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Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High

Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High

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Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High

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Oct 14, 2014


The very first thing ever bought or sold on the Internet was marijuana, when Stanford and MIT students used ARPANET to cut a deal in the early '70s. Today, you can order any conceivable pill or powder with the click of a mouse. In Drugs Unlimited, Mike Power tells the tale of drugs in the Internet Age, in which users have outmaneuvered law enforcement, breached international borders, and created a massive worldwide black market.

But the online market in narcotics isn't just changing the way drugs are bought and sold; it's changing the nature of drugs themselves. Enterprising dealers are using the Web to engage highly skilled foreign chemists to tweak the chemical structures of banned drugs—just enough to create a similar effect and just enough to render them legal in most parts of the world. Drugs are marketed as "not for human consumption," but everyone knows exactly how they're going to be used—what they can't know is whether their use might prove fatal.

From dancefloors to the offices of apathetic government officials, via social networking sites and underground labs, Power explores this agile, international, virtual subculture that will always be one step ahead of the law.

Oct 14, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

MIKE POWER is a forty-year-old freelance investigative journalist living in London. He has worked for The Guardian, the Mail on Sunday, the BBC, and Reuters. Drugs Unlimited is his first book.

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Drugs Unlimited - Mike Power



Contemporary Chemical Culture

In 2011 forty-nine brand new psychoactive drugs were invented and advertised for sale on the internet, from which they were bought perfectly legally by curious consumers. In 2012, fifty-seven new drugs could be found for sale online. Their dosages were not always clearly specified, and were sometimes far tinier than the recreational drugs people were used to taking; their effects were undocumented – and yet no law could prevent their sale. Just over a decade before, no new psychoactive drugs had been available in this way. These were not the drugs – like heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy – that people had used for years. Their names were baffling lists of numbers and letters, such as 6-APB, 5-MeO-DMT, 3-MeO-PCP, and made them sound more like laboratory supplies than recreational drugs. But they were being taken by ordinary people, and global discussions about their effects were going on as blatantly as their sale.

Like nearly every other industry, the drugs market has been revolutionized by the web. For a growing number of people it is now the first place they look when trying to source recreational drugs or information about them – especially when faced with the rapid and baffling proliferation of new compounds. Chemists, consumers and criminals all use the internet to share vast amounts of information and exploit globalized manufacturing possibilities. Completely untested compounds are part of an international online market that has become too fast and too complex for any government to control properly. Welcome to Drugs 2.0 – an anarchic free-market world in which drug legislation is being outpaced by chemistry, technology and ingenuity. How did we get here?

This situation was accelerated in some small way by a story I broke in British magazines and newspapers in 2009. My pieces were the first in the world to document the emergence and popularization of mephedrone, an Ecstasy and cocaine substitute that had escaped from an underground online drugs scene. Mephedrone became the first new drug since Ecstasy to hit the front pages of newspapers worldwide, and to prompt questions in Parliament and the American House of Representatives, and the governments of many other countries.

Illegal drugs, including LSD in the 1960s, heroin in the 1980s and Ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s, have long had a uniquely perturbing influence on the public realm, with the dangers and pleasures inherent in their consumption splitting users and law makers into opposing camps. Mephedrone, though, was completely legal. The new drug was, according to toxicologists, ‘two chemical tweaks away from Ecstasy’. Those tweaks were deliberate, and were made to evade drug laws. Mephedrone upended all prior hierarchies and caused huge confusion among many users who considered, wrongly, that since it was legal, it was harmless.

Widely available and hugely popular, mephedrone was the first mass-market ‘downloadable’ drug, in the sense that it was, uniquely for the mass market, originally only available online. It was like a narcotic viral video, a digital diversion to be shared with the click of a mouse. In every sense, it was a radically new game-changer. Mephedrone was the fulcrum, the tipping point that took a clandestine internet drug scene and dropped it, gurning and wide-eyed, right into the high streets of the UK – and then into the wider world. The swift and protocol-busting ban on the new drug in the UK did nothing to eliminate it here or in the EU or the US; it simply handed the market to grateful gangsters who added the drug to their repertoire, and prompted greater innovation in the chemical underground.

