Designer Drugs Done Dirt Cheap
January 30, 2014 4:07 AM   Subscribe

The drug revolution that no one can stop
Designing your own narcotics online isn’t just easy—it can be legal too. How do we know? We did it.
posted by Joe in Australia (38 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This actually depresses me.
At least when you used to purchase drugs you suspected there was a solid recipe that had been tested by others.

The law's attempts to play whack-a-mole with chemical formulas for synthetic pot is.... amusing, to a point.
I can't imagine being "a kid" and being presented with a confusing mix of untested chemicals.

Although, the rumour was that LSD was made from rat poison....

Great article.
posted by Mezentian at 4:13 AM on January 30, 2014

Wow! We'll need to legalize most classical drugs like MDMA, LSD, Ketamine, etc. rather soon, otherwise..
posted by jeffburdges at 4:25 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Very well written article, and quite long. I understand what he was shooting for, but the sub-head "How do we know? We did it" only covers 1/4 to 1/3 of the article. There's a whole history lesson woven into the narrative.

I never knew about the ARPANET weed-deal - that was amusing.
posted by Thistledown at 4:31 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Drug companies do this all the time. They shift one molecule and announce a new "improved" drug, when really it's effectively the same as the old drug. But now they can charge more.

Is the new drug right for you?
posted by surplus at 5:00 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't imagine being "a kid" and being presented with a confusing mix of untested chemicals.

I was a "good kid," more from lack of access than any sort of moral code, but intensely bored and interested in the psychedelic experience. There is very little doubt in my mind that, had I had easy access to research chemicals, I would have been all over them. And it might have turned out fine. But it might not have.

Near the end of the article the author notes that you can ban drugs, but not chemistry nor medical research. Which, fair enough. But you also can't stop people--"kids" especially, I suspect--from seeking a thrill or a new experience. You can do your best to provide a stimulating, rewarding environment, but people will still want to get high. Keeping modestly-"safe" drugs out of their hands seems irresponsible.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:10 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a strange (or maybe "strange") tone to the article. It starts with a medical emergency, so the reader knows that the drugs in question are dangerous, but mostly, the danger that pervades the text is that people might be legally getting high. Occasional remarks about health of addiction are thrown in but the real threat is people legally getting stoned. The writer relies on the puritanism of the readers to get them on his side.

My favorite quote:
“There’s a misguided assumption that the guys running clandestine chemistry labs have bad complexions and wear plaid shirts and that they are slightly dim and just follow cookbook recipes. That’s a mistake. These guys are incredibly bright. They are head-and-shoulders—intellectually, certainly—above some of the politicians who are attempting to legislate against them.”
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:29 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Personal drug design has figured in William Gibson's work e.g., the Sprawl Trilogy, where it was used by opponents and the AIs of the Sprawl towards the human agents of the story.
posted by jadepearl at 5:37 AM on January 30, 2014

"There's a strange (or maybe 'strange') tone to the article."

Yeah, that was my reaction, too. I totally agree that there's a problem with entirely untested and unknown drugs being cheap and available to naive users, and as a consequence of the war on drugs. But the tone of the article nevertheless was very strongly in line with the reefer madness style alarmist journalism. It really put me off and I couldn't decide if its criticism of the unavailability of the known, safer drugs was sincere. I suspect it's not.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:44 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jesus people. LSD was not found researching rat poison. It was part of general research hoping to find drugs for use in obstetrics. In fact, there is some number of LSD that was or is used in obstetrics for this reason. LSD-25 gets you off.

Many of the other numbers, not so much. And there's the rub: most combinations of these various organic compounds, even when they almost look like known psychoactive compounds, do nothing.

Has no one read PiHKAL? Different family of compounds as discussed here, but the same notions apply.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:48 AM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

surplus: Is the new drug right for you?

If its good enough for Huey Lewis, then it's good enough for me.
posted by dr_dank at 5:52 AM on January 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

That Beatles photo is priceless. And McCartney is now what, 96? (I kid, I kid!) So kids, proof that speed does not kill vegetarians!
posted by spitbull at 5:57 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

The new compounds may be in the same chemical family as known drugs, but their indexes of toxicity (you can't really call it a therapeutic index when the aim is to get high) are going to vary, probably by quite a lot. That's a huge problem even if the new drugs are perfectly safe at the dosages normally used, because it doesn't leave the margin of error that people expect. It's a lethal problem if you're talking synthetic cannabinoids, because people expect not ever to OD on cannabis, which is justified because of its very high index of toxicity, but completely unjustified for an unidentified novel analogue. If the producers of this shit labelled their products with the active ingredient then there'd at least be a way to use them more safely, but that would make them easier to identify, ban and trace, so most of them don't.

