A History of Bad Legal Highs

There are a million legal ways to get high, from airplane glue to just holding your breath for a while. In fact, most legal highs suck. But for many people, especially very young people, legal highs are the easiest way to pleasantly scramble your brain...

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Aug 21 2014, 5:00am

Thumbnail via flickr user AVLXYZ

In the US, the term “legal high” calls to mind products that by now, even high schoolers know not to smoke. They come in sketchy-looking packets, labeled as “Not For Human Consumption.” They're marketed as incense or, famously, bath salts. In the UK, the term more often calls to mind pills meant to mimic ecstasy. With tabloid coverage across the pond saying just this week that legal highs "will kill more people than heroin within two years," the UK version of legal high hysteria is a little more intense.

Still, they're essentially the same concept: You shake them out of the package you bought at a head shop, not knowing what the substance is even going to look like. You pop it into a bong, if applicable, or pop it directly into your mouth, if applicable, and you see where it takes you: maybe pleasure town, or maybe seizure town! Who knows? It’s the journey, not the destination.

But there are a million legal ways to get high, from airplane glue to just holding your breath for a while. And just because something is legal, and just because the TV news is airing lame reports telling your parents to be scared of it, that doesn't automatically mean it's something that's actually worth doing. In fact, most legal highs suck. But for many people, especially very young people, legal highs are the easiest way to pleasantly scramble your brain the weekend after midterms. 

It’s not that the DEA approves of these chemicals. They’re just tough to police when they’re new. I talked to Vijay Rathi, public information officer of the DEA in Los Angeles about legal highs. He told me that indictments for "violating bans on controlled substance analogs,” are new, but they’re happening. Violations of the 1986 Federal Analog Act are a little hard to prosecute, since those incense labels give them legal standing. It's only easy to prosecute someone for selling an untested drug that's being sold as a drug. Still, Operation Log Jam is the very real name of an ongoing federal crackdown on synthetic drugs.

But it's tough to put someone away for selling a chemical that the FDA has never even heard of before, if it's not being advertised as a drug. After all, companies like Dow, which made $57 billion last year, invents chemicals and sells them to the public all the time. You can't suddenly tell Dow that every new household cleaner or bug poison has to go through the same clinical trials as a new antidepressant.

So until Operation Log Jam is successful, and every shitty way to get high is swept safely into the dustbin of history, here's a guide to not having fun with legal chemicals.

Actual Medicine

If you have a prescription for oxycodone, and you need it, say because you have chronic pain, you get a bonus legal opiate buzz out of the deal. Purple drank, before it stopped being manufactured, was an actual prescription drug for sick people. Still, if you can't get a prescription for something halfway decent, there are a few drugs you can get over the counter that work to get you kinda sorta high. 

The kid in the video above was on dextromethorphan cough syrup, which is the over-the-counter cough syrup your pharmacist keeps locked up. Kids who have done some Googling, or perused the indispensable Erowid, love digging around in their parents' medicine cabinets and going, "Dude, you can actually get high off this!" The highs aren't very enjoyable though—mostly just drowsiness. And your cackling, shithead friends who are filming you on their smartphones will make the experiences even worse.

Synthetic Weed

Companies make synthetic cannabis products by grinding up plant matter, and then soaking it in a few synthetic cannabinoids, letting it dry, and packaging it. If these substances aren't banned wherever you're reading this, and marijuana is, synthetic cannabis might be the only weed, or weed-like experience you can get your hands on. 

On the other hand, the risks are obvious. Formulations like K2 and Spice, have their fans, but there are also people who got too high on K2 and Spice and it went badly. According to the kinds of TV news reports America's moms and dads watch before bed, people who take synthetic weed sometimes blow their brains out, or go into cardiac arrest and die.

