Research chemicals (also called RCs, experimental chemicals, legal highs or designer drugs) refers to psychoactive substances which have unstudied effects and little to no history of medicinal use.
Research chemicals typically have structures and effects similar to illicit substances and are often developed to either improve upon their effects or bypass existing drug laws. Most information about research chemicals is based on first-hand experiences and anecdotal evidence.
The term "research chemical" is used by online vendors to bypass legal restrictions for selling psychoactive compounds. Research chemicals commonly come in packaging labelled "not for human consumption" and are stated to be solely used for the purposes of scientific research.
The use of research chemicals carries more risks than the use of more common, well-studied substances. There have been multiple deaths caused by research chemicals such as 25x-NBOMe, Bromo-DragonFLY, 2C-T-7, and others.
History and culture
The term designer drug was coined in 1984 following the appearance on the illicit drug market in the USA of a number of fentanyl derivatives. They were defined as ‘analogues, or chemical cousins, of controlled substances that are designed to produce effects similar to the controlled substances they mimic’. These highly potent substitutes for heroin caused a number of accidental deaths. A synthetic contaminant (MPTP) in an α‐prodine derivative led to chemically induced Parkinson's disease in a number of injecting drug users. In the United States, the Controlled Substances Act was amended by the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement of 1986, which attempted to ban designer drugs preemptively by making it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess chemicals that were substantially similar in chemistry and pharmacology to Schedule I or Schedule II drugs.
Amphetamine derivatives, particularly ring‐substituted examples, represented the next phase in the evolution of designer drugs. The ‘phenethylamine period’, likely inspired by the publication of the book PiHKAL in 1991, would last into the early years of the twenty‐first century. In this time, around 50 illicit phenethylamine derivatives were found in police and customs seizures in Europe and the USA. In parallel with the phenethylamines, many tryptamine derivatives appeared throughout the 1990s. Their synthesis may have been inspired by the publication of the book TiHKAL in 1997, though they never became widespread.
New substances rapidly followed the end of the PiHKAL era, the next family being the piperazine derivatives. The prototypical member was BZP. The piperazines occupied a transition state in the marketing of ‘new psychoactive substances’. The source shifted from clandestine laboratories to legitimate chemical supply companies, some of which were located in Asian countries. Since the substances concerned were not initially controlled under drugs legislation, their production and distribution became far more overt. Alongside more traditional retail outlets like head shops, the growth of the internet opened up new channels, where their properties and effects could be openly discussed. It was at this time that the euphemism "research chemical" appeared.
The piperazines were soon followed in around 2008 by cathinone derivatives, the most common of which in Europe was mephedrone. At the same time, the first synthetic cannabinoid agonists were identified in smoking mixtures, which are often known as ‘Spice’.
In the last few years, there has been a rapid proliferation of new substances. Of the approximately 170 substances reported since 1997 by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), over half have appeared since 2006.
Toxicity and harm potential
The safety profile of research chemicals is generally unknown due to a lack of medical studies. There is little to no information on the toxicity, negative health risks, long-term side effects, or lethal dosage of these chemicals, which make their use riskier than the use of more common, well-studied substances. It is for this reason that taking these chemicals for extended periods of time, binging on them, and taking excessive doses is strongly discouraged.
In terms of known risk factors, common issues for research chemicals include the mislabeling, misidentification, and misrepresentation of products, the adulteration of other compounds, and issues of purity. Using a reagent testing kit to properly identify research chemicals is highly recommended before use.
Combining research chemicals presents a risk due to the lack of research and understanding of their pharmacological and toxicological effects. For example, if a research chemical has MAOI effects (like 2C-T-7), this could make it dangerous to combine it with other MAOIs, stimulants and certain substances which release serotonin or dopamine. It is recommended to avoid blends or branded products if the active psychoactive compounds are not listed on the labeling.
Several fatal overdoses have occurred due to Bromo-DragonFLY accidentally being mislabelled by online vendors as both 2C-B-FLY and 2C-E. The former is active in the 200-800μg range and is significantly more potent than 2C-E. These situations can be avoided by dosing a minuscule amount of a drug (roughly 0.5 milligrams) and waiting for several hours. This is known as an "allergy test". It is recommended to do this for all new batches of substances. Additionally, it is strongly recommended that one uses a milligram scale to accurately measure their doses.
Anecdotal evidence from users suggests that there do not seem to be any negative health effects attributed to simply trying research chemicals at low to moderate doses by themselves and using them sparingly. However, nothing can be guaranteed. For example, in one extreme case, the research chemical MPPP was found in some cases to contain an impurity called MPTP, which caused brain damage that resulted in a syndrome identical to Parkinson's disease from only a single dose.
Pharmacological deaths are fatalities caused by the direct action of the chemical in the body and do not include deaths as a result of inebriated behavior. The content below is an incomplete list.
- MDMB-FUBINACA - MDMB-FUBINACA has gained a reputation as the most deadly synthetic cannabinoid drug sold to date. At least 1000 hospitalisations and 40 deaths have been linked to this drug in media and government reports as of March 2015.
- AMT - Deaths from AMT are rare. But as a powerful monoamine reuptake inhibitor (MRI), injury could occur when excessive doses are taken or when it is taken with drugs such as MAOIs, RIMAs, stimulants and any substance which act as a releasing agent or reuptake inhibitor of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.
- DOC - There is one reported death from DOC, however, the toxicology report hasn't been released nor has the presence of DOC been confirmed.
- 2C-T-7 - There have been at least three reported deaths related to 2C-T-7 use at insufflated (nasal) doses of 30 mg or more or combined with stimulants such as MDMA. It is not recommended to insufflate (snort) this drug or combine it with MAOIs, stimulants and certain substances which releases serotonin or dopamine because 2C-T-7 may possibly have MAOI effects.
- Bromo-DragonFLY - Bromo-DragonFLY, accidentally mislabelled as both 2C-E and 2C-B-FLY, has caused the deaths of three people, possibly due to producing pronounced vasoconstriction under some circumstances.
- Fentanyl analogs
- See Isomer Design's fentanyl landscape for a list of fentanyl analogs.
- Acetylfentanyl - Between March 2013 and May 2013, 14 overdose deaths related to injected acetylfentanyl had occurred in Rhode Island. After confirming five overdoses in one county, including a fatality, Pennsylvania asked coroners and medical examiners across the state to screen for acetylfentanyl, which led to 50 confirmed fatalities and five non-fatal overdoses statewide in 2013. Another 5 deaths were reported in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans, along with three more in North Carolina.
- AH-7921- In a 2014 study which investigated nine fatalities in which AH-7921 was involved, it was concluded that poly-drug use was not a major contributing factor for the deaths and that a more important factor was the person's tolerance to opiates, which led to an overdose when the drug was taken in excessive amounts.
- U-47700 - Combined consumption of U-47700 and fentanyl caused one fatality in Belgium. Individual consumption of U-47700 caused one fatality in Ireland. At least 17 opioid overdoses and several deaths in the USA have also been connected with the use of U-47700.
- King, L. A., & Kicman, A. T. (2011). A brief history of ‘new psychoactive substances’. Drug Testing and Analysis, 3(7‐8), 401-403. https://doi.org/10.1002/dta.319
- Erowid Psychoactive Vaults : Research Chemicals FAQ
- