Translated by Lani Seelinger
For a bonsai fertilizer, JWH-018 was selling more than decently well. Online stores, where it had been available for two years, quickly accumulated, and with them, customers. It didn’t seem somehow strange that it echoed ironic advertising slogans promising “taller and bigger bonsai trees” upon application of the fertilizer. Similarly, it didn’t bother anyone when JWH-018 suddenly disappeared from sale. Overnight, new and equally sought-after substances replaced it. AM-2201, CP-47,497, SDB-001 . . .
If you immerse yourself securely in the confusion, it has its own logic. The world of new synthetic drugs, which are sold without violating the law both online and in brick-and-mortar stores, and which, according to a new study by the European Union, are accumulating at a staggering speed, is quite labyrinthine. And also quite dangerous. Digitalization and global trade have created a situation in which the current repressive policies regarding narcotic substances are ceasing to function. A large drug revolution has begun. And for now, it isn’t at all clear who the winner will be.
Noise from the neighbors
When American professor John Huffman found out that the drug JWH-018, which he had once created in a lab as a part of his research on cannabinoids (that is, the family of chemical substances that includes THC, which is contained in marijuana), is sold on the internet masked as a fertilizer, his first thought was that someone was making a joke. “This synthetic is a lot more dangerous than marijuana,” he told journalist Mike Power, whose book, Drugs 2.0, which surveys the current transformation of the drug scene, was released in Britain in May. “No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. These drugs, however, react differently in the body. For example, some dramatically increase blood pressure.”
Professor Huffman’s fears quickly began to be realized. The majority of western countries eventually figured out that a supposed fertilizer for bonsai trees could be smoked as a substitute for banned cannabis and added JWH-018 to the list of illegal narcotics. However, different and stronger cannabinoids that the law did not ban immediately appeared on the Internet.
Last May in Alabama, one of these substances, which was produced as a pesticide, poisoned thirty young people. No one died, but some of the victims are now looking at lifelong dialysis. At the same time in Brno, a man who had legally bought a substitute for marijuana nearly died. “He was an experienced pothead who wanted to try something new,” explains Jiří Valnoha from Podané ruce, an organization that helps drug users in Moravia. “Luckily, his neighbors heard a strange wailing from the flat next door. They found him seizing and foaming at the mouth and took him to the anesthesiology and resuscitation unit.”
According to the aforementioned study from the European monitoring center, about 300 new synthetic drugs exist on the market, whether substitutes for marijuana, hallucinogens, or stimulants. This number is growing at a rate of one a week. The majority have entered production in the last four years and are still legal and freely available for whomever, without regard to age.
Some of them have already taken human lives; for example, the still-legal stimulant 5-IT killed 14 young people in Sweden last year. Others do not pose such a great risk to the users. “The main danger is that we don’t know anything about it,” says addictologist Vendula Běláčková, who deals with the phenomenon of new synthetic drugs created not to violate existing laws. “It’s a completely new and chaotic situation.”
Similar to the dramatic change that the Internet caused in popular music, a change is now taking place in the world of narcotic drugs. Only this time, it’s not about profits in the music industry – it’s about life.
Of course, governments are quickly trying to outlaw the new drugs; the Czech Republic amended the sections about narcotic drugs two years ago and made 33 substances illegal. But each time, the effect is only temporary – new, unknown, and still legal drugs immediately replaced the banned ones in stores.
For now, these drugs make up a relatively small share of the market, but unlike the consumption of cocaine, heroine, or marijuana, their consumption is growing swiftly. Many experts believe that the principle of legal derivatives fundamentally changes the rules of the drug business and of drug repression that were valid until now. It brings new risks and ethical questions. Similar to the dramatic change that the Internet caused in popular music, a change is now taking place in the world of narcotic drugs. Only this time, it’s not about profits in the music industry – it’s about life.
A message to the British government
In order to better understand what is going on today, we have to look back about a half century. The story starts in the groovy Sixties, and its main character is Alexander Shulgin, the son of a Russian émigré, who got a degree in the United States in chemistry. As a young graduate, he got into the Dow Chemical group, and soon he managed to come up with a highly effective pesticide spray, which earned the firm millions of dollars.
In gratitude, Shulgin’s bosses gave him free reign for further research. He made use of it in his own way; during the following years, he thought of and synthesized hundreds of different psychoactive substances, which he also personally tried out with his friends. “I’m convinced that there is a huge wealth of information stored inside each of us, something like a library with never-ending volumes,” he said, explaining the purpose of his controversial work. “Psychoactive drugs enable us to get to know this inner world.”
The freethinker with the look of a mad scientist from a disaster film was finally dismissed from the multinational firm, but he continued to create drugs, and in the early 1980s, he published his “work” – that is, the complete recipes and instructions for preparation – as a book. In alternative circles he is considered a guru, but besides the substance MDMA, or ecstasy, which he synthesized anew according to an old recipe, none of his innovations went beyond the scope of similarly inclined experimenters.
The digital era had not yet arrived. Even in the 1990s, Shulgin’s “designer drugs,” as they began to be called, were only rarely discovered at raves and the majority of the partiers were abundantly satisfied with the very popular – and in its time, even high quality – ecstasy. Copies of his book were already circling the Internet at this time, and a number of underground chemists were trying to continue with his work. On April 5th, 2003, a comment appeared on an obscure drug blog from an author with the screen name Kinetic, the significance of which the authorities would only fully realize later: “Now, I would like to send a message to the British government: Kiss my ass. I’m as high as a kite and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
One of Shulgin’s successors had, with a racy choice of words, announced that he had just synthesized a drug called mephedrone, which, while complete legal from the standpoint of the law, has an effect somewhere between ecstasy and amphetamines. It stayed out of broader interest for another six years, when a seemingly unrelated event that happened in Cambodia in 2008 determined its future popularity. Police confiscated 33 tons of safrole oil, a basic ingredient in the production of ecstasy, which was headed to the Netherlands to supply the European market for several months.
Visitors to the clubs, used to their Friday “trips,” soon found themselves in a dry spell and looked for a substitute. And the drug dealers found a whole new world for them – legal mephedrone. “The time of the synthetic drug had arrived,” writes journalist Mike Power, describing the point of departure. “But this time, enthusiasts or psychedelic experience collectors weren’t playing a role anymore. Now it was only about money.”
Made in China
The drug that replaced ecstasy was regularly sold online and in brick and mortar businesses in European cities from 2009 onwards. Upon entering the word “mephedrone” into Google, in London, offers from dealers prepared to deliver the drugs on their mopeds were among the first links to jump up.
Striking side effects like an unpleasant “finish,” bleeding gums, or the stench of sweat did not dissuade users – the magic of legality, that is, the potential to cut out backstreet dealers and buy their own experiences at the store on the way home from work, meant more. The authorities in more European countries still did not ban mephedrone (this happened in most of Europe, including the Czech Republic, in 2010–2011), and its derivatives were already awaiting their opportunity in labs – methylone, butylone, and pentylone. A game of cat and mouse had started between governments and manufacturers of legal drugs.
The majority of new synthetic drugs are now produced by order in China in ordinary chemical factories, which also sell things like generic medications. The lawyers of these firms carefully follow western legislation, and the young chemists in developmental departments have software at their disposal capable of flexibly modifying the chemical formulas of narcotic substances so that they comply with laws. Shulgin’s recipe book works as a starting point, but the chemists’ creativity has no limits. The Chinese often produce highly potent compounds, so one kilogram of the substance could be enough for 10,000 doses, which, from the distribution standpoint, is most practical.
The logical question is whether governments and police, in this fight against new enemies, have any option besides widening the anti-drug laws for the new substances. Some countries, like the Czech Republic, are trying to change the list of illegal drugs from a law to a decree, so that they can react more quickly to what the market offers. Elsewhere, they are trying to ban whole families of given chemicals. This solution, of course, has a big disadvantage. Many drugs related to narcotics can have promising potential in the pharmaceutical or chemical industry. “As soon as some drug finds itself on the list once, it is very difficult to use it industrially, and even harder get it back off,” says addictologist Vendula Běláčková, explaining the problem with the firm solution.
The quick entrance of synthetic drugs that the legislation could not react to also puts a mirror up to the whole system of the war on drugs, which the world has been waging since the 1970s. In fact, it seems that every repressive step today leads to an even more complicated and potentially dangerous situation.
Into the Unknown
“At the moment, we follow about 25 Czech e-shops, and we know about two brick and mortar businesses,” says Jakub Frydrych in his office as the director of the National Antidrug Center, summarizing the Czech offering of “legal highs.” “The problem is that we actually don’t know what they’re selling. The product might be named Cherry Cocolino, but you don’t find anything on the wrapping about what the drug is. And next time, they could be selling something completely different under the same marking.”
Frydrych’s office made itself known two years ago, when he succeeded in dispersing a network of brick and mortar stores (so called Amsterdam shops) run by a Polish entrepreneur. Because the Poles were careful to sell an exclusively legal range of products, investigators used the article banning the promotion and propagation of drug addiction. They simply tapped the dealers’ phones, and from the wiretapping they found out that the dealers knew well that the substances they passed off as “collectors’ items” worked as something else. The owner of the network got three years in jail.
Closing stores that curious children went to after school in Ostrava certainly calmed parents, but even that had its downside. After the apprehension of the Polish dealers, Czech e-shops stopped any discussion with the users out of fear, and the wrappings of the products, which are sold as collectors’ items or bath salts, do not give any information anymore. The customer does not learn anything – not dosage, strength of the drug, effect on the psyche, or potential complications. Buying them is a trip into the unknown.
“This is a big problem,” concedes a 30 year-old man from Prague, who has been experimenting with drugs for 20 years and who has tried many new synthetics (because of potential problems with his employment, he did not wish to disclose his name). “For example, some only come into effect after 5 hours, so a person at a party thinks that he only took a little, he adds another tablet, and he easily overdoses. Others might stay in effect for twenty hours or interact really badly with alcohol. You don’t know any of this beforehand.”
The lack of information presents a fundamental risk. For heroin, cocaine, or LSD, there are numerous scientific studies and the experience of older users. For the legal drug with the commercial name Funky, a fashionable hit today with Prague’s drug addicts because it is cheaper than methamphetamine, we do not even know its chemical composition.
Besides the threat to health, there is also an ethical problem in this game – the Chinese chemists’ head start forces Western lawmakers to decide about the legality of these drugs without clear proof of their danger. From the European monitoring network, police learn who overdosed where and on what (if the responsible drug is at all clear), but Jakub Frydrych, the head of antidrug investigators, confesses that they get more detailed information about the new substances primarily from user forums where experimenters exchange experiences. Working with addictologists, the police even determined the boundaries between a large amount and a small amount for personal use by looking at dosage records in the descriptions of “trips” online.
A point for the liberals
The synthetic era is only at the beginning, but it could fundamentally change the drug map of the world. For example, the market has already seen a much cheaper imitation of what is generally the most dangerous drug, which European users otherwise obtain exclusively from Asia through an expensive and complicated process: heroin. Police recently discovered a laboratory producing it in Slovakia. “It’s still too strong, so it hasn’t gained much popularity, but personally I consider synthetic opiates to be a big danger for the future,” says the aforementioned Jiří Valnoha from Podané ruce.
The new phenomenon will certainly cause debate about the further course of antidrug politics. Designer drugs are the products of repression, and the Netherlands, for example, which has a tolerant position on ecstasy, claims that only very few people will use the substitute derivatives. Therefore, advocates of the liberal approach think that the situation will not be resolved by the unending expansion of the list of narcotics, but instead by a reevaluation of the entire system that focuses on minimizing damage, informing young people, and reconciling with the clear fact that a percentage of the population on planet Earth simply intends to use narcotic drugs. “If we want to keep going on obsolete models of control in the digital world, we will eventually consider this a fatal mistake,” predicts Mike Power, in the conclusion of his book.
For now, it is only certain that the future will be rich in experiences – and probably also in tragedy. Alexander Shulgin, forefather in the field of new drugs, recently published his opus magnum in print, the first part (of two) summarizing his lifelong research. It contains recipes for producing a total of 1,300 narcotic compounds. In quiet amazement at this number, it hits you that the anonymous user who wrote the following on a drug forum might have been right: “If they want to win this war, they’ll have to ban hydrogen and oxygen.”
The text was originally published in Respekt magazine 24/2013
Článek Drogy 2.0 přicházejí vyšel v Respektu č. 24/2013