Putting aside the potential lethality, watching people use fake weed can be a fun way to kill time on YouTube. Unlike with illegal highs, people are comfortable getting filmed while smoking K2 or Spice. People’s experiences are documented in their entirety, and you can enjoy the rides alongside them from start to finish. At their best, most of the experiences look less fun than the high you get from, say, spinning around for a while. At their worst, they're scary. Here's a kid who couldn't be older than 14 having a hard time on K2:

That may have been hard to watch because the kid was so young, but his reaction didn't seem outside the realm of possibility for an inexperienced marijuana user. We've all seen someone at a party get too high, and then take a long, dark inward journey.

This next poor guy on the other hand (If you choose to believe the video, and I do), has just smoked something that is not even from the same planet as weed:

There are tons of these videos—maybe as many videos of bad trips as there are manufacturers producing synthetic cannabis. As far as I know, though, those manufacturers aren't comparing notes with one another. Since these ostensibly aren't drugs or foods according to their packaging, they don't have to follow any guidelines about what the concentration is, how evenly it was applied to the plants, which plant is used, or how thoroughly it's soaked or dried.

Remember: if you smoke synthetic cannabis and your blood turns into sulfuric acid and your organs melt, the company isn't responsible. It said right on the package that it wasn't for human consumption! Review sites exist for spreading consumer information, but they're sketchy as hell. Making an informed decision is hard. 

Party Pills

The term "legal ecstasy" used to just refer to a drug called benzylpiperazine, or BZP. It worked like a less intense version of ecstasy, and in the 1990s, when news reports started talking about scary new things called "designer drugs" that were supposed to be high-class pills for night club people to take before an evening's debauchery, they were often talking about BZP. Being high on BZP seems like it's fine and not that big of a deal:

Unfortunately, after bans in the early 2000s, you can't really get BZP in stores in the English-speaking world anyway. Today, if you like party pills, you'll have to settle for derivatives that haven't been explicitly banned yet.

Party pills show up in the US, but mysterious convenience store energy pills are more abundant. In the UK and Australia, there seem to be many more retailers using the term "party pill," like Legalpartypills.co.uk, a janky-looking website with testimonials from people like Chris, a 23-year-old in Chicago. 

I'm pretty worried about the premature aging effect these things are having on Chris. He looks fun for a 46-year-old though. I definitely want to pop some Cok-N with Chris and party until dawn.

The precise contents of the pills aren't listed, but when they're analyzed, other than caffeine and other wild-card ingredients, BZP derivatives, known as piperazines, seem to be the meat and potatoes of the formulae. But not all BZP derivatives do the same thing. Dibenzylpiperazine for instance is a really good example of a chemical that is very similar to BZP when you look at a diagram of the molecule, but it's worlds apart in terms of effect. The author of its Wikipedia article considers it a mere "impurity," not a drug in its own right, but it's a chemical that does show up in cut-rate party pills.

One particularly unloved party pill that most likely contains dibenzylpiperazine is Doves. A Redditor named Kearvelli reviewed a night out with her friends on Doves. Here's an excerpt:

One user reported feeling a "sense of impending doom" following him everywhere he went, and felt like he always had to move away from it. There was also a lot of general confusion and uncertainty [around] their feelings and emotions. The general consensus, however, was that these were terrible pills and everyone felt pretty awful. Many said it was like getting a shot of the flu, that it was not enjoyable on any level, felt like they were dying, wanted it to end, etc.

Psychonauts and devotees of the late ecstasy god, Alexander Shulgin, who consider themselves spiritual explorers on adventures across the vast galaxies inside their own minds, often aren't content with prepackaged drugs that are approved by The Man, even when The Man, in this case, is just a mainstream drug dealer. Some of these folks are into buying research chemicals and figuring out what they do to their brains. Arguing, often very justifiably, that what they're doing is for science, no matter how bad the trip ends up being.

However, Rathi at the DEA pointed out to me that “there is a legal process to temporarily schedule these chemicals as controlled substances when the DEA believes there’s a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.” He referred me to three synthetic phenethylamines that were temporarily scheduled last year. For reference, in his book Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved, Alexander Shulgin provides 179 phenethylamine recipes, all of which are delightful in their own ways (to a trained expert).

