“Would I be happy to be remembered as the person that invented mephedrone? As my eulogy? My epitaph?” says Israeli chemist Dr Zee. “No, I would not.”
Zee is often credited with the drug that made your sweat smell like cat’s pee and kept the afters popping during its late-00s heyday. Mephedrone is probably the most famous research chemical – at least in the UK where, in the space of a couple of fun but sleep-deprived years, it become the joint-second most popular drug, after cannabis, for young people.
Whether Zee actually did create mephedrone is something we’ll explore later. But he is one of many figures in the curious history of research chemicals, a cache of substances that linger at the fringes of drug culture.
Let’s take a look behind the wizard’s 2C-E dusted sleeve. The term “research chemicals” is notoriously oblique. They’ve been called “legal highs”, “bath salts”, “plant food”, and “new (or sometimes ‘novel’) psychoactive substances” (NPS). The latter term is what the European Monitoring for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA) uses in a recent 25-year report denoting them as “a broad range of drugs that are not controlled by the United Nations Drug Control Conventions”. The EMCDDA says 52 NPSes were formally registered in 2021 alone, and that 884 of these substances have been reported for the first time since 1997.
But our story really begins in the 90s with a kindly, sandal-wearing and pun-loving scientist living on a ramshackle hilltop farm in Lafayette, California: Alexander Shulgin. Universally known by the nickname Sasha, he is periodically called the “godfather of ecstasy”.
Sasha, co-authoring with his second wife Ann, published PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story in 1991. PiHKAL is an anagram for “phenethylamines I have known and loved”, and these are chemical compounds found in the body that can be lab-replicated to induce a wild range of psychoactive effects. In PiHKAL, a 978-page tome, Shulgin synthesises and tests 179 phenethylamine-based substances, giving detailed instructions to make each.
“The personal story of PiHKAL really personalised and validates psychonaut exploration,” says DanceSafe founder Emanuel Sferios, who was a personal friend of the Shulgins and often visited their farm and its famously unconventional lab. “I think he really kicked off what we’re seeing today.”
But it wasn’t an instant blastoff – at least, not until the internet got involved. In his book Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How The World Gets High, author Mike Power details how the rise of research chemicals is entwined with the widespread adoption of the world wide web. Still-thriving drugs information websites like Erowid and Bluelight – launching in 1995 and 1997 respectively – created collaborative online environments for psychonauts to commune.
Power posits that when PiHKAL (and its similarly huge sequel TiHKAL) were uploaded onto Erowid in 1999, it was “a revolutionary act in an information war… Now, not only could you read the information Shulgin had preserved so presciently, you could forward it to anyone with a few keystrokes”.
Between 2000 and 2004, Power says that “new compounds were emerging with dizzying speed”. In his book Fierce Chemistry, author Harry Shapiro writes that the 2001 emergence of the research chemical BZP – originally conceived as a worming tablet in the 50s, it reemerged in trials for a new antidepressant which were ceased once the substance was found to have mild stimulant properties – started a “gold rush of underground activity to develop new generations of drugs.”
While this emerging market was good news for proto-sesh gremlins, casualties came with it. A number of American deaths in the early 2000s were attributed to 2C-T-7, an analogue of the now-flourishing psychedelic stimulant 2-CB. The EMCDDA released a report in 1999 after the research chemical 4-MTA led to four UK deaths and one in the Netherlands. (In a tragic irony, pills sold containing this amphetamine derivative were known as flatliners.)
By 2002, though, the UK government amended the Misuse of Drugs Act to ban all Shulgin’s chemical darlings. Nevertheless, an online UK-based research chemical scene bubbled as nimble-fingered scientists simply altered the chemical composition of banned substances, rendering them as legal as a tin of tomato soup. At its apex was the UK Chemical Research Forum which Dominic Trott, author of The Drug Users Bible, joined in the mid-00s. The forum was a knowledge-hungry community working towards a common aim: taking a telescope to the mind’s infinite universe without hurting themselves.
“[There were] chemists, labs, vendors, users, psychonauts, all debating. If someone was selling something weird, it would very quickly become known,” says the almost unreasonably nice Trott, who is a fine advert for the benefits of imbibing over 180 psychoactive substances. “It was almost a self-regulation framework that required the providers to behave ethically and take notice of harm reduction. It was as healthy as an unregulated market could be.” According to Trott, there was even a clutch of pre-darkweb online vendors, where the curious could purchase individual substances tailored to their individual preference.
The other big winners were the headshops: the purveyors of bongs, Rizla papers (and for a short, glorious summer in 2004, magic mushroom truffles) dotting Britain’s high streets. After years of peddling famously crap legal highs, they started selling brightly packaged research chemical blends that imitated illegal drugs to varying degrees of success.
“The blends were more popular in headshops than they were online, probably because of the marketing,” says Trott, a semi-regular at Dr Hermans headshop in Manchester. “They were invariably a mix of two or three chemicals. You’d always have a stimulant – quite often MPA. Then some sort of empathogens, which could be MDAI, while it was around. Then sometimes they’d have 5-MeO-DALT, which was a really weak psychedelic to give it a background effect.”
