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The Motherboard Guide to New Psychoactive Substances

Almost everything you'd ever want to know about the near past, present, and possible ecommerce futures of "new" and "legal" brain-blasting drugs.

by Brian Anderson
Jul 1 2013, 3:00pm
Image via Flickr / CC.  

Don't let that label fool you. What you've maybe been hearing referred to as "new psychoactive substances" are only "new" insofar as they represent the most recent wave of mind-altering laboratory drugs to flood today's global online market for so-called legal highs. Some of these substances are indeed novel, sure, though many others are not "new" inventions whatsover. They've simply been laying dormant until time inevitably comes to replace the newest banned drug. 

Either way, the rate at which these designer narcotics are being deliberately tweaked, multiplied, and strewn across the Dark Web's one-stop pharmacies is so outpacing existing international drug regulations that officials are scrambling more than ever to try and figure out how the hell to tackle the problem, if in fact it can actually be tackled.

That's one of the big takeaways from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2013 World Drug Report (pdf). The global drugs assesment found that use of traditional illicit drugs--cocaine, heroin, cannabis, etc.--around the world has "remained stable" through 2012, the most recent year for which we have reliable data. Yet it casts in dire terms a dramatic rise in the production, sale, and consumption of new psychoactives. Never before, it seems, has the legal murkiness of "legal" highs placed the growing number of designer drugs, and all those who make, sell, and consume the stuff, so far beyond the grasp of international controls. At the end of 2009, UN member states reported 166 designer drugs. By mid-2012 that number had jumped to 251. That's more than the number (234) of currently illegal drugs, and for all we know is an almost comically conservative estimate.   

To make some sense of the new psychoactive boom, here are some of the key concepts, drug classes, figures, lesser-known players, events, and assorted oddities that make the legal highs marketplace the booming hive of post-capitalist, virtually unregulated ecommerce that it is in 2013. This guide is by no means comprehensive--at the rate at which synthetics are being cranked out and eaten up, how could this sort of thing ever be finished? But it you're looking to place where we are, how we got here, and where the future of brain-melting synthetic substances may be heading, take this dose.  


Number of new psychoactive drugs that American (bio)chemist, psychopharmacologist, and all-around psychedelic high priest Alexander Shulgin predicts will be available by 2050. 


A compound whose chemical structure is similar to that of another compound, save for one differing property. Simple enough, right?  

If only. Even before the online research chemical (RC) and legal high scene exploded in earnest in 2008, "analogue" had for the UN and its major signatories become synonymous with any new drug that was essentially identical in structure and effect to an illicit drug but for one chemical distinction. The irony is that thanks to this subtle, albeit crucial structural tweak the new substance, the analogue, might end up carrying far greater health risks for consumsers than the illegal drug itself. And yet it's just not the same as the banned drug. The analogue, in other words, is legal. 

Well, sort of. In the US, efforts to thwart this workaround were first outlined in the Federal Analog Act of 1986, which amended the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 so as to classify any analogue of a controlled substance that's intended for human consumption as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning the government considers it to be of zero medical worth and highly abusable to boot. Other countries have adopted similar legislation, though the workaround appears all the more rampant today as designer drug makers, dealers, and users alike the world over continue taking the legal high underground to dizzying new heights. The analogue is the their trump card. 

Oh, the UN just banned Drug X? That's cute. In a week there will be four, five, maybe a half dozen "new" substances to take its place.


In a word, tranquilizers. You're maybe familiar with legal brand-name staples like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan, of which there are dozens of analogues, though as far as we can tell hundreds of benzo variants are possible.  


Uppers that mimick the effects of amphetamines and whose parent chemical derives from khat (Catha edulis), a shrub indigenous to east Africa. Many legal highs sold in the US as "bath salts" are synthetic cathinones, as is Mephedrone, or MCAT, and all its variants.  


Atom clusters that are housed inside molecules and play a role in chemical reactions characteristic of said molecules. Not to be confused with moiety.


As it stands, international drug policy is guided by three UN treaties: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961, pdf), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971, pdf), and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychoactive Substances (1988, pdf), which outlawed some of the more commonly used precursor chemicals used to make illegal drugs. Most of the UN's member states are party to this drugs policy trifecta, and as such are legally obligated to go after all those who manufacture, sell, and possess any of the hundreds of substances flagged by the UN treaties as otherwise non-scientific or medicinally bankrupt.    

That second treaty, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, would serve as a template for comprehensive controlled substance policyin both Britain and the US, the two biggest buyers and consumers of new psychoactive drugs. Two Parliament acts, the Medicines Act of 1968 (pdf) and the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 (pdf), frame controlled substance policy in the UK, where drugs shake out in three classes--A, B, and C. As in the US, where comprehensive policy laid down in the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 (pdf) classifies drugs into five Schedules, the higher up the Class/Schedule the more severe the punishment. 