Plants

"It's just a plant. It grows out of the ground, man," is one famous defense of marijuana. It's a lousy defense though. Even marijuana can be tough on people if they're New York Times columnists. Still, for the most part, it makes sense that marijuana is the Beatles of drugs. It's that popular because it's just that good. 

Other naturally occurring plants that are legal, like yopo, jimson weed and salvia divinorum have seen unexpected, and frankly unwanted surges in popularity over the past decade. Plants that can just be picked in their natural form, and then smoked or eaten, to produce psychotropic effects may seem like a gift from the gods. But in many cases, these drugs are only fun for very advanced users. Otherwise they're exclusively for vision quests and sweat lodges.

Yopo, a batch of which can be cooked up from raw ingredients in any kitchen, is a hallucinogen that's snorted, and like many drugs that have held onto their status as "ceremonial herbs," yopo doesn't exactly make you want to listen to Dark Side of the Moon. Instead, it makes you feel weird and headachy. As an added bonus, to make your trip even weirder, sometimes you can have yopo blown up your nostrils with a straw by a shaman: 

But that's nothing compared to the insanely bad trips you can get from other natural herbs. When we all saw the notorious Miley Cyrus bong video, we heard Cyrus say she was having a bad trip on some salvia divinorum. She's definitely very high, and getting really intense about how much some guy looks like Liam Hemsworth:

Still, the contents of that bong are a matter of considerable internet debate. The video came at a time before Miley Cyrus had cleansed the "child star" taint from the first sentence of her biography, so when she later said "that bong was just full of salvia! Salvia is legal," I for one assumed it was just meant to demonstrate that she was smoking a wholesome, legal chemical, and not a nasty illegal one.

But why would people assume that's weed, and not really Salvia? Because she doesn't really get that high. Salvia is a crazy rocketship ride through Oz, and into the scariest parts of Eraserhead, and then momentarily into total oblivion, and back again after five minutes. In short, it takes you beyond "tripping balls" status.

Behold:

But then again, really bad salvia trips always seem to happen when the other people in the video goad the users into taking an excessively huge hit, and holding it in as long as possible. Miley Cyrus' hit didn't look quite so intense (or maybe I'm underestimating her threshold for drugs).

If Salvia looked fun, jimson weed is even better. It's toxic and unpredictable, sometimes causing blindness and death when used recreationally. Even when it works as advertised, the effect is that it plunges you into Hell. Jimson weed really has nothing good going for it, other than the fact that I know a patch of grass next to a freeway overpass where I could go pick some for free.

Right now, there's a crackdown in New Hampshire on a synthetic cannabis product called "Smacked" that's causing people to "overdose," in high numbers according to CBS News. The governor of New Hampshire has issued a state-wide emergency health alert, and there's an open investigation into where Smacked is coming from. Exactly what the police are planning to do once they find out is unclear, since they'll be hunting for the maker of an incense product, according to the package. 

I hate that I agree with this crackdown. This fig leaf legality that comes from calling Smacked "incense" needs to be stripped away so that this shitty drug can be taken off the shelves. Without creative legislation, the long-term trend in this area is discouraging for law enforcement. Even if we're headed toward an equally undesirable scenario where the currently available chemicals that cause freakouts and overdoses are all individually scheduled as controlled substances, and simple possession becomes a criminal offense, there's still a vast periodic table of elements for chemists to monkey around with. They'll never stop creating newer and often shittier things for people to smoke and swallow. 

Maybe I'm crazy, but economically speaking, it seems like the human desire to get high, and a lack of available products that fulfill that desire, leave a conspicuously large gap in the market, and that gap is sometimes being filled by this toxic waste. If only there were a drug that people enjoy and have extensive knowledge about, that could fill that gap. It would have to be something with extremely mild side effects, and something that had been made legal in certain areas in order to prove that legalization wouldn't have some kind of disastrous effect.

What miracle product would that be, though?

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