Brand names like Sparkle E, Pink Panthers, Gogaine, Benzo Fury and Ivory Wave soon gained a place in the headshop hall of infamy – and it’s here that the self-regulation framework developed cracks. “They [the headshops] couldn’t give harm reduction advice,” says Steve Rolles, senior policy advisor of Transform Drugs and author of How To Regulate Stimulants.
To skirt the legal grey area, the substances were labeled not for human consumption. “On the one hand, it was a legal get-around,” says Rolles. “But, on the other, this mitigated any form of health and safety advice because [the headshops] would then be liable for its use.”
It took two headline substances to bring research chemicals into the mainstream British consciousness. One was the synthetic cannabinoid “Spice”, or JWH-018 to its creator John W. Huffman, a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University.
The synthetic cannabinoid (SCRA) binds to the same receptors in the brain as THC – weed’s psychoactive ingredient that gets you high. Trott tells VICE that JWH-018 was “cannabis-like, but with facets missing, and significantly, there was a rougher, artificial, edge.”
In the UK, the Misuse of Drugs Act was amended to ban two generations of SCRA in 2009 and again in 2012. This led to the development of progressively stronger SCRAs, all generically tagged as Spice. They gave birth to the “Spice Zombies” tabloid headline, popularly used to describe the users – often homeless people – who were seemingly catatonic after taking the drug.
The Psychoactive Substances Act – a piece of British legislation described by former government drugs advisor David Nutt in his book Nutt Uncut as the “worst law to control human choice and behaviour in the last 400 years” – was subsequently passed in 2016. As well as scything down the UK research chemical scene by banning the sale of any psychoactive substances other than alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, the PSA maximised the harm potential of these brutal new strains of SCRAs.
“They moved into niche problematic populations like prisons and homeless people,” says Rolles. “They are very potent, very cheap, easy to smuggle into prisons and offer a level of escape similar to heroin, crack, or street benzos. They became drugs of despair.” Street benzodiazepines – mainly an NPS called Etizolam – are now a pillar in the tragic architecture of the UK’s appalling drug deaths.
A substance with a far reduced detrimental public health impact – 133 deaths in England and Wales have only ever been attributed to it – was that other media pariah: mephedrone AKA MCAT, bubble, drone and most famously, “meow”, a jokey nickname dreamed up by users on a now-defunct drugs forum and widely adopted by the press. David Nutt even once ascribed a drop in 2009 cocaine deaths to its emergence.
Mephedrone wasn’t a Shulgin creation – its original synthesis reportedly occurred in 1929 – though it wasn’t until 2003 that its rediscovery and ascent to cultural notoriety began. This rediscovery is widely attributed to Dr Zee, but Mike Power lays credit with an underground chemist called Kinetic. In April 2003, Kinetic posted on a drugs-focused forum called The Hive with a detailed synthesis and trip report for a legal compound called 4-methylmethcathinone. In an excitable post, Kinetics says that it gave him a “fantastic sense of well-being that I haven't got from any drug before except my beloved ecstasy”.
Small capsules called “Hagigat” started circulating in Israel. They contained cathinone – the synthetic compound present in mephedrone – which is organically present in khat, the green plant traditionally chewed by the country’s Yemenite population for its gentle stimulatory effects. These pills were sold in roadside booths and apparently made by Dr Zee, becoming a feature on the country’s party scene before being banned in 2004.
Dr Zee is now working on a beta-stage business in Vancouver to synthesise plants as medicine. He tells VICE over a phone call: “I am not Kinetic… I was not aware of him when I came up with [mephedrone]. I didn’t steal from him. But the difference between Kinetic and me is that you can get me on the phone and you can’t get them him, or her, or it.”
Regardless of whoever came up with it first, the UK banned mephedrone in 2010 after a barrage of often laughable publicity that reached a tragic apex when two young men’s deaths were misattributed to mephedrone. (They’d actually taken methadone.) It gradually faded in popularity and, according to England and Wales statistics, was taken by only 0.1% of the population by 2018, though it continued to be used in the chemsex scene.
Crucially, however, its boom and bust took research chemicals into the narcotic mainstream. Today, there are 172,000 followers on the r/researchchemicals subreddit and a plethora of European vendors – despite the recent DEA-led closure of the legendary Dutch chemists Lizard Labs and a number of other websites accused of supplying fentanyl analogues and fuelling America’s opioid crisis.
Intriguingly, there are reports the mephedrone is enjoying a quiet resurgence. Journalist Michelle Lhooq recently wrote of the emergence of 3-MMC – a close chemical relative – into Berlin’s clubbing scene, while Adam Waugh, trustee and coordinator of Psycare tells VICE that that mephedrone “is definitely around more, and on more darknet markets”.
“Mephedrone retreated into chemsex,” Waugh says. “and I think some of the stigmas around it – the smell, the supposed deaths and the comedowns which were more likely a result of doing too much than the drug itself – have now gone. Many people report that if they don’t stay up for three days doing it; that in comparison to cocaine, mephedrone makes them feel good for a fraction of the price. It’s also less dangerous."
Making people happy, safer, and getting them off coke? Maybe not such a bad epitaph after all.