Research chemicals are new synthetic substances that mimic existing drugs. Structurally they are almost identical to the original drug, while just different enough not to be classified as the same substances. For example, one atom of the molecular structure is replaced or removed altogether. This means it’s not quite the same anymore, leading to a different effect.
Note that the new compound will still have a psychoactive effect. A substance that is structurally similar to another substance is called a chemical analogue. Methylone (MDMC) is a close analogue of MDMA.
Research chemicals are new and psychoactive chemical structures. Because they’re new compounds, they can circumvent the law for their illegal counterpart and be sold without immediate risk of prosecution. That’s why looking for analogues pays off for certain people. Research chemicals are also called designer drugs and legal highs.
Research chemicals have existed since the first bans on psychoactive substances. In the 1920s, following the Opium Convention, people sought something similar to heroin and morphine. In the sixties, people were looking for something that could mimic the effects of illicit substances LSD and PCP.
The term ‘research chemicals’ is, however, a relatively new term, in use since the 1990s. A number of vendors realized that by selling their substances as 'research chemicals', they could avoid being arrested. In America, it’s illegal to sell substances for consumption if they are similar to drugs, which is why the vendors now suggested it was strictly sold for research purposes.
Later they would come up with more creative ways to hide the true intent of their new psychoactive substance. ‘Explosion’ was sold as an air freshener and contained methylone. Or it would be described as plant food or bath salts when it was, in fact, the drug mephedrone, also known as 'meow meow'.
In 2004, the United States’ DEA (Drugs Enforcement Agency) launched Operation Web Tryp, aimed at investigating a number of large websites suspected of selling drug analogues. This operation was the response to an increase in the popularity of ‘grey market’ drugs. These drugs were sold in increasing numbers, but at the same time, the number of hospitalisation incidents also increased, in some cases leading to fatalities.
Web Tryp led to numerous arrests with severe sentences, in a few cases even lifetime prison sentences. The court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that the website owners knew exactly what they were selling and that their buyers would consume their products. The customers of the investigated sites were not prosecuted in the United States, however, the DEA shared the customer database with other countries. Buyers in the UK were arrested and prosecuted.
Law enforcement actions such as Operation Web Tryp have unfortunately had some negative consequences. Out of fear of prosecution, the producers of research chemicals are revealing as little information about themselves as possible. Unfortunately, this means there’s very little information on the professional skill and trustworthiness of any given producer.
If you’re buying, you have no way of knowing whether or not a drug is pure. It may be contaminated and it’s possible you’re purchasing something completely different than you were promised. After all, it’s very hard to discern between different types of white powder with the naked eye.
Alexander Shulgin is a very important figure in the history of research chemicals. He was a chemist and pharmacologist, responsible for developing a new synthetic route for MDMA in 1967, which he also used himself. Shulgin loved his experience with MDMA and became a strong advocate of the use of this substance in a therapeutic setting.
He synthesized many other substances, such as synthetic mescaline and 2C-B. He would test each new substance with his wife and friends. He wrote about his experiments in the books PiHKAL, TiHKAL and The Shulgin Index.
Looking at the long history of synthetics, it’s clear that the term research chemical applies only temporarily to a substance. When Shulgin (re)discovered MDMA it was a research chemical, but nobody would call it that today. It seems primarily aimed at newly developed drugs.
Each year about fifty new psychoactive substances are introduced. Before something can be classified as an illegal substance, it needs to be identified. This is not an easy process because to accurately determine the chemical structure of, for example, an unknown powder you require some highly advanced equipment.
Before this exhaustive identification procedure is started, a substance has to be encountered regularly by law enforcement. It’s simply not feasible to subject every mysterious bag of powder to such a costly study. Only when it’s been properly identified, can a substance be classified and added to the list of controlled substances.
This procedure takes at least a year, meaning there's a lot of time between the introduction of a new drug and the official ban. This can lead to problematic situations, as some of these substances are highly dangerous.
That’s why European countries use various legislations to prevent the production, sale and use of research chemicals:
- Medicine Act: A new psychoactive substance is automatically considered a medicinal substance, making its sale illegal without a prescription. However, the sentences for selling medicine without a prescription are milder than selling controlled substances.
- Generic law: All chemical structures that are similar to the chemical structure of a substance that is on the Schedule 1 list are prohibited. However, enforcing this law is not easy because, as explained earlier, establishing whether or not something is a new chemical structure is difficult. Finding proof is a very complex, costly and time-consuming matter.
- Emergency procedure: this can be used for rapid intervention in case of fatalities.
There are still a great number of psychoactive substances in the Netherlands that are not covered by the points 1 and 2. As long as these products are not offered for consumption, selling them is not considered a criminal act.
Smartshops and designer drugs
The first smartshops emerged thanks to (at the time) legal designer drugs, including 4MTA and 2C-B. Smartshops soon began to flourish, as many psychonauts wanted to try these new drugs. As can be expected, this couldn't go on for very long and soon all synthetic substances sold by smartshops were considered controlled substances. It was now illegal to sell any synthetic substance for consumption.
