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Designer drugs are the fourth most popular recreational stimulant used by young people today. The majority of users know these psychoactive substances only by their street names, such as “Cocolino”, “Collector’s Items”, and “Incense”, but they have no idea what chemicals they are ingesting or what side effects the drugs may cause. A study conducted by SWPS University researchers indicates that despite the obvious dangers, young people recklessly consume designer drugs to feel accepted by their peer group and to enhance their experiences.

In Poland, the research was conducted under the leadership of Associate Professor Piotr Sałustowicz, sociologist at SWPS University, as part of the international I-TREND project (Internet Tools for Research in Europe on New Drugs). The results of the study provide information on the attitudes towards designer drugs and the use of these substances by youth in Poland. The study included 1,385 people, where 88% of subjects were men and women below the age of 25.

The most popular substances mentioned by the study group included: mephedrone (de-legalized in 2011) and other synthetic modified drugs, sold under various street names, such as “Cocolino”, “Sztywny Misza” [Stiff Misha], “Władziu”, and “Funky”.

wierzbicka1

Designer drugs are a type of response to the contemporary reality. The new psychoactive substances enable people, at least for a while, to work longer and more effectively, attend weekend classes after an all week at the office without the need for rest. They help to let go of inhibitions and to strike up new relationships and they reduce the need for downtime. The obvious consequence is exhaustion, sometimes psychosis and even death

Dorota Wierzbicka-Wiszejko, Ph.D.

 

Who uses designer drugs?

 

Almost all respondents have had previous history of alcohol, tobacco and drug use. On average, their first use of the synthetic substances occurred at the age of 17. The participants of the study typically live in larger cities, report low income, are supported by their parents, attend school or post secondary education or are at the start of their professional careers.

The analysis of Internet forums, conducted by the team of researchers, including Dorota Wiszejko-Wierzbicka, Ph.D., psychologist at SWPS University, Michał Kidawa from the National Bureau for Drug Prevention, and Marta Jabłońska, has indicated that the users of designer drugs are not a uniform group. They seek and share information on various Internet fora and message boards. They write about their experiences and effects of taking the drugs. They describe their attempts at experimentation with different substances and give advice to the novice users.

The researchers distinguished five different groups of users:

  • “Supermen” - people seeking to enhance their abilities, such as cognitive and information processing capabilities
  • “Scientists and Experts” - people with professional knowledge (e.g. chemical) about the new psychoactive substances, seeking to broaden their experience and know-how
  • “Experimenters” - people experimenting on themselves with various substances to enhance their experiences and to delve into their psyche
  • “Kamikaze” - people drawn to designer drugs due to the risk factor associated with their use. Their risk seeking behavior and the need to push their personal boundaries is probably motivated by an excessive need for stimulation.
  • “Revellers” - people who use the designer drugs to meet other people and to have common experiences with their peers.

 

And “Novice Users”, who ask questions about the designer drugs, but otherwise do not participate in the discussions on the message boards. They are passive observers. They are looking for information about the results of different drugs and gravitate towards comments provided by the “Scientists and Experts” and the “Experimenters”. The “Kamikaze” are often banned from the forums by the “Experimenters”, because they promote risky behaviors, which may lead to serious harm or potential death of inexperienced users.

Polish users of designer drugs recognize only the street names of the products. Nearly half of the respondents were not able to identify the substances they had recently used. In most cases they were buying products sold as a marketing brand with a catchy name or as substances not meant for human consumption, such as “bath salts”, “incense” or “collector’s items”, says Associate Professor Piotr Sałustowicz.

The majority of the respondents received the drugs or bought them from friends or acquaintances. Online purchases were the fourth most common way of obtaining the substances. The respondents were choosing the online stores based on the recommendations of other users or once they liked an online profile of the store presented on the message boards.

Why they take designer drugs?

Nowadays, young people are faced with multiple life choices, which entail risk. The picture that emerges from statements left on message boards indicates that young people reach for designer drugs in social situations, to feel part of a group, to get high and to relax. The results of an Internet-based survey show that in case of hallucinogens, the users declare the desire to change their perception of reality. Almost all of the substances were taken in social situations, most readily at home, and sometimes outside.

“Designer drugs are a type of response to the contemporary reality. The new psychoactive substances enable people, at least for a while, to work longer and more effectively, attend weekend classes after an all week at the office without the need for rest. They help to let go of inhibitions and to strike up new relationships and they reduce the need for downtime. The obvious consequence is exhaustion, sometimes psychosis and even death”, says Dorota Wiszejko-Wierzbicka, Ph.D.

“The users are not concerned with the legality or addictive qualities of these drugs. They do not believe that the designer drugs are of better quality or less harmful and addictive than the well known illegal drugs. However, in the online survey, some of the respondents admitted that the effects of the new substances are stronger than those experienced after the traditional drugs.

Unaware of the risk

Over 90% of users never sought medical assistance in case of adverse effects experienced after taking designer drugs. Over 50% of users admitted experiencing negative side effects after taking the drugs. Most harmful substances included: pentedrone, alpha-PVP, and methcathinone. The most common effects of the drugs included aggression, muscle pain, muscle spasms, lockjaw, problems breathing and shortness of breath (reported by approximately a quarter of respondents), and body overheating (reported by approximately 17% of the respondents).

Is the wide spread use of designer drugs caused by easy access to these substances? “We cannot say that they are readily accessible, but there is a cause for concern that the use of designer drugs will increase, especially that they are regarded as legal substances. Moreover, the production of synthetic drugs is relatively easy. Additionally, the role of the Internet and the online stores suppling the drugs is becoming more and more significant. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is highlighting this danger in its reports”, summarizes Professor Sałustowicz.

The results of the study were presented during an inaugural seminar at the opening of the new research unit at SWPS University, called Młodzi w Centrum LAB (Youth in Center LAB), in October 2015.

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Research

The research was conducted under the leadership of Associate Professor Piotr Sałustowicz from SWPS University, as part of the international I-TREND (Internet Tools for Research in Europe on New Drugs) project. Partners included: OFDT - French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (leader of the project), First Faculty of Medicine, Charles University in Prague (Czechia), Trimbos Institute (Netherlands), North West Public Health Observatory (UK), and SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Poland). The project was financed by an Operating Grant from the European Commission, Directorate-General Justice, Unit A4: Programme Management - Just/2011-2012 and in Poland by funds from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

The project was conducted from April 2013 to June 2015. The Polish research team included: Associate Professor Piotr Sałstowicz (Principal Investigator, SWPS University), Dorota Wiszejko-Wierzbicka, Ph.D. (psychologist, SWPS University), Sławomir Mandes, Ph.D. (University of Warsaw), Michał Kidawa (National Bureau for Drug Prevention), Artur Malczewski (National Bureau for Drug Prevention), and Marta Jabłońska.

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