Tagged by roving Russian (nationalist?) street gangs after hunting down, harassing, and publically shaming the owners of head shops that peddle synthethic weed.


The OG ambassador of Ecstasy. When Shulgin turned him on to MDMA in 1977--at that time the drug was still legal--Zeff, an Oakland-based psychologist and psychotherapist, was moved to the core. He cancelled his retirement plans and hit the road, dosing untold thousands of curious psychonauts with MDMA on the belief that the drug's way of fragmenting personal boundaries could guide both therapist and patient to the root of suffering. Zeff believed the empathogenic drug could restore one's primordial innocence, and so termed MDMA "Adam."


The precursor equivalent of the analogue workaround. For example, a mega-potent variant of MDMA that swept Europe in mid 2012 was the handiwork of Danish chemists who cracked the code on international controls on MDMA precursors--rather than using PMK, a tightly-controlled MDMA precursor, they imported from China a legal analogue, solid PMK-glycidate, of the prohibited banned precursor. It's this sort of tweaking that stokes the global synthetic drug phenomenon's "analogous, tail-chasing circularity," as British journalist Mike Power writes in Drugs 2.0


The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' 2010 report (.pdf) that banned Mephedrone in the UK in 2010. The rise and fall of Mephedrone, or meow meow, will go down in the annals of designer drugs as the first great legal high. And if anything, banning the stuff did nothing to stamp out use of designer drugs. The moment meow meow was deemed illegal, the race to cook up something to fill the void, to produce the next mephedrone was on, "with users and dealers outdoing each other in ingenuity and greed," according to Power, who's extentisive reporting at the intersection of ecommerce and designer highs first brought the meow meow phenomenon into the international spotlight. 


Stimulants closely related to amphetamines in both structure and effects, but that more often than not last much longer. See: Shit that eats your face. 


Site of an infamous "rave-style party" in 2004 where a few sailors were arrested for slinging narcotics. Eventually the Drug Enforcement Administration put it together that the drugs had been purchased in bulk over the internet, and set in motion a multi-state sting that would be come to be called Operation Web Tryp. Web Tryp targeted the online sale of phenethylamines and tryptamines (see below), and would culminate in the arrest of 10 individuals behind five major drug websites. 


Next-level psychedelic uppers. As structural variations on Shulgin's 2C class of substituted phenethylamines (ie., organic compounds extracted from phenethylamine itself), these drugs, according to Power, are more powerful "by a factor of at least 50." 


Organic compounds known for intense psychedelic and stimulant effects the likes of mescaline, the blood of cacti. A good deal of these were first cooked up by Shulgin, who painstakingly cataloged their chemical makeup and wide-ranging effects in seminal chem-head tome PIHKAL. Certain phenethylamines--DOC and DOM come to mind--are extremely active at milligram-or-less dosages. You'll typically find these in the ever-shifting milieu of designer/new psychoactive drugs fitting the 2C-series classification.   


Or, beans. High-power stimulants that are long-lasting even at low doses. See: Ritalin, Aderall, or any other ADD- or ADHD-intended drugs now widely used as study and workplace aids. 


Raw substance used to create another substance. In the legal high landscape, these are the building blocks of designer psychoactive. Want to produce, say, MDMA in bulk? You'll need to first procure a bunch of safrole or methylamine


A substance that triggers a chemical reaction. Used across the legal-high community, primarly among dealers and users who want to be sure they haven't been scammed, as a quality check. Take the Marquis reagent, which is applied to "Ecstasy" pills to (dis)prove the presence of MDMA. 


In which atoms of a given molecular structure are replaced via chemical reaction. Call it analoguing--in the chemistry of new legal highs, this is the subtle, yet deliberate tweaking of a drug's structure so as to alter its psychotropic punch or its legal status (or both). 


The underlying law of drugs supply and demand: The moment one substance dries up, be that a result of hastily-written legislation banning the stuff or of a precursor-chemical drought, another substance (potentially even a slew of new new substances) will promply take its place. It's a harsh, hydra-headed truth that in so many ways lays at the heart of today's new psychoactive landscape. 


Or, the Onion Router. Free software enabling anonymous internet browsing. Though it's widely used by citizens looking to circumvent the online crackdowns of repressive regimes--indeed, this is why first-world superpowers may never be able to get away with shutting down the browser--Tor is the engine of the legal high marketplace. It is what allows makers, buyers, sellers and users of new psychoactive substances to fly under the radar. And like so many tools appropriated by the masses, it's a product of the US armed forces. Tor was borne of a little-known experiment of--you guesed it--the US Navy.


Naturally-occuring psychedelics with effects akin to those experienced on psilocybin-rich mushrooms. 

Ok, your turn. What are we missing? (A lot.)

Reach Brian at @thebanderson

More on psychoactive drugs and legal highs:

Why You See What You See When You're Tripping on Psychedelics

New Zealand Wants to Legalize Synthetic and Designer Drugs

new psychoactive substances
research chemicals