Chronicle Review Essay: The Rise of the New Synthetics

Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High by Mike Power (2014, Thomas Dunne Books, 316 pp., $25.99 HB)

Thanks, Mr. Power, for making me feel like an old fogey. My personal psychedelic career ended sometime back in the last century. I wouldn't know N-Bomb (25C-NBOMe) from Europa (2C-E), and I wouldn't know MDPV (Ivory Wave) if it came up and bit my face off (which, lurid press reports notwithstanding, it won't).

Fogey that I may be, I was in Austin, Texas, in the mid-1980s and remember quite clearly the arrival of Ecstasy (MDMA) on the scene, first in the gay clubs, then spreading into the student party scene. Just as Ecstasy was a substitute for amphetamines, and amphetamines were a substitute for cocaine, many of these new synthetics appear aimed at getting a niche in that perpetual psychedelic-tinged stimulant club drug circle currently dominated by Ecstasy.

Thousands danced the Texas night away on Ecstasy for a few halcyon months in the 1980s before the feds realized that the drug had escaped into the mainstream and criminalized it. They could ban the drug, but they couldn't ban the rave/club culture that both nurtured and evolved from it. Instead, that culture has gone worldwide. Now, whether you're in Joliet, Illinois or Jakarta, Indonesia, you can go and dance the night away to thumping beats under the influence of a drug (almost) nobody ever heard of a decade ago -- and, thanks to the wonders of the Internet age, you can have it delivered to your door with little threat of problems with the police.

In Drugs Unlimited, British journalist Mike Power provides an authoritative, well-researched, and engagingly written account of the rise of these new drugs and the inextricably interwoven links between the new drugs and the rise of the Internet. Along the way we drop in on the godfather of the new drugs, Sasha Shulgin, visit the Chinese chemical factories where many of them are produced, revisit the first economic transaction made on the Internet (a drug deal), and investigate the Dark Web drug marketing scene made famous by sites like Silk Road.

Drugs Unlimited is actually the American edition of Drugs 2.0, which was published more than a year ago in Great Britain. I mention this only because that will explain why it doesn't have the absolute latest information on the newest new drugs, or why it seems like Power was unaware that Silk Road had been busted. (He does add a new chapter at the end of the American edition to examine the Silk Road bust.)

Power traces -- pretty accurately, I think -- the rise of the new synthetics back to Dr. Shulgin and his astounding work of synthesizing hundreds, if not thousands, of compounds of the phenethylamine and tryptaminegroups. That work was made publicly available in the books PIKHAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) and TIKHAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved), and people have been synthesizing and experimenting with the results ever since.

Some of those same psychonauts were also involved in the genesis of electronic information technologies, holding dear to the principles of individual autonomy, intellectual freedom, and disdain for an overweening state in both cases. Power is very good at tracing that tangled evolution.

And now, we are in a spot where we can open our TOR browsers, find our way to any of the dozens or hundreds of online drug supermarkets, and buy whatever drug we want -- including not just those new-fangled ones, but old favorites like cocaine, LSD, heroin, and weed -- using encrypted communications and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, and have them delivered to our doors in nice packages.

The genie is out of the bottle and, as Power shows, no one is going to get it back in. Governments are hopelessly ham-handed, reactive, and behind the game. They don't even know about these new drugs until thousands of people have tried them, and then they move to ban a new drug or a class of them, and some chemist tweaks a molecule or two, and then there's a whole other set of drugs to ban. They bring down places like Silk Road, but up pops Silk Road 2.0, or the Agora Marketplace, or Evolution or any number of heavily-protected competitors.

And some young people die using them, and we have another drug panic. Just this week, for instance, CNN is running a special, "Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs Are Killing Kids," and the British media seems to trumpet every Ecstasy death it comes across (too often without considering the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who took Ecstasy at the same time without dying).

These drugs can kill, but they rarely do, and the media spotlight on each death distorts reality. It's difficult to know how prevalent use of these drugs is, but the number of deaths that can be fairly attributed to them is in the single- or double-digits each year. Compare that to the 21,000 or so opiate overdose deaths reported in 2012, and you see what I mean.

Anything can be a "killer substance" if you take too much of it, even water. And that's what appears to be behind the deaths and other adverse consequences associated with these drugs. People died because they didn't know what they were taking. They may be used to a drug whose active dose is measured in milligrams, but now have a substitute drug whose active dose is measured in micrograms. Take a hundred times the recommended dose of anything and see what happens.

That has happened. And so have labeling mistakes at Chinese factories with poor or non-existent quality controls. And so has the criminally stupid packaging of very strong new synthetics cut with substances that feel superficially like cocaine. Users get the cocaine taste and the cocaine numbness and make cocaine-sized lines to snort, and ingest way too much of the drug. And die.

These problems, tragic as they can be, are largely functions of drug prohibition -- not the drugs themselves. Anything is less dangerous when you know what it is, what it is supposed to do, and how much you can safely take. But criminalized substances are unlikely to be quality-controlled. The problem is different, but related, with new synthetics that are not yet criminalized. In these cases, manufacturers and vendors strive not to identify what the substance is or what its effects are in hopes of coming in under the radar of regulators. That's why we have new synthetics marketed as "plant fertilizer" or "bath salts." Those can get through Customs when something marked "New amphetamine-type psychedelic, recommended dose 100 micrograms" can't.

It almost goes without saying that neither Power nor the people involved in or studying this phenomenon have use for dealing with it through prohibition and criminalization. But that doesn't mean that laissez faire rules.

"We are currently unprepared legislatively, socioculturally, and practically for this, the next phase in the drug market," he writes. "Legalization is not the answer, banning drugs is not the answer, leaving things as they are -- in complete unregulated anarchy in both the old and the new drug markets -- is not the answer… There must be a concerted effort not only of harm reduction, but of urgent damage limitation… The explicit and implicit message from drug users themselves is that no law will ever change nor has ever changed their desire to get high."

Ultimately, the lesson of the new synthetics and the increasingly easy access to them is one of responsibility, both personal and collective. Drug users have the responsibility to be smart, educated consumers, and they can do that. The answers are out there, and these days, they're just a click or two away. And we as a society have a responsibility to understand that people are going to take drugs regardless of whether we want them to or not, and to find ways to minimize -- not increase -- the harm.

Drugs Unlimited is a guided tour through this new world of new drugs and new ways to get at them. And it's provocative, unsettling, and eye-opening along the way. Highly recommended.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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pikhal and tikhal

In an earlier article on Vancouvers heroin program I had lamented that the only way to score real heroin in Vancouver was at the clinic.I stand by that.I was corresponding with another addict from just across the border and he was saying that these books explained how opiates were being mutated to remove the pleasure.Fentanyl,a big Pharma substitute does just that.It triggers only the receptors for pain and respiration and ignores the pleasure receptor.It's the most abused drug amongst physicians,now.Vancouver is awash in the stuff.Had our first death by OD a while back.This pair of articles,while explaining tweaking an amphetamine,like MDMA is done,says nothing about opiates.If anyone can tell me where to find a book on what they are doing to opiate drugs to lessen their potency and increase nausea,please tell me.I am being poisoned by the methadone system,which refuses to reveal on what.It seems that addicts have no right to know what is being used to adulterate their medication.

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