Although you might not be aware of what research chemicals are, we are currently experiencing a rising risk of abuse of these chemicals in the US. Research chemicals are psychoactive drugs that are discovered through the research of and experimentation on existing drugs. Existing drugs are researched and experimented with so scientists can better understand their structure, activity, general behavior, interactions and side effects. Studying existing drugs in labs can further our collective knowledge of a substance and help to save lives in the future. However, this research can modify existing drugs to yield what are commonly referred to as “designer drugs.”
These designer drugs often have similar effects as the drug that was originally researched, but the chemical structure of the designer drug is usually different from that of the initial drug. This distinction is key – where one original drug might be illegal and known to be dangerous, for instance, a designer drug might gain popularity because it is not technically the same drug as the original drug and therefore, in some jurisdictions, it is not technically illegal.
Sometimes designer drugs are incorrectly seen as a safe alternative to the original drug.
When designer drugs can be legally sold because they are structurally different than the banned original drug on a chemical level, they are considered to be a part of the “grey market,” although their sale may take place on the black market.
The History of Designer Drugs and Research Chemicals
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the problem with designer drugs was so severe that the DEA was permitted the ability to immediately, but temporarily, schedule drugs that emerged. The first time this emergency scheduling power was used was in the case of MDMA.
During the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the Internet led to a spike in designer drug sales. Designer drug marketers began referring to these drugs around this time as “research chemicals.” The idea behind this change in terminology was that if drugs were sold with the supposed intent of being used in scientific research, a seller could avoid the kinds of legal repercussions that are associated with the sale of drugs with the intent of human consumption.
A massive DEA operation in 2004 helped to shut down many online designer drug/research chemical manufacturers. Many of the drugs that were sold during this time were psychoactive hallucinogens. In fact, 2C-B, a psychedelic drug, was one of the most popular designer drugs sold during this time. Other types of research chemical that were sold during this time were anabolic steroids.
These drugs were often sold in a powder form as to continue the ruse of being sold for scientific research exclusively. Users who purchased these bulk powders used them safely if they carefully weighed the powders before putting them into capsules. However, many users did not practice this precaution, and many people became sick or even died during this time because of accidental research chemical overdose.
These designer drugs were produced and sold online more quickly than drug-testing technology could advance. This led to undocumented steroid use among athletes that was difficult to detect or punish.
Until recently, the main types of designer drugs sold were anabolic steroids, psychedelic drugs or opioids. However, in recent years other types of research chemicals have emerged. Some of the research chemicals that debuted include:
- Stimulants: geranamine, desoxypipradrol, mephedrone and MDPV
- Sedatives: premazepam and methylmethaqualone
- Viagra copycats
- Tanning drugs
- Cannabinoids: JWH-018 and CP 47,497
- Some of the more recent cannabinoids discovered, also referred to as “synthetic marijuana,” have not been produced by scientists in a lab. Rather, they appear to be
- the invention of designer drug dealers themselves. Some of these compounds include AB-001, RCS-8 and RCS-4.
Synthetic marijuana has received a good deal of recent media attention for its inherent danger. In fact, several deaths have been associated with its use. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes users of synthetic marijuana appear to be making is the assumption that designer drug cannabinoids carry as little potential for harm as actual marijuana. In many cases, this appears to be untrue, but synthetic marijuana is sold by dealers as an alternative to marijuana nonetheless, despite the vast differences in chemical structure between the two. Teenagers and young adults appear to be at a significant risk for using synthetic marijuana and suffering the consequences of it.
There are many safety concerns associated with the use of designer drugs and research chemicals. These substances have not been tested for the most part. Without testing, it is impossible for scientists, law enforcement agents, drug dealers, or users of these drugs to fully understand many important aspects of the substances. Adequate testing could provide the scientific and medical community as well as the general public with vital information regarding the toxicology, side effects, and dangerous interaction potential of research chemicals.
Without this information, however, anyone who purchases a research chemical is at risk. Even if the risks associated with the original drug are well understood, these research chemicals are often far different from the original drug – different enough to have a completely separate set of dangers, dosage requirements or interactions.
Evading the Law with Research Chemicals
As was one of the original purposes for distributing designer drugs, it’s difficult for law enforcement agents to prosecute that which they know little about. If a substance has not been scheduled, a law enforcement agent cannot, in most cases, pair its sale or use with a punishment. Creators and dealers of designer drugs stay ahead of the law enforcement curve by periodically changing the chemical structure of the designer drugs that they sell in order to evade legal repercussions. It seems as though no matter how quickly the documentation of known designer drugs and the scheduling of them moves, the development of new designer drugs moves even more quickly.
