Research chemicals provide dangerous, experimental highs to desperate users

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In a country where over 1 million people get arrested for drug-related crimes every year, a legal loophole exists that makes ordering thousands of different drugs so accessible you can purchase them with your debit card.

Research chemicals are newly-synthesized drugs that have not yet been scheduled by the FDA, making them very easy to order online under the guise of “not for human consumption.” Every year, teams of shadowy scientists from all around the globe create oodles of new chemical compounds that are relatively similar to drugs people already take recreationally, but completely different chemically speaking. This is super dangerous because minute differences in chemical composition could mean the difference between a killer high and a high that kills you, as Cal Poly Humboldt Chemistry professor Joshua Smith reminded me.

“The most infamous drug you should learn about is thalidomide,” Smith said.

“One version of it was an anti-nausea drug for pregnant women. One very small change to it created horrible birth defects.”

That’s a very succinct way of saying just because a drug is similar to another drug in terms of chemical composition, it should not be considered safe to take by any stretch of the imagination. 25i is a well-known example of this. It gained popularity as a cheap replacement to LSD for a while until people started overdosing and dying because it was much more toxic than LSD and very poorly understood. Many of the thousands of different novel compounds available for purchase online have never been tested on humans but are still sold under catchy names like “Dr Buzz pellets” or “Mitsubishi capsules,” leading one to assume that there are people taking gross advantage of this legal loophole to lure addicts and dealers into buying knockoff drugs.

I posted something on my personal social media accounts asking if anyone I knew had tried these drugs, I received no less than 30 firsthand accounts of awful terrible no good very bad experiences with “liquid Xanax” or “fake acid” and the like. I received a fair amount of feedback from a handful of people who knew all about research chemicals and had personally ordered several, sometimes with mild or nonexistent consequences but more often to the tune of a very bad trip. There are also Reddit threads dedicated to the research chemical lifestyle with thousands of members. Out of all those people, two agreed to speak with me on the record.

Alexis Pritchard is a 27-year-old from Eureka, California. She works for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, the same program she recently attended for three months.

“I guess it started with that synthetic weed, that fucking kryptonite stuff,” Pritchard said, referring to any one of dozens of synthetic cannabinoids that have come out since the 1990s.

“I had a heart attack, I think. I almost died, I thought it was all a dream I was like out of my body and my eyes were in the back of my head.”

Pritchard tried other research chemicals later on in life, including drugs meant to resemble benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and MXE, a common substitute for ketamine users.

“At the time I was just like well, it’s getting me high, I’m alive and I like the feeling,” Pritchard said.

“Obviously now that I’m in recovery and looking back on it it’s pretty wild to think that I would do that and some nights end up doing coke and God knows what else, and drinking a shit-ton on top of it. My heart could have stopped so easily.”

Kane Seal is the head chef at an Italian restaurant in Redding, California. He has been clean from drugs for three years. Before he got sober, Seal experimented heavily with research chemicals, particularly benzodiazepines.

“Some of those [pills] you’d take two and be high for like two days and forget everything that you did,” Seal said.

“I took two or three of one batch we got and I missed two days of work and didn’t know I missed work.”

Seal said at a certain point, the research chemicals were difficult to stay away from because they were so cheap and replicated the drugs he was already addicted to.

“I think they made me almost feel more comfortable because some of them were so easy to take,” Seal said.

“When I got a batch of 500, I took 150 in two days.”

Now I want to be clear, this is an issue that is very hard to pin down or accurately quantify because it’s a very fluid situation. Laws change, new drugs are banned and synthesized every year. Scary “new” drugs make the local news months after the problem has already come and gone. Maybe my scope on the matter is skewed because I tend to associate with the downtrodden. That said, I witnessed an ex girlfriend of mine pass out, unable to speak or move for almost a week straight from one drop of the wrong research chemical; I’ve seen my friends very close to death from combining the wrong pills, and I’ve heard story after story about awful experiences not to mention my own, which are as follows:

Etizolam turned me into a zombie with no memory. Flubromazepam almost killed me and a dozen or so of my friends. 2CB was a fever dream from hell, at the end of which my roommate found me hiding behind our couch and I don’t remember much of the rest of that day. Dimethocaine was basically 10 energy drinks plus the worst anxiety you’ve ever experienced (I swear to God I walked right past Daniel Radcliffe walking down to Patrick’s Point to shoot a commercial right after snorting a bunch of Dimethocaine on a sea cliff and I was too busy having a panic attack to realize it was him).

When I asked the FDA to shed some light on this issue, they referred me to the DEA, who finally told me they didn’t want to comment either and they referred me to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The NIDA media rep told me that for all questions about policy she’d have to refer me back to the DEA/FDA, but she did tell me the following:

“The surge of new or novel psychoactive substance (NPS) use during the last eight to ten years is a major public health concern and necessitates a broad research agenda to guide prevention and treatment strategies. NPS are unregulated mind-altering substances with no legitimate medical use and are made to copy the effects of controlled substances. They are introduced and reintroduced into the market in quick succession to dodge or hinder law enforcement efforts to address their manufacture and sale. Some of these substances may have been around for years but have reentered the market in altered chemical forms, or due to renewed popularity.”

Maybe it’s not that big of an issue in the grand scheme of things, but it seems odd to me that every branch of law enforcement in America is spending God-knows how much money to make flashy arrests for the small handful of drugs most people know about when extremely dangerous loopholes exist making all that effort seem completely redundant. There’s probably another side to this. Maybe it would hamper scientific progress if the laws were any different, maybe one of these research chemicals will cure cancer, or maybe a bunch of bad people are shamelessly making money at the expense of drug addicts.

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