Although a number of synthetic drugs with psychoactive properties similar to controlled substances were produced earlier in the 20th cent., designer drugs became significantly more common in the 1980s. Early designer drugs were based on PCP, fentanyl, meperidine, and amphetamine and methamphetamine. MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), also known as ecstacy or molly, which has properties similar amphetamine and mescaline, was a designer drug that became prominent in the 1980s, though its synthesis occurred earlier and clandestine production of the drug began in the 1970s.
In more recent years, many designer drugs have been synthetic cannabinoids, cathinones, and hallucinogens. Cannabinoids mimic the effects of THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana and other forms of cannabis, and have been sold as spice, incense, potpourri, K2, and under other names. Cannabinoids are typically sold added to a dried herb to create
synthetic marijuana, which can be smoked, or as a liquid for use in an e-cigarette. Cathinone is found in khat (see staff tree ), and synthetic cathinones, such as MDPV, mephedrone, methylone, and alpha-PVP, have effects that are similar to those of cocaine or methamphetamine. They have been sold as bath salts, plant food, and under other names. NBOMes, substances that are chemically similar to mescaline (the active ingredient in peyote ), have been sold as N-Bomb, LSD (which is much less potent), and under other names.
In an attempt to ban unknown compounds that are similar to controlled substances in their effects and might otherwise be sold as legal alternatives to controlled substances, the United States enacted the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act in 1986. Under the law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a substance if it is substantially chemically similar to an existing controlled substance and if its effects in a user are similar to or intended to be similar to that controlled substance. The law, which has been criticized as unconstitutionally vague, has not stemmed the development of designer drugs. Producers of designer drugs, who are often overseas in China, India, and Pakistan, can reformulate a chemical before it has been declared illegal, allowing their production facilities to switch to a new chemical formulation as soon as the earlier formulation is outlawed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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