By Mike Power
It is mainly the young who are suffering the consequences of society’s inability to update our drug laws effectively for the modern age. Almost one third of young people are searching for ways of getting legally high, according to the latest survey commissioned by the Angelus Foundation, a campaign group founded in 2009 by Maryon Stewart, whose twenty-one-year-old daughter Hester, a gifted medical student and keen athlete, died after taking GBL in 2009. (Gamma-butyrolactone, a paint stripper and industrial cleaner, can be used as an intoxicant and is poplar on the club scene. It is active at 1 ml, and causes euphoria and disinhibition, but overdoses, where users fall into a coma-like state, are commonplace since it is so potent. It was legal until late 2009.)
Two-thirds of the 1,011 sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds surveyed by the Angelus Foundation in October 2012 admitted they were not well-informed about the risks associated with the new drugs on the market.
Festivals since Woodstock have been linked with drug use, whatever message their PR machines might seed in the press, so events there can tell us much about current trends of use and the attendant problems. Dip your head under the canvas at a festival medical tent and you arrive at the intersection of the net, new drugs and young people. Monty Flinsch, who runs Shanti Camp, a non-profit aid organization providing drug crisis intervention at American festivals, says that in recent years instead of dealing with the psychological issues caused by LSD, psilocybin and MDMA, they have seen seizures, delirium, violence and deaths. ‘Even discounting the hyperbolic news coverage of face-eating zombies, the real situation is substantially worse with legal research chemicals than it ever was before. It is now easier for an American teenager to obtain a powerful psychedelic than it is to obtain alcohol. Today’s scene is much more complex with the influx of large numbers of research chemicals ranging from the more common bath salts (MDPV, methylone) to much more obscure chemicals such as 25C-NBOMe and methoxetamine,’ he said.
The reasons the drugs are taken are manifold, but he believes their legality is a major draw, along with cultural influences. ‘Kids feel they are exposing themselves to less risk by taking drugs that are not going to get them arrested, and drug use is highly subject to countercultural trends, and whatever the cool kids are taking quickly becomes popular. In many cases the legal consequences of drug use far outweigh the medical risks. Our drug laws in the US are forcing users to experiment with increasingly dangerous compounds in order to avoid having their lives ruined by a criminal conviction.’
Flinsch says he cannot see any likely improvements in the future. ‘New research chemicals are ubiquitous and the problems associated with them are growing. From the frontlines we see the situation getting worse rather than better. The new compounds are poorly understood and have little or no history of human use, and therefore the problems we see are harder to characterize and therefore treat. It is sad that what is currently legal is substantially more dangerous than what is illegal.’
The entire debate around drugs, which was already philosophically and practically complex, has been made yet more intractable by the emergence of these new drugs and distribution systems. Our insistence on overlaying anachronistic models of drug control onto this digital world might, in future years, be seen as a fatal flaw that we did not address when we had the chance.
The popularization of research chemicals presents legislators, policymakers and police with an almost existential dilemma. They are charged with protecting the health of populations and reducing crimes, and these new drugs pose health risks, but are legal. The Chinese factories that produce them operate with none of the quality control typical in most pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, but customer uptake is enthusiastic. Each new ban brings a newer, possibly more dangerous drug to the market, and it is impossible to predict what the next moves might be.
Legal responses seem not only not to work, but to exacerbate the issue. The American Analog Act did nothing to prevent the arrival in 2009–11 of the JWH chemicals, the cathinones found in bath salts, and the other synthetic cannabinoids that had hit the UK and Europe in 2008. And where the early vendors of synthetic cannabis substitutes had sold the drugs online, the US did it bigger and better, and even more publicly and commercially.