In 2004 the last synthetic drug was pulled off the shelves. Methylone was sold as ‘Explosion’ and according to the label, it was solely intended as an air freshener. According to the Health Care Inspector, methylone was an (unregistered) drug.
Although selling designer drugs is now illegal, there are still smartshops who offer them, with the label specifying that it's not intended for consumption, thereby trying to circumvent the law. The unfortunate side effect of this approach is the lack of clear information on dosage and risks.
Azarius does NOT sell any of these so-called research chemicals as we don’t want to jeopardize the safety of our customers. We believe in providing clear information about all our products and only sell products that are safe to use.
Different types of research chemicals
There are many different types of research chemicals available, broadly divided into four groups:
- Phenyl-amphetamine, these are derived from phenylamine. Phenylamine can be found in the human body but also in cheese, chocolate and red wine. Amphetamine, 4-fluor, MDMA and 2C-B are examples of drugs that belong to this category.
- Tryptamines are a group of organic compounds derived from 2-(indool-3-yl)-ethylamine. LSD, DMT, melatonin and psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms) are all part of the tryptamine family.
- Cannabinoids are compounds that bind to a cannabinoid receptor. The body naturally produces cannabinoids but it can also be found in plants. The prime example of a plant that contains many different cannabinoids is, of course, cannabis.
The remainder; any other drugs that don’t belong in the aforementioned categories.
A few research chemicals are quite popular at the time of writing, including:
- 4-FMP, also called 4-fluor, lies somewhere in between amphetamine and MDMA in terms of effects. It makes you more alert just like amphetamine, but also more empathic, a noteworthy characteristic of MDMA. Because many people enjoy both effects, 4-FMP is quickly gaining popularity.
- 6-APB or 5-APB is a bit like XTC, but lasts longer and has a more potent psychedelic edge.
- LSZ has LSD-like effects, but with a shorter duration. Some people prefer this, as an LSD can be quite intense and long-lasting.
Despite some substances being fairly popular, most research chemicals are used by only a very small amount of people. New compounds can appear suddenly but sometimes disappear just as quickly if interest is lacking. It seems not many people enjoy being a guinea pig.
In addition, well-known drugs such as MDMA and amphetamine have such a potent effect that very few research chemicals can hope to attain the same amount of party scene popularity. 4-fluor and mephedrone are exceptions. However, mephedrone falls under the Medicine Act and 4-fluor will likely follow soon.
There are four main risks associated with the use of research chemicals:
- Usually, there has been little to no research on the immediate dangers of using this new drug. That’s why it’s not allowed to be sold as a consumable product. The safety of the product cannot be guaranteed in any way.
- Because they are all new substances, the long-term effects are equally unknown. Drugs like amphetamine and MDMA have been in use for years by large groups of people. From their combined experiences we know that amphetamines can be physically addictive and that frequent use of MDMA can lead to liver damage.
GHB was once a new drug and initially seen as non-addictive with limited harmful effects. Nowadays we know that using GHB may lead to an addiction that is very difficult to treat and there’s a risk of permanent brain damage if the drug is used every day for an extended period.
- Because there is no quality or safety supervision on the sale of designer drugs, you can never be sure if you really receive what you think you’ve ordered.
- By far the biggest risk is the fact that some people get the idea that, because it’s technically legal, that a research chemical is not dangerous. This especially applies to products sold by smartshops. One should remember it’s only legal because it’s new, but the legal status has no bearing on the safety.
If you still want to experiment with these substances, under no circumstance use something that’s only just been introduced. Do proper research online and don’t play with your life – if a substance is really what it promises to be, eventually more people will use it and post their experience.
Also, you must realize that every person carries unique enzymes, which causes different people to react in varying ways to the same component. Maybe you’ll have a horrible experience when everyone else appears to be unaffected.
Some substances similar to MDMA and amphetamine are detectable by means of a sweat test, urine test or blood test. These can be categorized as phenyl-amphetamine. Although it’s difficult to identify exactly which substance you’ve taken, a blood test will reveal your drug use.
Tryptamines aren’t usually tested for, making new drugs that fall into this category undetectable in most standardized tests. Other designer drugs produce effects similar to cannabis, yet are not illegal and cannot be traced in your blood. In Germany, law enforcement conducts sweat test. If the result is positive, a blood test follows.
If you’re caught with (traces of) cannabis in your body, this will not only lead to a huge fine but in some cases, you can also lose your job and even the opportunity to work in a particular sector. This applies to social workers and teachers, among others.
For us Dutch, that’s very peculiar. Especially when you realize that evidence of cannabis use can still be found in your blood up to three weeks later. That’s why it may be prudent to switch to synthetic and untraceable cannabis if you live in such a strict country.
Each year at least fifty new research chemicals are introduced. This makes it impossible to write strict contraindications that cover all the various possible compounds.
As a rule of thumb, never combine a research chemical with any form of medication or another drug. In addition, we strongly discourage the use of drugs in case of high blood pressure, heart problems or if you are prone to psychoses.
Last but not least – if after reading all our warning you’re still determined to try a research chemical, please follow the general safety tips in this article: Using psychedelics safely.