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Tomorrow's highs today

Designer chemicals, online dealers and nootropics represent new drug frontiers. But are we on the brink of a psychedelic breakthrough, or is it business as usual?

TextHuw NesbittIllustrationSimon Whybray

To celebrate the launch of our summer issue, Future Shock and the Barbican's Digital Revolution next month, we're devoting a day to the brave new world of digital. From the future of smell to radical Oculus Rift collectives, check back here throughout the day for more mind-bending glimpses into the future. 

Charlie Johnson is an ordinary person. 27 years old, he lives in Brighton and works at a supermarket to fund his true passion, street art. Like millions of people who have ambitions outside their jobs, his story is a familiar one. However, Charlie also has another more unusual interest: in his spare time he likes getting high on untested chemical drugs he buys off the Internet.

"I do it because I like getting fucked up," he says. "And anything that enables me to do so is fine by me. I also quite like the idea of testing out new drugs before anyone else has, like I’m a scientist experimenting on myself; it’s certainly not a spiritual thing."

Using labyrinthine drugs websites like BlueLight and Erowid where users post information about the newest uppers, downers and hallucinogens, Charlie not only uses the Internet to purchase his next hit, but also to do his homework on the latest so called 'legal highs' or 'novel psychoactive substances' (NPS), as they’re known in the business.

“I don’t care if they’re legal or illegal...I take them because they’re just another drug I haven’t done, something I don’t know anything about” – Charlie Johnson

"In some ways those drugs websites have ruined my life," Charlie says, laughing. "I go on them, see drugs I haven’t done, order them, then tick them off the list. Then again, they’re also useful. Through these sites you can find out what it is you're consuming, how much is a safe amount to take and what it might do to you."

According, to Charlie one issue with buying these cutting edge narcotics is that it’s not always clear what you’re getting. "The biggest problem is they’re often sold under brand names rather than their chemical names, which makes them difficult to research," he says.

While many people may recognise some of the drugs Charlie likes to take such as mephedrone, an NPS that has similar effects to ecstasy, which was banned in 2010, others such as Bromo Dragon Fly, Benzo Fury, MXE, AMT and NRG-1 might seem obscure. Despite these confusing names, however, many are related to two classes of chemicals: tryptamines and phenylethylamines. And although these monikers might sound just as intimidating, you’re probably already familiar with them too. Phenylethylamines, for example, are commonly found in MDMA and chocolate, and tryptamine is a component in LSD.

Of course there are others. But what they all have in common is that most have avoided being made illegal through virtue of being too new to fall under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. As a result, they’ve been sold in a legal, unregulated and increasingly popular market driven by dot-com entrepreneurs, who sell them under the proviso ‘not for human consumption’ to bypass consumer safety laws.

According to The Global Drug Survey last year, 22 percent of British citizens said they bought drugs on the web – the highest rate in the world.  Elsewhere, a recent UN report evidenced the fact that the UK is the biggest consumer of novel psychoactive substances in the EU. Esteemed American pharmacologist David E Nichols believes the main factors driving the boom in these drugs is a cheap import market and the free distribution of specialist literature online.

"The rise of the Internet has had a huge impact," he says. "Today, you can go onto websites and find information about how to makes these substances which years ago would have taken a long time to research. Another catalyst is that a lot of these drugs are being made in China and exported in bulk to the rest of the world for a very low price, which obviously makes them a very attractive proposition for people who want to sell them to drugs users."

With almost 50-years of experience studying psychoactive substances, Nichols is a veteran in his field. The founding president of the Heffter Research Institute in New Mexico dedicated to academic research into medical uses for hallucinogens, he has discovered hundreds chemicals with psychedelic properties. "A lot of the research chemicals that are sold as recreational drugs were actually originally made in my lab," he says.

Alongside fellow American scientist, the late Alexander Shulgin who died this year, they pioneered research into the clinical uses of psychoactive substances during the mid to late 20th century. In the 1990s, Shulgin used Nichols’s work as part of his groundbreaking books, TiHKAL and PiHKAL, manuals for synthesizing a plethora of trippy compounds, which have become widely distributed throughout the Internet. Although they both had different academic objectives, Nichols maintains Shulgin would not be happy about how their work has been used.

"What Shulgin wanted to do was create communication tools that would help people express themselves," he says. "My interest, however, was in creating tools for pharmacologists. In either case, our intention was not to create drugs that would endanger people's lives and it’s very upsetting to read stories about people who have overdosed and died on things you may have made."

