“Designer drug” is a designation for new drugs—or analogs of known drugs—manufactured in such a way as to skirt the legal restrictions on their manufacture and sale.
On the street, and by word of mouth, they are touted as superior in some way—ability to produce euphoria, duration of effect, etc.— to whatever drugs are current.
They are also named “research chemicals” and often fall through regulatory loopholes. The dangers lie in two overlapping categories: first, they can be dangerous in their pure form, and are largely unstudied; and second, they are often either adulterated or entirely bogus and made up of combinations of cheap, known, and often toxic ingredients.
The main categories of designer drugs are opioids, hallucinogens, steroids, and amphetamine analogs like MDMA (ecstasy, or molly). Analogs are variations on a molecule, usually offering a similar effect but structurally slightly different. Illegal labs are coming up with at least ten new designer drugs each year, and the internet has websites and chat rooms devoted to discussions of the effects of these new compounds.
Between word of mouth and internet “information,” teens consider themselves educated on the effects of chemicals that often have no clinical testing behind them (or do have some—on animals). Teen drug abuse education should focus on presenting the facts in opposition to the misinformation they are getting.
Some of the drugs involved may, according to researchers, have legitimate uses, including alleviating fear of death in terminally ill patients; helping addicts recover; and treating PTSD. However, irresponsible use of even these substances can be harmful. Besides focusing on education about teen drug abuse, it might be wise to explore the reasons behind the fact that escapism runs so deep in youth culture. In one study, the UK is in 2nd place for drug offences (Germany was 1st), with more than four times the amount of offenses per 100,000 people than Belgium, Italy, or Sweden. According to another survey, the US ranks number 1 in use of cocaine, cannabis, and tobacco. It seems likely that there are cultural implications that, when investigated, might point to helpful policy changes.