthetic versions of marijuana. One of the oldest designer drugs, Spice has been around since 2004 or earlier. Before the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, users could find Spice in convenience stores and incense shops. The drug appears as natural herbs and spices, sprayed with a chemical solution to mimic the effects of THC—the agonist responsible for the effects of marijuana—and packed into colorful packets. The problem with spice is that the compounds that mimic THC are not labeled safe for human consumption and aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or another organization. For this reason, one dose of spice can be significantly stronger than the next, and spice in general is stronger than marijuana by 100 to 800 times. While marijuana users report calming effects, spice users complain of acute anxiety attacks, panic attacks, hallucinations, nausea, dissociation and even seizures.

Bath Salts

Bath salts have gotten much more attention in the previous year than a majority of designer drugs, particularly because of a strange case in which a 31-year-old Miami man who may have been under the influence attacked a homeless man under the freeway and proceeded to eat his face. This is only one of a series of violent, paranoid crimes that took place this year, perpetrated by users of bath salts. In Colorado, a man died after his bath salts consumption led to a fit so violent that his friends had no choice but to restrain him, causing him to be strangled. Although the Miami case was certainly the most high profile, maybe the most terrifying was the case where a couple in Pennsylvania had to be stopped from stabbing their 5-year-old daughter after paranoid delusions convinced them that over 90 people lived in their walls.

The drug is designed to mimic psychoactive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and speed, all of which stimulate the central nervous system. In addition to the high and the physical effects, which include increased heart rate, sweating, nausea, and lack of appetite, bath salts can cause hallucinations and delusions that lead to violent behavior, psychosis and paranoia. Physically dangerous symptoms include high body temperature, inability to sleep, and elevated blood pressure. Even though a bath salts high is an ostensibly frightening experience, people who take it are likely to take it again, because it is highly addictive. Although it’s widely known in the United States, bath salts actually originate from Europe and China, where they’re still manufactured extensively.

The publicity for bath salts may have peaked in the last year, but potentially the scariest part of the drug is that its use has increased so drastically in the few years it’s been in use. Bath salts originally appeared in the United States in 2009, according to Forbes, and the numbers of reports of its use have tripled in less than four years since.

Why Designer Drugs?

In all cases, it seems that the market for designer drugs is a result of their ease of acquisition and the perceived lack of repercussions in buying and using them. Even in cases where the drug is still legal, designer drugs are at least as dangerous as their traditional counterparts are, and in many cases are actually more dangerous because less is known about them. In any case, it seems like education and research may help reduce the incidence of cases, in hopes that users will be deterred by the known consequences of designer drug use.

There is still hope.

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