There are 8.9 million different chemical designs that could be synthesised to make new legal highs – the lead researcher on a University of British Columbia project explains what this means for the future of clandestine chemistry
Over the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of designer drugs, or legal highs, reaching mass market. Spice emerged as a street drug of choice, while another enduring example is “bath salts”, the substance that grabbed headlines by inducing zombie-like reactions in people. While weed is having its celeb-ification moment in some US states (see: Justin Bieber and Bella Thorne’s high-end pre-roll lines), cannabis is still illegal in the UK and as a result there remains an epidemic of synthetic cannabinoids, among other new psychoactives.
These legal highs can skirt the law, due to their structural similarity to readily available ones like weed, cocaine, and other party stimulants, but are different enough to not technically fall under the laws regulating them. “Often you get this kind of whack-a-mole thing happening, whereby, when they ban one – like Mephedrone, which was our first major legal high in this country – new versions of it pop up,” DrugWise’s Harry Shapiro told Dazed last year. “There was Naphyrone and there was Flephedrone. The point about drug laws is, you actually have to specify what you're charging someone with. You can’t just say, ‘we’re charging you with having a drug that’s a bit like Mephedrone,’ you’ve actually got to name the substance.”
In a move that echoes the 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report, researchers at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia have developed an AI tool to identify new designer drugs that are emerging on the black market, and to anticipate the molecular structures of future drugs – helping medics treat their potential harm in the process. The neural network tool, called DarkDNPS, can cut down the time needed to identify these new chemicals from weeks or months to just hours.
“We have totally transformed the kind of problem that a forensic chemist has to solve,” Dr Michael Skinnider, lead researcher on the study, tells Dazed. “Instead of solving the structure of an unknown molecule de novo, a problem with hundreds of millions or billions of possible solutions, the chemist now just needs to choose the best structure from a ranked list of ten molecules. This could save an enormous amount of time, and make it possible to identify new designer drugs much sooner after they’ve hit the market.”
As bath salt zombies prove, there’s a huge public health risk to all these new iterations of brain-altering chemicals. “It’s the fact that the overwhelming majority of these substances have never been tested in humans prior to their distribution on the illicit market under the guise that they are “not for human consumption,” Skinnider says. “This means there are significant risks associated with their ingestion, and it makes it very difficult for emergency medical providers to know how to respond in the case of intoxication – how do you know how to manage a patient when you don’t even know what they’ve taken?”
Asked about what type of drugs we might expect to see hitting the market in the near future, Dr Skinnider says this is a “tough question to answer succinctly” but that, in general, “the trend has been to make slight chemical modifications to known drugs of abuse, such that they are not covered by existing drug legislation as such but retain the psychoactive effects of the original drug”. One example of a novel designer drug discovered through the research was a derivative of the hallucinogenic drug PCP, also known as ‘angel dust’.
“These findings could open up an entire new world of chemistry that right now is just beyond our fingertips” – Dr Michael Skinnider
He adds that the findings could “open up an entire new world of chemistry that right now is just beyond our fingertips”. “We know that over the course of their lifetime, the average human will be exposed to approximately three million different chemicals. These chemicals are present in the cars we drive, the homes we live in, the laboratories and offices we work at, and the restaurants we eat at. At present, however, the vast majority of these chemicals remain unknown. We think that the same basic approach could be used to automatically identify all kinds of new molecules from mass spectrometric data.”
The tool could also be used to identify performance-enhancing drugs used by athletes for doping, Skinnider says. However, the main ambition for usage is one of safeguarding: “My own hope is primarily that our method will be used more to coordinate public health responses to emerging designer drugs, and thereby make a positive contribution to public health.”
With increasing reports of high-strength and impostor substances in circulation at the moment – including pills with five times the usual amount of MDMA recently seized in Manchester – read Dazed’s guide on how to sesh safely, as informed by drug safety experts.