Don't get me wrong, I've got a lot of respect for Shulgin's work - I read PiHKAL as a drug-naive teenager and that's influenced my thinking ever since - but that tradition of curiosity and investigation has little bearing on what's going on right now.
posted by topynate at 6:11 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having ordered compounds from Chinese labs before (for use in screening trials against a calcium ion channel) I wouldn't dare to take anything they made without purifying it myself first. On average the stuff we got was fine for our use (>85% pure) but too many were either incorrect or barely 50% pure that it would take some pretty decent analytical chemistry before I would take anything. It doesn't take much of a mercury impurity to get to a toxic level of mercury in your body and such a small impurity would hide too easily from normal organic analytical techniques.
posted by koolkat at 6:17 AM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you can make it in your kitchen, you're going to have a bad time.
posted by stormpooper at 6:21 AM on January 30, 2014

If you can make it in your kitchen, you're going to have a bad time.

Unless it is beer, or wine.

Or if you're a trained chemist with 10 years of lab experience, but if you're a chemistry teacher with cancer then I am guessing it will end badly.
posted by koolkat at 6:24 AM on January 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

Some of this material was also in a talk by the author, posted previously.
posted by neroli at 6:39 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

From the article :

The growth of unregulated, untested legal highs is a deeply negative consequence of drug laws.

Hear hear. If it were legal to test them and we had cognitive liberty, this would be a much smaller problem.

“This is concierge drug design, outsourcing all the risk and hard work. It’s like room service drug design, ordering from a menu.”

Ahh, the daily-mail-esque pullquote. Let's all get our concierges out! I now haz drug menu!

"I phoned a contact with expertise in chemistry and asked if he could think of a simple molecular tweak that would produce a new version of phenmetrazine that would be totally legal.........."

So all you need is a pet chemistry expert. And a lab willing to spend weeks making your compound. Possibly with QC issues. And another, different chemistry expert, with a lab, to test your first lab's output. What about this was like room service again?

They don't know if it is even a drug. Small changes to molecules make druglike things inactive and vice versa.

. But outside of headline drugs, as I showed, it is simple enough to scan medical literature and look for new compounds that could intoxicate.

Bullshit. You didn't find this new drug. You found an old drug and asked a chemist to modify it - one version of it! You don't know if it intoxicates, and you don't know if it's even been made before! Did the chinese lab do a real SciFinder, Medline and Beilstein search? The HPLC and NMR says it was pure, so you got a good lab to synthesize it. This should be a matter of pride!

In a sane world, this could be tested for toxicity and if none were found at reasonable doses it could be added to our arsenal of things to solve problems both medical and for want of a better word.........emotional/spiritual/existential. Instead, we get this kind of article....... clandestine, mafia-corruptible industries, the prison industrial complex and millions of immiserated people.

This article is some nice background to the subject peppered with both tone and content acting as rabble-rousing bullshit.
posted by lalochezia at 6:45 AM on January 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

If perfectly safe drugs like MDMA were legally available, nobody would mess with this stuff. A big part of the market for this is sketchy drug dealers pawning it off on unwitting buyers as the real deal.
posted by empath at 7:21 AM on January 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

There’s a misguided assumption that the guys running clandestine chemistry labs have bad complexions and wear plaid shirts and that they are slightly dim and just follow cookbook recipes.

Wait, does everyone think I'm making drugs?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:38 AM on January 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

Yeah, that line puzzled me too. What do plaid shirts and bad complexions mean in British culture?
posted by vogon_poet at 8:29 AM on January 30, 2014

Yeah, that line puzzled me too. What do plaid shirts and bad complexions mean in British culture?

The closest would be a Moss from the IT crowd type, but I don't know where the author brought in 'dim and unoriginal' from except for the purposes of setting up his point...
posted by Drexen at 8:54 AM on January 30, 2014

Another side effect of the "war" on drugs is this dangerous chasing of alternative molecules to produce highs similar to those available in well known and characterized drugs. It is another example of the profound stupidity of our puritan attitude toward intoxicants. We create more and worse problems than we purport to solve.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:30 AM on January 30, 2014