Following the intense media attention that mephedrone attracted, and the ensuing moral panic, the new chemical craze of so-called ‘legal highs’ gained full-spectrum media dominance in a matter of weeks. Newspapers and legislators were shocked, but the situation was as predictable as it was inevitable – if you knew where to look and what you were looking for, and if you’d been looking for long enough.

The online ‘research chemical’ scene is at the root of this story, and it is from here that mephedrone sprang. Whereas Ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana and tranquillizers have been used by countless people for decades or centuries, or, in the case of cannabis, millennia, and have often been the subject of costly animal and medical trials costing millions of dollars, research chemicals have little to no history of human usage. These new drugs are generally active in minute doses of single or double-digit milligrams (by comparison, a dose of Ecstasy weighs an eighth of a gram, or 125 mg).

Until around 2007 they were used by a few thousand self-defined ‘psychonauts’, or explorers of inner space, who researched the compounds’ effects by browsing scientific literature, or, in some cases, simply by looking at diagrams of molecules, and shared their experiences on online discussion forums. Today, there are probably hundreds of thousands of users of research chemicals, though mephedrone showed how, when the social, cultural and technical conditions are right, new and completely untested drugs can spill from the underground right into the mainstream, winning millions of enthusiastic if uninformed users.

On Sunday 17 June 2012, a poster named Clapham Boy wrote the following, titled ‘6-apb powder and some MXE’, on the Urban75 drugs forum:

What I find so amazing is that you can now go online, order this sort of stuff totally legally (I got 10g of MXE just before the ban on importing & selling it came in, possession remains legal at the moment, and [I] invested in 1g of 6-APB this week after reading a post [here]) and have it delivered recorded delivery the next day. It just makes it so easy compared with tracking down a decent dealer that’s not too bloody dodgy, like we had to do when I was younger. It’s funny, but whilst I had heard of ‘legal highs’ a few years back, I just assumed they would basically be crap, and didn’t look into it further. It was only after reading an article in the ‘i’ newspaper, earlier this year, about MXE and its effects that I thought, ‘That sounds fun’, and decided to google it … The whole situation just seems totally mad, and certainly blows a massive hole in the drug laws … I expect 6-APB will be banned soon, so I’ll have to stock up a bit on that before it happens, and sit back and wait [and] see what new legal highs are produced to replace those banned.¹

Clapham Boy’s casual, almost throwaway attitude to the consumption of new and powerful drugs is commonplace now, yet it is a perspective that is seldom encountered by policymakers or police. Conventional academic research and government-sponsored investigations into attitudes and use patterns are being supplanted in their authority by the unmediated voices of users themselves, as social networks become central to the daily experience of a new generation of drug users.

The chemicals Clapham Boy mentions, MXE and 6-APB, have existed on the street for less than a couple of years, and both were given life on the web. MXE is methoxetamine, a drug closely related to the banned anaesthetic ketamine: a few additions to ketamine’s molecular structure have rendered the resulting compound legal in most countries. Both drugs can send users into bizarre internal spaces, imaginary realms where mind and body are dissociated from each other, and where the only limits to the experience are those of the imagination. Methoxetamine is perhaps not physically addictive, but it can be psychologically so seductive that some users have posted in web forums that they have dosed on it for days, with disastrous consequences. It is active at very small doses of around 10 mg. Each gram provides up to 100 doses and, until it was banned in 2012, cost as little as twelve pounds – meaning each hit cost around twelve pence. From 2010 to 2012, methoxetamine was sold entirely legally on hundreds of websites.

The other drug mentioned, 6-APB, is similar to MDMA, or Ecstasy. It costs around twenty-five pounds a gram, and its effects are broadly like those of its parent chemical – it’s mildly hallucinogenic, euphoric and emotionally psychedelic; users feel more friendly and open, and their enjoyment of music is enhanced. Each gram contains ten doses, and costs around thirty-five pounds. It is still, at the time of writing, legal, and in common with methoxetamine has almost no history of human use.

6-APB and methoxetamine are just two of hundreds of new, potent, legal drugs that have become available since mephedrone was banned in 2010. Nothing more than a net connection and a credit card are required for their purchase. The chemists’ ingenuity is simply outpacing lawmakers’ ability to respond; stimulants, sedatives, psychedelics, cannabis substitutes, drugs with similar effects to heroin – all chemical life is here.