Nichols is right to be concerned. In the year 2011 to 2012, 6,486 people in England needed medical treatment after using research chemicals, and the number of UK deaths linked to so called 'legal highs' has risen from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012. As a result, his hopes have become jeopardised. "The recreational use of these things made it difficult to develop any of them in a legitimate way," he says.

Today, the future for the potentially therapeutic uses of these drugs seems uncertain. Ben Sessa, a British psychiatrist and advocate of research into the use of psychoactive drugs in the treatment of trauma patients, agrees.

"Psychotherapeutic drugs don’t suit the pharmaceutical industry’s agenda," he says. "Current psychiatric drugs are designed to be taken over a very long time, whereas psychotherapeutic therapy believes that patients can be cured, perhaps using only two or three sessions of drugs like MDMA, and shifting from long term to short term treatment poses a challenge to the industry’s model."

Nonetheless, substances with other allegedly 'life-enhancing' properties have been steadily emerging for decades. Known as 'smart drugs' or 'nootropics', they claim a range of benefits, including making you look younger, helping you get to sleep and boasting your cognitive abilities. With the rise of zero-hour-contracts and the tripling of tuitions, the pressure for young people in particular to outperform their cohorts has never been so great, leading many to take such drugs.

“Unless we’re able to calibrate the ways in which our bodies experience pleasure and pain as a species, we’re still going to have millions of people that are anxious and depressed for much of their lives.” – Dave Pearce

Last year, officials at the Care Quality Commission linked a 50 percent rise in prescriptions for the smart drug Ritalin to students using it to help cram for exams. Elsewhere, the range of legally available alternatives continues to grow, including the curious case of one named Modafinil, which the Guardian recently reported was being shipped to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to combat fatigue. Such official uses of these stimulants are no doubt extremely validating to the numerous scientists and researchers who for years have been extolling the utilitarian value of drugs in the betterment of humanity, mostly to an indifferent audience.

One such expert is the UK’s Dave Pearce. A leading transhumanist scholar, he believes that science can help humans overcome their neurological and physiological limits, in order to feel less unhappy, learn more and live longer.

Discussing his views for a previous feature in 2010, he told me: "Fundamentally, one can try to change one’s external environment or one can try and change one’s consciousness. Since social reform can only go so far, the option that interests me is designer drugs. Unless we’re able to calibrate the ways in which our bodies experience pleasure and pain as a species, we’re still going to have millions of people that are anxious and depressed for much of their lives."

He may still have a point. Despite this, for people who take drugs for their psychedelic properties rather than to help them pass tests, the number of radically new experiences the current unregulated NPS market can offer appears to be dwindling as a result of the apparent lack of scientific erudition on behalf of those supplying these highs.

"From what I gather from the substances that are being sold for recreational use, the people making these drugs are just mining existing scientific literature," says Nichols. "However, there are some tryptamines and phenythelamines that we haven't published anything about that we know have psychoactive properties. Someone with a PhD in organic chemistry could certainly come up with something new. Tryptamines and phenythelamines are not that limited."

One important influence in accelerating – and perhaps exhausting – the proliferation of NPS has ironically been the UK’s creaking drug laws. Unable to cope with the hundreds of new stimulants arriving on its shores, in 2010, the government introduced temporary drug banning laws, which it has subsequently used to prohibit over 200 substances. However, rather than defeating the trade, it has only sped up the introduction of replacement drugs, as the Home Office tries to tackle the problem one narcotic at a time.

In response to this impasse, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last month recommended that any drug belonging to the tryptamine family be given an automatic Class A status. Compared to the current approach, it’s a robust attitude. However, doing so will more than likely drive these drugs underground. Charlie Johnson is certainly undeterred.

"I don’t care if they’re legal or illegal," he says. "I don’t take them because they’re an alternative to 'traditional' drugs like coke or ecstasy that are already illegal. Some of the research chemicals I still use have ended up classified anyway, but it won’t stop me. I take them because they’re just another drug I haven’t done, something I don’t know anything about."

Currently, the alternatives to the this system include decriminalisation and regulation. What both of these propositions fundamentally underestimate is the apparent human compulsion to disregard laws altogether, whether they be consumers or suppliers. And with the increased use of such drugs likely to continue while the government deliberates what it should do, the future for drugs looks as illicit, murky and filled with strange visions and utopian hopes as it ever was.

With thanks to Hamilton Morris, and Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at drug reform charity, Transform. The names and details of drug users have been changed to protect their identity.

Illustration by Simon Whybray.