The heads of the American DEA and UN International Narcotics Control Board equate any use of a substance (that isn't alcohol or nicotine, naturally) purely for pleasure with "abuse." It's a hard attitude to push aside, and as long as the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 persists in its current form, is a problem that liberalization is likely to continue to face.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:36 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't believe people are talking about this like it's a new thing. We were into "research chemicals" back in 2002, before it was even a blipon the DEA's radar. Yah, Operation Web Tryp put an end to all that. By that point I'd already had my fill of that kind of "research", but I thought it a shame that others couldn't experience some of what I had experienced. Here is sort of a rundown of my little "scene" circa 2002-2003 :

The drugs :

* Foxy (5MEO-DIPT, I think), 5MEO-DMT, DXM. From what I recall, Foxy was the only one that had any real mass appeal. I had an inner circle of friends that was really into 5MEO-DMT and kinda into DXM, but I think we were the odd ones out. I remember a whole panoply of other options, but I didn't know what they were, and once I'd discovered 5MEO-DMT, I didn't really care to try a whole lot else.

The good :

* A relative absence of dealing culture. I think some people were selling Foxy at jamband concerts, but it was pretty rare. The "research chemicals" were cheap, easily obtained, and legal. If you wanted to do them, you would just buy them online. Delivered to your doorstep in 24 hours time.

* Pure drugs at known concentrations. You always knew what you were getting, it was always pure, always the same concentration. Think of how many lives could be saved if all drugs were like that.

* No paranoia. How many trips turn bad because the user is afraid they're going to get caught? With research chemicals, this wasn't a factor at all. Nobody was frightened.

* Opportunity. This I think is the saddest fallout from Operation Web Tryp. I mean, it quite clearly failed; the research chemicals scene is alive and kicking, 100 times bigger than it was before. But most of these new drugs seem like less-safe alternatives to MDMA, LSD and Ketamine. 5MEO-DMT, from what I can tell, basically doesn't exist anymore. This is really sad, because 5MEO-DMT can be an enlightening experience, and even its close chemical cousin (N,N-DMT) is not really all that similar. So this is a whole level of human experience that has been cut off from us. What a shame.

The bad :

* I can't say we were spectacularly responsible with the stuff. I mean, we were college kids, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. Looking back, it's a shame I had access to such powerful spiritual tools so early in my personal development. Nothing really bad happened, but we made lots of mistakes. 5MEO-DMT in particular was really hard to dose out, since it's active in such small concentrations. So yeah, a lot of vomiting happened that didn't need to happen. Fortunately, the drug itself only lasts about 15 - 30 minutes, so even if it was the worst experience of your life, it was over soon. But I can't say I was terribly careful, or was able to detect when my own use tipped into the "abuse" zone. As you can probably guess, I was fucking enamored with the stuff. Mostly I loved how it felt to play my drum on it. (yes, it is possible to do play a musical instrument on it) I had a long summer where I was really into 5MEO-DMT, and looking back, yeah, I did some ridiculous quantities at an insane frequency. What followed was 6 months of pain and confusion. To be fair, I had already been suffering with undiagnosed Pure O OCD, and the 5MEO-DMT just sort of kicked it into high gear. So, uh, note to others : don't do crazy amounts of 5MEO-DMT if you have Pure O. Heh. Fortunately, or rather, "fortunately", my Pure O got so bad it became undeniable I had some form of OCD, prompting me to change therapists, which led to a correct diagnosis (FINALLY!) which led me down the road to recovery, leading me to where I am today : not a bad place at all.

* I think the most dangerous part of this scene was a lack of any solid social context for doing psychedelics. Psychedelic use is a natural part of being human. Sure, it's not everybody's cup of tea, but if you look at human history, anyplace they had a naturally-occurring hallucinogen, you had indigenous people who would do it safely and guilt-free, incorporating the experience into their worldview and way of life. This is how it should be done. In our culture, we've got mythology, sure, we've got cultural references and Easy Rider and the Merry Pranksters, and we even have raves and concerts and events where people are known to indulge. But we have no solid cultural context for it; no shamans; no place where people can "play", free of fear; no safe, legal source for pure drugs at known quantities; no acceptance from greater society that psychedelic exploration is healthy and normal. We have minds and we want to expand them, or at least use them to their full potential. The desire to do this is a natural one, and we do ourselves a disservice by denying it.

The weird :

* It was basically impossible to guess who would enjoy 5MEO-DMT. Seasoned trippers would often hate it, while random drinking buddies would turn out to love it. So weird. And it was such a weird kind of experience, it was really hard to say what it was people liked about it. Never saw that much variation in experience from a drug.

