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Designer drugs are also called new psychoactive substances (NPS). Another name used by sellers is research chemicals. This is because they are supposedly intended only for research, and not for ingestion. Of course, the reality is different, as everyone knows! The market for these research chemicals is huge and keeps growing. This is very easy to do, because they are legal. So what are the latest trends in designer drugs? And what should you look out for when buying them?

What are designer drugs?

Designer drugs are synthetic drugs just like illegal recreational and addictive substances. But legal. They are specifically designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs as closely as possible. Often this works quite well by making small changes to the chemical structure of existing drugs. Just move a hydrogen atom and tadaa: you have LSD, but legally. Smart, because this way products, sellers and you as a buyer circumvent the law. Now you understand why there are so many designer drugs in the Netherlands.

What are the trends in designer drugs?

The Trimbos Institute, a leading Dutch organisation in the field of addiction care, closely monitors trends and developments in designer drugs. For instance, they publish the National Drug Monitor in which they also address those 'legal highs'. However, they only monitor a limited number of designer drugs; mainly the most popular or notable ones.

Trend #1: more and more research chemicals

It is hard to keep track of how many (new) types of designer drugs come onto the market. That is a trend in itself... Without legislation capable of banning these research chemicals altogether, the judiciary and politics will always be behind the times. After all: by the time a specific drug is finally covered by the Opium Act, a slightly different variant of that drug immediately turns up.

Synthetic opioids slowly on the rise?

No doubt you have heard about the huge Fentanyl crisis in America. There, Fentanyl is the number one cause of death among adults under 45. Fentanyl falls under opioids; painkillers. Like morphine, for example, which, incidentally, is made from opium derived from poppy plants. But Fentanyl is up to 100 (!) times stronger than the already intense morphine. And the problem is: some painkillers make you feel really good. Then addiction and problematic use lurk. And of course, where there are addicts, there is a market. And it is now full of Fentanyl and lookalikes.

In America, this is a true national crisis. The picture in Europe is very mixed. In our country, you hardly see Fentanyl and fakes of this, but in Estonia, surprisingly, it is very popular again.

Synthetic cannabinoids: life-threatening

A fascinating category within designer drugs are synthetic cannabinoids: fake cannabis. These can be up to 200 times more potent than THC. Why would you want that, in our country where cannabis is already incredibly strong, and also legal and regulated? "Why not?", apparently a group of people think. Using it carries major risks, including poisoning and organ damage. Plus, it can simply make you feel really bad or psychotoscj. Just think of that time you had blown too much; probably very uncomfortable. But that feeling will be dwarfed by how bad synthetic cannaboids can be. In our country, fortunately, their use is limited. In countries where cannabis is not legal, use is slightly higher.

Overall use of research chemicals is actually not that bad

If the Trimbos Institute's monitor is to be believed, our use of designer drugs is not too bad. The use of most research chemicals is around 1% of the national population. By comparison, more than 10% of Dutch people have ever used XTC, for 4FA, 3MMC and 2CB the figure is 1.4%-2%. However, they do see certain groups or communities using it much more (together). The use of 3-mmc seems to be increasing, 4FA has become slightly less popular again.

Even though we mostly welcome experimentation and recreation, as far as this drug is concerned we can clearly state: stay away from it. If you do feel tempted, do check out some docu or videos about the opoid crisis there.

The future of designer drugs

For more than three years, politicians have been working on legislative changes to remove designer drugs from legality. There is no real progress in that at the moment. So for now, it will continue to be a mopping-up exercise and upcoming legislative changes will always put only one drug on the list of banned substances.

Safe use of research chemicals

The big disadvantage of all these designer drugs is that very little research has been done on them. As a result, you just really don't know what you are taking and putting into your body. Nothing at all is known about the long-term effects, as they are so new. So use in moderation and do some online research through good sources about the drug you want to take.

And know that there are also plenty of drugs that are just as fun, but less risky! Natural psychedelics and stimulants like magic mushrooms, kanna or ayahuasca, for example. These have been used for thousands of years in traditional cultures and are increasingly recognised for their therapeutic powers. And a lot more research has been done on these by now, so you at least have an idea of important things like risks and ideal dosages.