Where did these and the hundreds of other new drugs come from? How were they conceived of and manufactured? How can substances so completely untested and unregulated escape legal prohibition? Why are people willing to take them? And what happens when the human desire for altered states is transposed onto the virtual shopping space of the net? Four years ago, I set out to answer these questions.

My own interest in drugs stemmed from many enjoyable experiences that I had had more than twenty years previously, when Ecstasy first appeared in the UK. My responses to the drug and its surrounding culture, and those of everyone I knew, were markedly different from the media’s representation of them. Where tabloid editors saw a moral threat, we saw a positive moral choice: rejecting the aggressive and misogynistic culture of tacky nightclubs and renouncing a politics that told us society did not exist, we danced together in fields and warehouses to music whose lyrics often urged unity and peace. That utopian delusion was arguably no more extreme and certainly far less objectionable than its cultural counterpoint, which suggested that violence and drunken boorishness were not only acceptable, but preferable.

In the intervening decades, I discovered, drug culture had become far more complex and widely distributed, and much more dangerous. Media representations of drug use and users were, however, still as shrill and inaccurate as they had been in my youth, and I felt qualified to investigate the culture and its history and report back on it, to document the truth of the matter.

To investigate this world, this underground scene within the already subcultural world of drug use, I registered on dozens of web forums dedicated to drugs and discovered what new substances were available, and where they came from, chemically, historically and geographically. I found sources for the drugs, and verified them. I learned about their effects through interviews and lengthy discussions with users and dealers. I lurked on underground web forums on encrypted anonymized internet connections, posing as an international buyer for bulk quantities of drugs both legal and illegal. Immersing myself in this way has enabled me to gather information that is generally missing in traditional reporting around drugs – and always missing when writing about the new drugs scene.

I also met with and interviewed dozens of scientists, toxicologists, doctors, nurses, chemists and police, to hear how the phenomenon has affected their lives and industries.

While I recorded this emerging social trend over the last four years, it became increasingly apparent that I was witnessing and documenting the initial stages of a major shift in many international drug users’ habits. In brief, the sale and use of new drugs are growing, and there is no evidence to suggest that this will stop. This book plots the changes in the chemical culture, and makes plain their causes and consequences. It traces the story back to humankind’s earliest use of drugs, outlines the history of their legal prohibition, looks at the dramatic emergence of psychedelics, when drugs changed popular culture for the first time, and explains how, in the modern era, the internet has changed the story profoundly. I examine how we have reached this extraordinarily novel situation – of powerful new drugs being sold legally online – and reveal how new uses of internet technologies are making it possible to buy even banned drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, LSD and Ecstasy from secret websites with little fear of detection. In short, I ask and answer the question: Have drugs won the drugs war?

Since 2009, when mephedrone gained popularity, many parts of the drugs market have atomized, and with this increase in variety and novelty come new dangers, and an urgent need for action. There is no safe path forwards – but there’s now simply no way back to the way things were. The genie is out of the test tube.

But first, let’s go back, right back to the earliest documented occasions of humans deliberately changing their state of consciousness. Because while culture and social conditions might change, neuropharmacology and the human desire for transcendence, stimulation – or oblivion – are essentially immutable.


Vegetable to Chemical

She was somewhere around Pang Mapha, thirty-one miles from the Salween River, when the drugs began to take hold. In Spirit Cave in north-western Thailand in about 9000 BC, an early human from what is today Vietnam was chewing on some areca nuts, betel leaf and slaked lime, holding the bitter mix in her cheek and absorbing the stimulating alkaloids through her gums. She later spat out the residue, and that spent wad of vegetable matter was found in the mid-1960s, by American archaeologist Chester F. Gorman on an expedition to the area. It is the world’s first known use of psychoactive drugs, discovered fully 11,000 years after the event.¹

To reach the fbirst documented psychedelic experience, and indeed the first example of someone sharing written information about drug effects, we must jump forward over seven thousand years. In around 2700 BC, Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung described his experience of taking cannabis: ‘Medical cannabis. Stop eating. Let go. Eat more. You will see white ghosts walking around. And eat long enough, you will know how to talk to the Gods.’² Emperor Shen-Nung, or ‘Divine Farmer’, was a mythical hero in Chinese culture, revered even today by practitioners of traditional medicine. He is the father of Chinese pharmacology and is credited with teaching his subjects how to grow food. His pharmacopeia, quoted above, also mentioned herbal cannabis as a curative, a citation widely accepted by scholars as being the first reference to the plant’s medicinal qualities.

