On a Saturday night in a north London club, 26-year-old Mo swallows a pink pill with a mouthful of Red Bull. Within the hour, he's dancing uncontrollably. Though the euphoria swelling through his body is similar to what he'd feel after dropping ecstasy, the lights above the DJ – which trail on and on, as if reflected on water – indicate that he hasn't taken MDMA, but 2C-B, a hallucinogenic drug available on the dark net that has found a captive audience in the UK's clubbers.
"It's the most widespread party drug after MDMA, coke and ketamine," says Mo when I speak to him days later, "but it's still common to find people who've never heard of it."
First synthesised in 1974 by Alexander Shulgin – the man who famously popularised MDMA's use in psychology – 2C-B itself began as a therapeutic aid, before being sold commercially as the aphrodisiac Erox by the German company Drittewelle. In 1985, it became a short-lived substitute for ecstasy in the US when MDMA was criminalised, and for a time was sold in Dutch smart shops under the name Nexus. Most 2C-B that arrives in Britain today – where it's illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act – still gets made in Dutch labs.
For decades, only psychedelic connoisseurs knew about 2C-B. In recent years, with drug message boards like those on Reddit gaining hundreds of thousands of subscribers, knowledge has spread, inspiring more and more dealers to sell it on the darknet. Beyond London clubs, impact can be seen in the 2018 Global Drugs Survey, where 6.7 percent of respondents said they'd used it, above heroin and crack; in the 2018 Kanye West song "Yikes", where he raps, "Tweakin', tweakin' off that 2C-B, huh"; and among Colombia's elite, for whom – Semana reports – it's become a drug of choice.
Mo and the people he rubs sweaty shoulders with have more drugs available to them than previous generations, but also belong to a cohort where harm reduction knowledge is high and day-long hangovers are made untenable by weekend shifts, freelance work and the need to self-start.
"MDMA was the first drug I tried," says Mo, "and that definitely had a positive impact on my personality. I became less of an introvert and it helped me find the techno scene, where I enjoyed the music and felt I belonged. After that, I took an interest in drugs' effects and pharmacology, and harm reduction, which thankfully restrained me from taking MDMA excessively as, at the time, it would've been easy to go overboard."
This is where 2C-B comes in. Unlike MDMA, it doesn't deplete serotonin, the chemical in our bodies that tells us to be happy. Instead, it mimics it – in the same way as certain antidepressants – meaning sad thoughts and exhaustion after use, along with long-term damage to brain cells (neurotoxicity), aren't as likely. Though research on 2C-B is scant, users also suggest that one's tolerance to it resets after roughly 48 hours – again different to MDMA, where even taking it once every few months leaves people chasing diminishing highs with increasing amounts.
"Cognitively, I don't feel 2C-B negatively impacts me," says Mo. "I've dropped it consecutive weeks too, and in the days after I don't experience any sort of hangover. The body load [physical sensation] on the come-up has made me feel quite nauseous and uncomfortable a few times, but this can be mitigated by taking it on an empty stomach, having minimal alcohol beforehand and avoiding high doses."
A 2C-B pill costs about £7 on the darknet – though if you buy more, like Mo, it obviously costs less – with 20 milligrams a typical dose. Despite being known as perhaps the most painful drug to snort, 2C-B powder is also available; snorting hits harder and faster, with effects fading quicker. A normal pill come-up takes about 45 to 75 minutes, while the peak lasts two to four hours and the comedown one to two.
According to Mo, when dancing to techno on 2C-B he feels "connected" – so much so that, despite sweating profusely, he'd rather take his soaking-wet T-shirt off than go outside and take a breath.
He isn't the only one; back in the club, it's so warm that condensation is literally dripping down the walls. At the end of the night, it'll look like the club has flooded. He's also getting closed-eye visualisations (CEVs) – colourful patterns that morph repeatedly – but, beyond the trailing lights, he'd need a bigger dose to experience full-on open-eye visualisations (OEVs).
The drug's effects increase and decrease in intensity over the course of a trip, though in large part 2C-B is much more controllable than other hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms.
"2C-B has been described as a cross between MDMA and LSD," says Mo, "and I can see why people feel that way, but I personally feel it's closer to LSD – a shorter-lasting version of LSD with a more manageable headspace, which makes it suitable for clubbing. The body high has all the classic symptoms of hallucinogens: increased sense of touch, tingly fingers on the come-up and lights seem brighter and more vibrant."
As with every hallucinogen, there's an undercurrent of paranoia to some 2C-B trips that can leave the user feeling at odds with their surroundings. At one point, Mo stops dancing and puts his soaking-wet T-shirt back on, before looking around confused. He also checks his phone and sees it's much earlier than imagined; the sense of time passing quicker is another effect of 2C-B.
Regardless of the prevailing narrative among users, then, 2C-B does come with its negatives. Like MDMA, the drug affects heart rate and the central nervous system, and people occasionally experience headaches after large doses. Watching Mo sweat, it's also clear that potential for heatstroke exists, so staying well hydrated while raving is essential.
Moreover, 2C-B has been linked with serious brain injury in one woman; however, dose and purity weren't known. The lethal dose of 2C-B also isn't known – yet users on Reddit have reportedly taken hundreds of milligrams without life-threatening incident, though some did incur hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), meaning they experienced the effects of 2C-B long after it left their systems. Generally, doses above 15 milligrams can be intense, while ones over 25 – where OEVs become more frequent – are occasionally frightening.
Though part of the same family of compounds, 2C-B isn't the same as 2C-P, the more dangerous drug implicated in the death of Louella Fletcher-Michie at Bestival in 2017. Unlike 2C-B, 2C-P has a history of overdoses dating back to the early-90s – although Fletcher-Michie was the first recorded death – and today is sold by just one darknet dealer. However, it's still available on the regular internet as a research chemical from legal sites aimed, in theory, at scientists.
As another wave of euphoria hits, though, and Mo begins dancing again, those negatives are so far from his mind that they might as well not exist.