My takeaway :

* So obviously I think drugs should be legal. The most dangerous part of drugs is the drug war itself. Operation Web Tryp was so unsuccessful the research chemical scene is bigger than ever. And it appears the drugs have gotten more dangerous, too. I would much rather see people doing "old reliables" like LSD, MDMA, or DMT than something that's so new that nobody knows how to do it properly (or even if it should be consumed at all). Ultimately, I think the drug war will wind down over time, but until we accept that the desire to do drugs is perfectly natural, we're going to hear horror stories and there are going to be deaths, ODs and bad trips that just don't need to happen. And that's not even addressing all the good these drugs could do if they were available to people within a sane, legal cultural context.
posted by evil otto at 11:57 AM on January 30, 2014 [13 favorites]

I've just got two words to say: Rat Park
posted by Monkeymoo at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Evil Otto, were you, by any chance, at a very large midwestern University? Your experiences sound remarkably similar to a friend of mine, who was a grad student at one and had a group of friends that included various other students involved in this sort of thing.
posted by cell divide at 12:44 PM on January 30, 2014

Probably unwise to talk about specifics, but I will say that I wasn't living anyplace particularly "hip" or "cool", which is why it puzzles me that people see research chemicals as such a new thing. I mean, consider that we knew about them back in 2002. There's no way we were that far ahead of everybody else. In fact, the friend who turned me on to the websites wasn't even terribly savvy about drugs or the internet.

I will say that a 5MEO-DMT fascination wasn't entirely unheard-of within the hippie/jamband scene. I remember going to some jamband festival and mentioning to someone my love for 5MEO-DMT, and he was like, "Oh yeah, I know your type. I bet you're like a Jehovah's Witness with the stuff." I really wasn't, but I appreciated the sentiment.

Man, could I play my drum on that stuff. I had been playing for years, but that summer was when I first started to get good. To this day, I continue to build on that talent. People see me play, and are often kinda blown away. Friends say things like, "I knew you could play, but not like that." I just give a slight grin and say, "Well, it's just practice, I guess."

posted by evil otto at 12:55 PM on January 30, 2014

Dance Dance Tracheal Intubation?

It was first synthesized by German pharmaceutical firm, Merck, in 1912, to get around a patent on a common clotting agent, and later used by the US military in experiments in mind control.
I don't know that designer drugs had such a clean rep before. What're the options here, jump out of a hotel window because the MiB are freaking you out or roll the dice as to whether stuff from the (no, really, otherwise trustworthy) Chinese outfit you get anonymously is going to be not laden with mercury. Cameroon and Ukraine made the blush cut. Really?

But what law enforcement and everybody else had failed to understand was that the drug market was not going away

Nnnnah, I think it was just law enforcement.

But as a consequence of taking this drug, [people] suddenly realized that all humans are part of one organism, and that when you kill one person you are killing yourself, and that the earth is our lifeboat, and we are destroying it. What if a drug could produce an experience like that?

I think there would be massive suicides. I have a hard enough time living with the psychotic monkeys around me with my own humble level of enlightenment. Last thing I need is to organize a clandestine operation of dose squads carrying pneumatic ballistic syringe guns and guerrilla anesthesiologists... but perhaps I've said too much.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:36 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I think the most dangerous part of this scene aside from getting caught was a lack of any solid social context for doing psychedelics."

Amen! Carl Hart's says "drug effects .. have less to do with pharmacology and more to do with context : the history of the user, the dose of the drug, etc.", meaning our culture must learn to use drugs responsibly.

"Looking back, it's a shame I had access to such powerful spiritual tools so early in my personal development." ..

"I had a long summer where I was really into 5MEO-DMT, and looking back, yeah, I did some ridiculous quantities at an insane frequency. What followed was 6 months of pain and confusion. To be fair, I had already been suffering with undiagnosed Pure O OCD, and the 5MEO-DMT just sort of kicked it into high gear."

Almost all danger from psychedelics like LSD and Mushrooms comes from their ability to aggravate latent mental or emotional disorders. We should not outlaw synthesis or possession of any substance that doesn't objectively cause substantial bodily damage, but we should "strongly recommend" that these drugs be used properly.

I'd envision a "drugs card" issued by any psychologist that says the user "appears unlikely to experience negative side effects and has read the state drug safety pamphlet and passed the state drug safety quiz", possibly limited to certain substances, basically a converse-prescription, i.e. "I'm not going to prescribe that he *not* take this drug". And the drug safety pamphlet and quiz should cover safe doses, extra first-use precautions, like half doses and no mixing, warning signs for serious side effects, dangers from drug interactions, and tolerance.