The adventurous emperor did not stop at cannabis. Shen-Nung ingested hundreds of other plants to establish their toxicity – or, from another perspective, their powers – and he is said once to have consumed seventy toxins in a single day. But what he did with his mind and his body was of no concern to the authorities. The innate desire of humans to ingest substances that allow us to explore our minds, or experience pleasure, or search for new knowledge and experiences wasn’t always controlled by law.

The use of plants and natural materials that affect our consciousness is documented historically in most corners of the globe. Tea, coffee and coca, tobacco and betel, guarana and khat are all natural stimulants that affect the central nervous system, and all have been used for millennia. Dozens of mushroom species, marijuana strains, cacti, seeds and barks, the latex produced by certain flower pods – whether psychedelics or sedatives or deliriants – have been used to induce altered states. From the dawn of human history, plant specialists and medicine women and men with expert knowledge of their effects have been revered figures, especially in pre-industrial societies. Their work crossed the boundaries between the modern disciplines of psychiatry, general practice, religion and magic.

Today the use of substances that change consciousness is proscribed by most nations on the earth, but around five per cent of the planet’s inhabitants continue to use drugs that are now deemed illegal. The journey that brought us to this curious point in history is surprisingly short: laws controlling the use of drugs are less than 150 years old. Most recreational drugs at one point had a legitimate purpose. The two most popular at the turn of the century, cocaine and opium, were mainly used as medicines, and the first drug laws were written in order to prevent the dangers of death or addiction arising from their misuse. The number of drugs abused in Europe and the US at the turn of the twentieth century was minimal, and all of those were plant-derived. Psychedelics were, at this time, limited to natural products: marijuana, and psilocybin-containing or ‘magic’ mushrooms, and, overseas, mescaline, as found in peyote and other cacti. The latter two drugs were used mainly in religious or ritual contexts in Central and Latin American agrarian societies; they were not often imported or traded, certainly they were not easily available. That reality was reflected in the laws of the era: most early drug legislation was not designed to prevent recreational use, which did not exist in any meaningful or threatening way.

In 1908, Britain passed its first anti-drugs legislation when the Pharmacy Act of 1868 was amended to regulate provision of opium found in medical products, with the aim of preventing poisonings or suicides. Preparations containing opium were henceforth required to be labelled as poisons, although their sale and consumption were not limited. The first American drug law was also opium-related: the government passed a ban on the smoking of opium in 1875, specifically written to target immigrant Chinese citizens in San Francisco and their supposed moral turpitude. The International Opium Convention, the world’s first international drug control treaty, was passed in the Hague in 1912.

In 1916 Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) placed both opium and cocaine under the control of the Home Office. Both drugs were being used as pain relief medicines and anaesthetics during the First World War, and were scheduled in order to protect supplies for the injured and ill. The DORA also aimed to curb the use of cocaine by soldiers in London on leave from war service.³

Britain’s Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 went further and limited the production, import, export, possession, sale or distribution of opium, cocaine or morphine to licensed persons. At this point anti-drug laws were easy enough to write and easier yet to enforce. It is a simple matter, legally and chemically speaking, to outlaw a drug contained in a plant, even if such moves are felt by some to be philosophically hard to justify. But this situation was not to last, because drug-making was soon to become inextricably linked with the laboratory.

Opium, magic mushrooms, mescaline-containing cacti, marijuana and, to a lesser degree, cocaine, are all essentially natural drugs. They are extracted or concentrated from plant sources and, with the exception of cocaine, there is no laboratory work involved in their manufacture. The active ingredient of cocaine is extracted from coca leaves, and the extract is concentrated and then combined with an acid that makes the drug rapidly absorbable by the body, but it undergoes no significant molecular change. The other drugs listed above are simply gathered and eaten or smoked. Drugs such as these grow easily only in certain geographical and climatic conditions, and their processing tends to take place in the countries of production.

