teen taking pillSometimes when I’m not sure what to write about, I’ll scan the news for the latest stories and articles involving teens. When I did that this week, I was rather taken aback to see articles about a teen taking a drug called “meow meow”, stabbing his mother, and cutting off his own penis. (His mother is in stable condition and his penis has been surgically reattached.)

Meow meow is one in a series of “designer drugs“: drugs formed when amateur (or professional) chemists tinker with the structure of an existing drug in order to create a new one. I wanted to expand on an earlier post about some specific designer drugs, and talk more about designer drugs in general.

Designer drugs are not a new phenomenon. Historically, they have been used in an attempt to circumvent laws against other, similar drugs. When morphine and heroin were deemed illegal for public sale in the 1920s, a crop of designer drugs popped up that were structurally similar to heroin, had the same effects as heroin, but were technically not heroin when you analyzed them molecularly. Since then, designer drugs and drug enforcement have been at war, and the laws around designer drugs have been developing over the decades.

The key problem with designer drugs is that we have absolutely no data on how they affect humans. Drugs that are very similar to another, well-known drug might act quite differently. (An easy example of similar substances with very different actions is that of ethanol, the alcohol present in your next beer, and methanol, an older antifreeze which is quite toxic.) We have data on many common drugs of abuse, be it through clinical trials or studies of people who take them. Designer drugs are often completely new, or at least seriously understudied, chemicals.

It’s unlikely a 100% fatal poison would get very far in the designer drug market, but something that causes a pleasurable high in one person may cause very different effects in another. We don’t know the physical effects of the drug on people with health conditions, or just slightly different biology, and know nothing about its long-term effects. Legal drugs go through extensive clinical testing to prove they are safe for humans, and even then we sometimes get unpleasant surprises.

Meow meow is a street name for mephedrone, which is a derivative of amphetamine, along with methamphetamine and cathinones, a.k.a “bath salts”. It was actually developed by a chemist in 1929. It gained popularity as a designer drug in the 2000s. We have some limited knowledge about its metabolism and effects on the brain.

I’m not saying that you should talk to your teen about not taking meow meow because they might stab someone and cut off their penis. The vast majority of people who take meow meow don’t do this; just like people who take marijuana don’t usually eat someone else’s face. There are many, many factors in how someone responds to a drug.

But we do know teens may be lulled into thinking that designer drugs are somehow safer or better than other drugs, and we need to make sure they know this isn’t true. Make sure they are aware that “designer”, “synthetic”, or “not illegal yet” drugs are not safer than other drugs, and may in fact may be more dangerous because we know less about them.  Avoiding designer drugs specifically may not keep them from taking them; meow meow is often used as a cheap filler for other drugs like Ecstasy or cocaine. (Most drugs are adulterated with something- be it meow meow, caffeine, sugar, or a de-worming medication.) If they want to know what’s going into their body, they need to avoid all illegal drugs.

All your warnings about dire health effects can vanish in a peer group or party atmosphere. The best way to keep your teen away from substances is to build on a base of communication, respect, and positive role-modeling.  Role play offering drugs and your teen saying no, and then do it in reverse (which can get a little goofy, but that’s okay). Make sure that talking to your teen about drugs is something you do frequently, making it a two-way conversation that is interesting for you both.