As an example, a psychologist might reasonably tell a PTSD sufferer that their first few MDMA uses should be in MDMA assisted psychotherapy, well being in a club when a fight breaks out might be psychologically dangerous.

We should regulate how venues sell any drugs of course because the venue designs their setting and menu around turning a profit. I'd personally forbid bars from selling caffeine and alcohol mixes for example, due to caffeine's ability to mask the influence of alcohol, but not require they prohibit outside caffeinated beverages.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:12 PM on January 30, 2014

Is the new drug right for you?

If its good enough for Huey Lewis, then it's good enough for me.

I dunno, that guy went psycho.
posted by homunculus at 7:57 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

> If perfectly safe drugs like MDMA

Stop right there!

MDMA is not "perfectly safe". Here's a list of possible overdose symptoms. And overdosing is quite possible with MDMA - moreover, it's quite possible to kill yourself without overdosing by dehydration, overheating or (paradoxically) excessive hydration.. And anyone who's been involved in drug culture knows that if you take MDMA regularly, you tend to find yourself depressed when you aren't taking it.

I'm generally quite pro-drug. MDMA is not particularly dangerous if you're informed and careful, even though its toxicity is significantly greater than, say, cannabis or LSD. It's also been known to do wonders for people, particularly people with PTSD or the like.

But giving people dangerous misinformation like "MDMA is perfectly safe" is very irresponsible. Get informed, be careful, and have fun.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:08 PM on January 30, 2014

If you're interested in this topic, this is a must-read: Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High
posted by jcruelty at 10:53 PM on January 30, 2014

Oh I see someone linked to a MeFi post about the book earlier. Oh well, consider this a +1
posted by jcruelty at 10:54 PM on January 30, 2014

I'd envision a "drugs card" issued by any psychologist that says the user "appears unlikely to experience negative side effects and has read the state drug safety pamphlet and passed the state drug safety quiz"

I feel ya, man, but I almost kinda think that's too complicated. I think psychedelic drugs should be treated as sacrament, as they do in the Native American Church. For myself and others, psychedelic use was sort of like a physical religion. It was real religion, the kinda shit you experience first-hand. I wish there had been some kind of non-theistic acid religion that could have guided me during my questing days.

(it also would have been nice if doctors had been aware of Pure O back in the early 2000s, but alas, I digress)
posted by evil otto at 11:36 PM on January 30, 2014

I'm fine with society discovering alternative methods for controlling the usage of hallucinogens, and I may not understand your usage of sacrament, but..

Any idea if the NAC actually has fewer incidence of psilocybin aggravating mental illnesses than non-religious mushroom users? What about mushroom users who being with smaller doses than the NAC?

We need to instil respect for recreational drug, teach safety and optimal usage, and limit avenues for abuse by sellers. It's inherently complicated because the drug effects, drug interactions, set & setting, and potential vender tricks are all complicated. One should know hallucinogens mask the effects of alcohol, for example, making a non-alcoholic beer the wiser choice, or just flavored water and fruit.

Imho, one should not be restricted from giving away drugs for either recreation or religious practice, but a card could restrict sale, at least to young people. Imho, religious institutions should be required to provide the state's drug pamphlet and dose information, even if they give away the drugs themselves, well priests start themselves lunatic cults anyways, but more info helps.

There should also be exceptions for sale of limited doses in controlled situations, like 1-2mg psilocybin in an appetizer at a restaurant or an ice cream cone on the beach, provided the buyer does not also consume alcohol. You'd feel good, but no hallucinations. Conversely, you might need an alcohol card to buy more than a couple drinks sans food too, or a nicotine card to buy cigarets.

posted by jeffburdges at 6:56 AM on January 31, 2014

Any idea if the NAC actually has fewer incidence of psilocybin aggravating mental illnesses than non-religious mushroom users?

Not sure -- I haven't done the research. All I can speak to is my own experience. And I feel that if a knowledgeable, responsible, non-judgmental adult had been around to guide me through my exploration, things would have gone better. At very least, they could've been like, "Dude, you're over-doing it. You need to knock it off for a while."
posted by evil otto at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aspects of that exist at the non-profit transformative festivals like regional burns, rainbow gatherings, etc. Any event where folks do drugs, but a gift economy, sharing ethos, etc. prohibits selling anything, including drugs.

Also, I suspect the MDMA scene grows responsible adults relatively quickly because MDMA's "hangover" sucks so bad, overdosing is so much easier than with hallucinogens, like lupus_yonderboy said, and MDMA seemingly makes people care about one another.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:13 AM on February 1, 2014

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