Club drugs, sometimes called “party drugs,” “designer drugs,” or “rave drugs,” are a loose category of substances associated with clubbing subcultures. Unlike many other drugs, these substances are not defined by their chemical makeup or specific effects, but rather by how and where they tend to be used.
These drugs are almost overwhelmingly used by teenagers, young adults, and people in the LGBTQ community. While most users will not develop a substance use disorder from their use, the widespread availability of these drugs (many of which can be obtained legally), the lack of quality control, and the unpredictable effects of mixing these with alcohol and each other make them particularly easy to misuse.
This article aims to give readers basic information about club drug use in the US, including treatment options. This may help readers better weigh the risks of misuse as well as identify possible signs of a club drug use disorder.
A Brief History of Club Drugs in the United States
While the practice of using intoxicants at social gatherings goes back to prehistory, it was only in the latter part of the 20th century that “club drugs” meant specifically to enhance the experience of dancing to loud music and flashing lights came to the fore.
Prescription medicine, hallucinogens, cocaine, alcohol, cannabis, LSD, and other substances have been used in party and club settings throughout the modern era. However, the disco movement that emerged in the 1970s was where the use of drugs specifically meant to be enjoyed in a club setting exploded in popularity. Quaaludes, amyl nitrite, and cocaine were particularly popular during this period in the disco subculture.
Club drug use soon proliferated outside the disco scene and has continued to be a part of many other club and dance-oriented subcultures as well. Since the 80s to the present, drugs such as MDMA, GHB, ketamine, LSD, methamphetamines, synthetic cathinones, Rohypnol, and many others have gone in and out of popularity as club drugs.
In the present day, concerns over club drugs are widespread. This is partly due to the known potential for chronic misuse, the increased media focus on violent crime related to club drugs, and the younger age of club drug users compared to users of other drugs. The constant development of new compounds that could be misused has also made club drugs especially challenging for public policymakers to regulate.
Common Types of Club Drugs
While there are potentially hundreds of substances that could be used as club drugs, there are a few that are commonly seen used in clubs today, either in pure form or combined with other substances. Commonly seen club drugs include but are not limited to the following:
- Methamphetamines (Crystal, Meth, Speed, Ice)
- MDMA (E, Ecstasy, X, Molly)
- Rohypnol (Roofies)
- LSD (Acid)
- Synthetic cathinones (Bath salts, Plant food)
- Ketamine (K, Special K)
- GHB (Liquid Ecstasy, G)
- Salvia divinorum(Magic Mint, Diviner’s sage)
- Synthetic cannabis (K2, Spice, Fake weed, Incense, etc.)
The popularity of different drugs tends to differ between club scenes, geographic areas, and income levels of users. Other drugs that are often described in their own categories such as benzodiazepines and cocaine may be occasionally considered as club drugs as well.
How Are Club Drugs Used?
Like with alcohol, club drugs are primarily intended to loosen inhibitions and heighten pleasure in social settings, especially in the context of a club, where bright flashing lights and loud music are part of the expected sensory experience. Club drugs are, in most cases, ingested or snorted. While most of these drugs can be smoked or injected, these methods require extra paraphernalia, which can be less convenient in settings where users want to be more discreet.
Users that develop a club drug use disorder may start using these substances outside the context of partying. Those with more severe use disorders may be more likely to use less discreet methods even in relatively public settings for a more intense or different experience.
How Do Club Drugs Work in the Human Body?
Most club drugs tend to have stimulant or disinhibiting effects on users. Club drugs that are considered to be “uppers” such as methamphetamines and MDMA work by boosting the amount of dopamine in the body. They do this either by slowing dopamine absorption or by affecting the parts of the brain responsible for producing the hormone. Dopamine is responsible for facilitating electrical connections between nerve cells, including in the brain. More dopamine in the bloodstream causes euphoria, faster nerve response, and more intense sensory feedback.
