By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.
Designer drug is a term used to describe drugs which are created (or marketed, if they had already existed) to get around existing drug laws, usually by modifying the molecular structures of existing drugs to varying degrees, or less commonly by finding drugs with entirely different chemical structures that produce similar subjective effects to illegal recreational drugs. Most of the best known research chemicals are structural analogues of tryptamines or phenethylamines, but there are also many other completely unrelated chemicals which can be considered as part of the group. It is very difficult to determine psychoactivity or other pharmaceutical properties of these compounds based strictly upon structural examination. Many of the substances have common effects whilst structurally different and vice versa (see also SAR paradox). As a result of no real official naming for some of these compounds, as well as regional naming, this can all lead to (and is anecdotally known to have led to) potentially hazardous mix ups for users.
The safety of research chemicals is untested and little if any research has been done on the toxicology or pharmacology of most of these drugs. Few, if any, human or animal studies have been done. Unlike better known drugs like cannabis, which have been used by billions of people worldwide for centuries or even millennia, research chemicals are new and may only have been used by a few thousand people for a few months although some of the more popular drugs such as 2C-B, MDMA and BZP have been used by millions of people. Many research compounds have produced unexpected side effects and adverse incidents due to the lack of screening for off-target effects prior to marketing; both bromo-dragonfly and mephedrone seem to be capable of producing pronounced vasoconstriction under some circumstances which has resulted in several deaths, although the mechanism remains unclear. More commonly adverse incidents and overdoses arise accidentally, from poor handling of potent chemicals where the margin of error is too narrow for guesswork, or simply from excessive abuse of the drug.
Due to the recent development of many designer drugs, laws banning or regulating their use have not been developed yet, and in recent cases novel drugs have appeared directly in response to legislative action, to replace a similar compound that had recently been banned. Many of the chemicals fall under the various drug analogue legislations in certain countries, but most countries have no general analogue act or equivalent legislation and so novel compounds may fall outside of the law after only minor structural modifications. In the United States, the Controlled Substances Act was amended by the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement of 1986, which attempted to ban designer drugs pre-emptively by making it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess chemicals that were substantially similar in chemistry and pharmacology to Schedule I or Schedule II drugs.
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