What It's Like to Run the Biggest Drug Encyclopedia in the World
Kenan Sulayman's website PsychonautWiki is an online resource for information on more than 300 hallucinogens.
Photo: David Meulenbeld
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
PsychonautWiki is an online drugs encyclopedia that aims to document in a clear, academic tone every known hallucinogenic substance and its effects. The website features product summaries on obscure drugs like 5-MeO-DiBF or 25B-NBOMe, which are then often used by dark web dealers as descriptions across different online black markets.
So far, the group—largely made up of PhD students from a wide range of countries, such as the United States, Germany, Iran, and Switzerland—has documented over 300 hallucinogens.
PsychonautWiki isn't the first attempt at creating an online drug encyclopedia, but it is the most successful. Today, the website attracts about half a million visitors per month, of which a quarter come from the dark web. The current driving force behind the project is software engineer Kenan Sulayman. I spoke to the 23-year-old Berliner via Skype to find out what it's like to start and run a comprehensive drug database.
VICE: What inspired you to work on PsychonautWiki?
Kenan Sulayman: From an early age, I've been attracted to doing things that stretched, and often exceeded, typical boundaries. This attitude has also gotten me into a lot of trouble. I was kicked out of several high schools, and generally considered an outsider. But one thing I've always had a passion for is programming—I think it's beautiful to be able to write something and then watch it come to life. Through that, I learned a lot about Tor.
How did you get from Tor and the dark web to the website?
It started from Josie Kins' blog, Disregard Everything I Say. Kins and her readers tried to create a clear overview of all the effects psychedelics can have on a person. That project outgrew the blog, so she created the Wiki. It was first called Encyclopedia Psychonautica, but just try to pronounce that. It soon morphed into PsychonautWiki.
Who is Josie and why are you running the project now, if she's the real founder?
It's a bit of a long story. Josie is a trans woman from England who I met at the beginning of 2016, while she was working on the Wiki with an American named Jenny. They had met via the blog, and later Josie moved to Durham [a city in northeast England] to be with Jenny.
When I first joined the project I was just a contributor, but I quickly realized that it was something I was really passionate about, and so I wanted to help grow it. It became a full-time hobby for me. I focused on professionalizing the whole thing: I brought in more volunteers and helped to create guidelines for the articles. For instance, we never use the word "drugs," as it has negative connotations in many languages. I brought in a lot of my experience as a software engineer to help scale the whole thing up.
One thing that did worry me about the entire project was the unhealthy relationship some of our contributors had with drugs. Before I joined, a few writers had died due to an overdose, and no one seemed to make a huge fuss about it. They used anything and everything, such as 3-MeO-PCP—a kind of ketamine that makes you psychotic. There was one guy who contributed a lot to the website at first but who completely lost it and attacked an old lady. I hear he's in jail now.
Watch a VICE feature film about Canada's fentanyl crisis from the perspective of drug users:
It must be hard running a website when your employees are off their heads and attacking the elderly.
And that wasn't all. Another of our admins was using the same stuff and he became really paranoid. He started to believe that all of our contributors were being controlled by aliens, and so he turned the homepage into a sort of temple for these extraterrestrials. To me, this was another sign that the organization needed to be professionalized.
How did you turn all that into a normally functioning website?
With lots and lots of patience. Of course, it took some time for people to get to know me. I took on all of the technical responsibilities and started making small edits. That's how I slowly gained their trust. It was a bit uncomfortable for me at first—I wasn't used to an environment in which people would act this wildly; at times, I felt a bit like their therapist. From there, I eventually took on more and more responsibilities. Then, toward the end of 2016, we all met up in Durham, where we did quite a lot of drugs together. It felt like an initiation of sorts, which brought us closer together. It was there that I got to know Josie and Jenny a lot better. On the downside, I started to notice that things weren't quite right with them.
What do you mean?
I'd rather not get into the details, but I can tell you Jenny passed away in 2017 after taking a combination of benzodiazepines and antipsychotics. That was the real wake-up call. By that point, Josie was also no longer capable of working. So in 2017, I had to take over the site. If I hadn't, the entire project would have gone to shit. Today, 20,000 edits later, we're on track.
What changed when you took over?
I put more of a structure in place, with a core group of editors. You have to actively contribute to remain part of that core, and you cannot attack others. PsychonautWiki needs to be place where people feel safe. I also tried to improve the quality of the articles. For instance, many of the summaries of certain substances were clearly written by someone who had just experienced them. So we introduced another rule that said you were not allowed to write an article while under the influence of any kind of drug whatsoever.
How do you make sure of that?
Just by cleaning the website editorially. Lots of articles were written in an irresponsible way. Sometimes, for example, it would say on the page about heroin to "make sure you have clean stuff and clean needles." If you put it that way to a user, they'll think it's fine to take heroin as long as your stuff is clean.
One of the most notable things we do now is put warnings at the top of certain pages. We'll do this when there are things users really need to be careful of—certain combinations or amounts. We don't want to judge anyone, we just stay close to the facts. I still believe people are free to make their own mistakes.
For information on safer drug use, visit The Loop.
This article originally appeared on VICE NL.