Synthetic drugs, by contrast, are made in laboratories, and for every one of them it is possible to produce a variation on the parent structure; this makes it difficult to write all-encompassing laws banning them because a slightly new structure is always possible. Organic chemists, who work with carbon-based compounds, can reproduce nearly any natural compound, including any of the active ingredients in those traditional, plant-based drugs.

In the early nineteenth century, scientists did not believe it was possible to synthetically produce certain chemicals derived from living organisms. That was proven to be untrue by German chemist Friedrich Wöhler in 1828 when he produced urea, a constituent of human urine, in the lab. ‘This investigation has yielded an unanticipated result that reaction of cyanic acid with ammonia gives urea, a noteworthy result in as much as it provides an example of the artificial production of an organic, indeed a so-called animal, substance from inorganic substances,’ he wrote in The Annals of Physics, heralding the birth of organic chemistry.

All synthetic organic chemical structures are now built in the laboratory in the same way that a builder constructs a house. Basic chemical building blocks – elements – are bonded together in the lab by reacting them with other agents in controlled chemical and physical environments, using heat, acidity and a lack or surfeit of air and water, or any of a hundred other conditions and methods, to produce compounds. From the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the present, pharmaceutical chemists have used the same principles to modify existing drugs and medicines in an attempt to produce variants that are more effective, more potent, or have fewer side effects, and also to produce drugs that are unpatented and therefore possible to commercialize and sell at a profit. Chemist Charles Romley Alder Wright first synthesized diacetylmorphine – known today as diamorphine, or heroin – in 1874 in St Mary’s Hospital, London, in a search for a new drug to help wean morphine addicts off the drug. He boiled together a reagent called acetic anhydride with morphine for several hours. This reaction added a new group of chemicals, known as a functional group, to the main morphine skeleton.

There are many functional groups in organic chemistry, and each of them has a different effect on the way the body processes and experiences a drug. In the case of morphine, the addition of two structures made up of two carbons, three hydrogens and an oxygen molecule, known as an acetyl group, made the new drug more fat-soluble, and therefore more of the active ingredient was able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier protects the central nervous system from foreign substances that may injure it, and maintains a constant environment for the brain. Large molecules do not pass easily through it, and the entry of highly electrically charged molecules is similarly slowed. Molecules that are not fat-soluble cannot enter the brain at all. Potency is proportional to efficacy and affinity – a measure of how well a drug binds to a given brain receptor, and its ability to effect a response within the brain and body. By adding this functional group, Alder Wright produced a new drug with completely different effects: heroin, which enters the brain more rapidly and which produces a more euphoric effect than its parent molecule, morphine. It is also even more addictive.

Changing the chemical formulae of drugs, even in a seemingly insignificant way, means their effects can be modulated, amplified, extended, decreased or in some way made different, and potency can be increased or decreased by the addition of functional groups. This is a chemical process called ‘ring substitution’, since different elements are bonded to the parent drug’s chemical rings (see here). These new drugs created using ring substitution are called analogues: they are essentially legal versions of banned drugs, deliberately invented by chemists who add or take away a few molecules from illegal drugs and then commercialize them.

The process of creating or unearthing a legal version of a banned drug started as soon as the first internationally binding drug laws were passed. A little after the ink dried on the International Opium Convention in 1912, dibenzoylmorphine and acetylpropionylmorphine – legal alternatives to newly controlled morphine and heroin – became available; they could be considered the world’s first designer drugs, or controlled substance analogues.

Drug use in the pre-psychedelic age in Europe and America remained limited to a subculture made up of junkies and the underclass, bohemians and aristocrats, with minimal penetration into the broader culture. But in the 1940s and 1950s, new hallucinogens emerged, soon followed by new stimulants; both were to have profound effects on popular culture and move drugs into the mainstream. And the involvement of the laboratory in their production made it far more of a challenge to legislate against their use.

*   *   *

The emergence of psychedelics into western culture was sudden, unexpected and dramatic, and has had long-lasting

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