Appearing in the media more often than not recently, designer drugs are rapidly cultivating a reputation for being dangerous and spreading as fast as a pandemic. There’s a reason for users’ preference for designer drugs over their illegal counterparts—until as recently as last year, most designer drugs were legal, which has changed with the 2012 Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. Despite their current illegal status, some designer drugs have been on the market long enough legally that they’re still widely in circulation—notably spice, a marijuana synthetic; and bath salts, a psychoactive hallucinogen. Some designer drugs that have come into existence more recently include Smiles, or 2C-I, and 25I, both of which are psychedelic hallucinogens that have similar effects. Both have had a similar recent string of deaths caused by the drug, markedly occurring after a fit of psychosis and seizures that lead to respiratory arrest.
Part of the family of 2C substances that last year’s legislature effectively banned, Smiles, or 2C-I, is a psychedelic drug classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, illegal to make, own, buy, or sell in any form. Its immediate effects are seductive and pleasant, including relaxed calm, a giddy high, and nonthreatening hallucinations, both auditory and visual. However, the negative side effects of Smiles are nasty and potentially fatal, including respiratory failure. Recently, an 18-year-old in North Dakota was charged with murder after giving a 17-year-old friend a dose of 2C-I that led to psychosis, seizures, and hyperventilating, ultimately ending in respiratory arrest and death.
In the same class as Smiles, 25I is another psychedelic hallucinogen that has been tied to deaths in teenagers across the nation. It’s often sold online under the guise of research chemicals, and it is also becoming increasingly easier to find locally where dealers may carry it. In two separate incidents in 2012, recreational use of 25I caused psychosis and rapid death. The first case was in a Texas 21-year-old, who began punching and tearing at his surroundings while driving in a car with a friend. He died before receiving medical attention. In a similar case, a Houston girl, 15, left a party with a friend and began seizing and thrashing uncontrollably. She was dead within 30 minutes of her abrupt seizure beginning. Similar to Smiles, 25I causes rapid psychosis and death in young people who are physically and psychologically healthy, with no known cause or risk factors. It is impossible to know which people will come away from using 25I safely, and which people will suffer fatal effects. Although the physical, psychological, and long-term effects of these drugs are similar to their illegal counterparts, their chemical structure is just different enough to avoid classification as the same drug, making most designer drugs perfectly legal to own, sell, trade and use. The new legislation criminalizes synthetic marijuana compounds, stimulants traded under the name bath salts, and hallucinogens traded as 2C substances. In an effort to circumvent the new legislature, it’s possible that amateur drug chemists will continue to develop new designer drugs and trade them until they, too, are illegal. The next steps that authorities need to take include figuring out how to circumvent the trend and make frightening designer drug incidents less common. To start, that might include scientific research and literature publication that extensively describe the effects of the compounds utilized in these drugs. Knowing how to approach treatment for dependency and overdose may be a step toward removing most of the fatalities caused by use. Naturally, this will take time, and might be complicated by the constant innovation of new designer drugs and new compounds, but for now, it’s a start.