The term “research chemicals,” which was once just clever marketing jargon, has muddled the issue further. The term might seem scientific and safe by association to users when the drugs are anything but. Meanwhile, the term might throw off law enforcement agents or others (employers, Google, SEO professionals who help to get the websites that sell these drugs noticed, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) who are under the impression that research chemicals are somehow different from designer drugs.
When a research chemical is finally discovered, studied and legally banned, another research chemical soon emerges if it hasn’t already. Creators of these chemicals make a point to create a drug that is different enough from the structure of the preceding drug to avoid legal repercussions. In the US, the Federal Analogue Act of the Controlled Substance Act of 1986 was written in an attempt to ban these designer drugs before they were even created by banning the manufacturing, selling or possessing of any drug that was considered to be substantially similar to the chemistry of a Schedule I or Schedule II substance. “Substantially similar,” however, is a gray area.
In some other countries, like Sweden, for instance, law enforcement agents may seize and potentially destroy drugs that are not classified as drugs on the list of substances included in anti-drug laws. This requires only the suspicion that the substance might be used for drug abuse. In Australia, bans have been placed on the chemical structures themselves, which serves to make chemicals illegal even if they haven’t technically been created yet. These laws ban theoretical drugs based on slight alterations to the original chemical compounds of existing drugs. However, these laws would not apply to designer drugs or research chemicals that have been purposefully made to be significantly different in chemical structure from the original drug or any other known and banned substance.
These blurred lines appear to be the most recent target area for designer drug and research chemical creators and dealers. If these drug dealers can sell drugs that are not even on the radar of the strictest laws in place, like the laws in Australia, then the drug dealers can continue to sell the substances without legal repercussions for a considerable length of time before the substance becomes banned. Some of these drugs, like one known as “spice,” which is a drug that is sold as synthetic marijuana, make additional attempts to evade prosecution through careful copy and labeling.
Spice, for instance, is labeled with warnings that read, “Not for Human Consumption.” The idea is that this so-called warning will help creators and dealers to escape culpability if and when humans do consume the substance and suffer because of that consumption. Spice in particular is now banned, but the widespread marketing and use of the drug before it was banned seems to have left a permanent mark, at least on youth culture.
A 2013 University of Michigan study found that spice, or other synthetic cannabinoids, was the second most popular illegal drug among high school seniors. The most popular illegal drug used by high school seniors in this study was actual marijuana; however, the adverse effects of spice appear to be far more severe than those of marijuana. Young people still use spice, in large part because of their misunderstanding of its dangers, which can be attributed to the assumption that the drug is substantially similar to marijuana on a chemical level when it is in fact different enough to cause significant harm that is not associated with marijuana use.
In an attempt to bring these designer drugs and research chemicals under better legal control, some places are now giving a “temporary class drug” status to these drugs as they emerge. The United Kingdom and New Zealand are now both using this status. The temporary class drug status exists to classify new drugs that have not yet had a chance to undergo the research needed in order for the dangers of a drug to be addressed and for an appropriate status and punishment for drug manufacture, sale or possession to be determined. The temporary class drug status in these places allows law enforcement agencies to take swift action against research chemicals, designer drugs, and other synthetic compounds as they first show up on the streets rather than endure a long researching and waiting period.
Signs of Abuse
There is no one sure way to identify the abuse of research chemicals and designer drugs. Because these drugs are designed so that they, in some cases, mimic existing drugs of all types and, in other cases, behave independently of any original drug, signs and symptoms of use and abuse of these drugs vary widely. However, one way to help identify the abuse of research chemicals is to become familiar with the signs and symptoms of the drugs they are closely related to as well as with the known designer drugs on the market as the information becomes available. There are broad signs of drug abuse at large though that might help you to identify the abuse of one of these drugs. Be sure to watch for:
- Changes in appearance
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in performance at work or school
- A decreased interest in drug-free activities
- Changes in mood
- Social changes that might involve new friendships
- Changes in energy levels
- Changes in affection
- Sudden financial stress
Just like any other addiction, an addiction to research chemicals or designer drugs can be successfully treated. Often, dual diagnosis care may be needed if the abuse issue co-occurs with other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, a personality disorder, or an eating disorder. If you or your loved one has struggled with abuse of these dangerous drugs, get the help you need today. Call now for more information about how our comprehensive treatment options can help.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.