In the US, in October 2011 the DEA responded by adding several of the new drugs to the controlled-substances schedule, making them formally and specifically illegal. The Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 was finally signed into law in July 2012, banning dozens of research chemicals at a stroke. Soon after the bill was passed, Time magazine quoted a Tennessee medic, Dr Sullivan Smith, who said the state had been engulfed by the new drugs. ‘The problem is these drugs are changing and I’m sure they’re going to find some that are a little bit different chemically so they don’t fall under the law,’ he said. ‘Is it adequate to name five or ten or even twenty? The answer is no, they’re changing too fast.’
Within weeks of these laws being passed, there were dozens more new drugs available in the US. One category, known as the NBOME-series of chemicals, is composed of unscheduled analogues of the banned Shulgin psychedelics 2C-I, 2C-B, 2C-D, and so on. Where Shulgin’s chemicals were generally active between 10 mg and 20 mg, these new compounds, created in legitimate medical settings for experimental purposes, are more potent by a large order of magnitude, active at around 200 µg. Each gram of these new, unresearched drugs contains around 5,000 doses, and they cost fractions of a penny per dose. The compounds existed before the most recent bans, but it was the new laws that inspired their wider use; use that will only grow as talk of their effects is amplified online. They have already claimed victims. At the Voodoo Fest in New Orleans in October 2012, twenty-one-year-old Clayton Otwell died after taking one drop of an NBOME drug. The New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper spoke to festival goers who said many dealers were selling the drug 25I-NBOME as artificial LSD or mescaline at the event. ‘This weekend, it was everywhere,’ festivalgoer Jarod Brignac, who also was with Otwell at the festival, told the paper. ‘People had bottles and bottles of it; they were walking through the crowd, trying to make a dime off people at the festival.’
There have been at least six other fatalities in the US from 25I-NBOME, Erowid reported in late 2012. There are dozens of other NBOME-drugs, and their use is growing. The Bluelight bulletin board has three threads on 25I-NBOME, running to over seventy-five pages with more than 100,000 views. Search Google for it and there are suppliers on the first page. A kilo of it can be bought for a few thousand dollars from China.
We must now allow drug users to make safer choices, and that means a gradual, tested, evaluated but concerted roll-back of all existing drug laws; particularly those concerning MDMA, marijuana, magic mushrooms and mescaline, for these are the drugs that most research chemicals seek to emulate. Only then will dangerous innovation end. Simultaneously, drug awareness classes should be compulsory at all schools with credible, evidenced and honest discussions of each drug’s effects, good and bad, including alcohol and tobacco. This will not end the debate, or addiction, or reduce drug use. But it will mean those who choose to take drugs in the future will be better informed and safer, and the costs to society lower. Governments must now seize control of the market in new and old drugs from amateurs, criminals and gangsters.
Perhaps the web’s final and most dramatic effect will be to strip drug culture of its mystique, its cachet of countercultural cool, to reveal that behind the magic and madness, there lie only molecules. At the end of it all, drugs are just carbon, hydrogen and a few other elements. They have their meaning projected onto them by users and the culture more widely. Remove the thrill of social transgression that acting illegally provides and reframe drug use in a clinical context, as a health issue, and that might change. We know in detail what the route we have taken for the last century results in: greater and more dangerous use. We now need a new approach and new data to analyse. It is not this book’s argument that any drug is entirely safe; they demonstrably are not. But to persist in the digital age with this failed and arbitrary strategy of prohibition in the face of all the evidence that it increases harm is irresponsibly dangerous.
However, although some politicians are able to admit grudgingly to youthful experimentation with drugs, it seems few are willing to experiment even moderately with new approaches in policy now they have the power to effect positive change – even at a time when the people who vote for them are demanding exactly that, and when it is more urgent than ever before.
Mike Power is a freelance investigative journalist living in London. He has worked for The Guardian, the Mail on Sunday, the BBC, and Reuters. In 2014 he received the Best Investigative Journalism Award, awarded by the Association of British Science Writers, for his piece “The drug revolution that no one can stop,” which appeared in the online journal Matter. Drugs Unlimited is his first book.