Club drugs that are considered to be “downers,” on the other hand, tend to have a depressant effect. These drugs include ketamine, salvia, and Rohypnol. Most will slow down the communication between nerve cells, leading to disinhibition and reduced motor coordination. Larger amounts can cause users to enter dissociative states.
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Some popular club drugs such as synthetic cannabinoids and LSD have hallucinogenic properties. This happens which occurs when these substances trigger different receptors in the brain.
In typical usage, club drugs are often mixed or taken with alcohol. Interactions between different substances in the body can be dangerous and cause unpredictable side effects.
What Is a Club Drug Use Disorder?
A club drug use disorder is when a patient habitually misuses club drugs. It’s a type of substance use disorder in line with guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), last updated in 2013. “Substance use disorder” is now the preferred term used by psychiatrists and other treatment experts to describe conditions formerly known as “substance abuse” and “substance addiction/dependence”, as described in previous editions of the DSM.
Here are the criteria for substance use disorders as described in the DSM-5:
- Using more drugs or using them for longer than intended
- A desire to quit or reduce drug consumption. This may or may not be accompanied by unsuccessful attempts to quit
- More and more time spent finding, using, and recovering from drugs
- Constant cravings for drugs of choice
- Unable to meet obligations because of drug use
- Continuing to consume drugs even when they have caused problems in the past
- Getting high gets priority over everything else
- Driving when intoxicated, mixing drugs, and doing other risky activities
- Consuming drugs despite awareness of their negative health effects
- Needing larger or more frequent doses to reach the desired effect
- Irritability, pain, or discomfort when stopping drug use
Only qualified psychiatrists can make a diagnosis of club drug use disorder or other mental disorders. If you or someone you know may be at risk from a substance disorder, immediately contact a psychiatrist or other qualified treatment specialist to learn more.
What Are the Risks of Using Club Drugs?
Club drugs are associated with a wide variety of risks, not just due to the effects of individual drugs, but also due to the way club drugs tend to be used. It’s common for users to combine drugs or take extremely concentrated doses unintentionally. Some commonly associated risks of the long-term use of club drugs include:
- Panic attacks
- Weight loss
- Personality changes
- Memory loss
- Erratic, occasionally violent behavior
- Damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system
- Club drug use disorder
Note that the specific effects can vary depending on the substance or combination of substances consumed.
What Are the Treatment Options for a Club Drug Use Disorder?
One of the main challenges when treating club drug use disorders is identifying the types of drugs consumed. Patients may consume drugs without knowing what they are and drug dealers routinely misrepresent the contents of their products. Patients with a club drug use disorder also tend to take multiple drugs and alcohol, which further complicates the job of attending treatment specialists.
In many cases, withdrawal management in a controlled setting (such as in a rehab center or a hospital) may be necessary to allow the patient to safely detoxify and expel drug traces from their system. During withdrawal management, patients will be carefully monitored and tested and given appropriate medical intervention depending on what drugs the doctors think the patient took.
During and after withdrawal management, it might be recommended that patients take cognitive therapy to address the root causes of their substance use disorder. Depending on the type of program, therapy and counseling might be done on an outpatient basis after active withdrawal management.
The type of program that club drug use disorder patients need to take should depend on the situation. Some patients may only require regular outpatient sessions over a few months while some long-term chronic users may need to stay in a rehab facility for an indeterminate amount of time.
While they do not figure into the public consciousness in the same way that cannabis, alcohol, and opioids do, club drugs pose a real challenge to public health. Not only are club drugs generally dangerous and prone to chronic misuse by themselves, but it can also be difficult for users and treatment specialists alike to identify the substances that are involved due to rampant adulteration.
The use patterns of club drugs also lend them to particularly risky behavior, including mixing different substances. This makes serious cases of club drug use disorder challenging to treat, often requiring extra precautions on the part of attending physicians.
If you believe that someone you know might have a club drug use disorder, contact a qualified physician to discuss options for treatment.