The term “designer drug” became popular with the acid house and ecstasy boom in the 1990s, but it was never really accurate. The main ingredient in ecstasy pills – MDMA – was first synthesised in 1912 and began its life as a recreational drug in 70s California, years before it became notorious on the rave scene. The drug was never created for the party crowd, but the “designer drug” label stuck as the perfect phrase both to glamorise and demonise the fashionable new high.
There have been some genuine attempts at designer drugs through the years – where people have attempted to create new recreational substances to evade drug laws – but most have been abject failures. In the most notorious example, chemistry student Barry Kidston tried to create a synthetic heroin-like high in 1976 and ended up creating MPTP, a substance so neurotoxic that it gave him Parkinson’s disease days after he injected it. As a grim consolation, Kidston’s only legacy was to create a drug that is still used today in lab experiments to try and understand this debilitating neurological disorder.
But something has changed on the street drug scene in recent years. For the first time, we can use the term “designer drug” with confidence because we are in the midst of an unnerving scientific revolution in the use and supply of mind-altering substances.
These drugs have hit the headlines under names such as Spice, K2, mephedrone and M-Cat, but there are hundreds more. They are sold euphemistically as “bath salts”, “incense” or “research chemicals”, and don’t get regulated, at least not at first, because they are labelled as “not for human consumption”. Unlike previous generations of legal highs that were about as recreational as a slap in the face, they actually work. They get you high.
The two most popular types are synthetic, cannabis-like drugs, sold as smokable plant material, and stimulants, similar to ecstasy and amphetamines. But what makes this a revolution, rather than simply a market innovation, is the scale and speed of drug development. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction reported 73 new substances last year, meaning new highs were hitting the market at a rate of more than one a week. This wave of new drugs only began five years ago and since then more than 200 previously unknown substances have been found in circulation.
– Read the entire article at The Guardian.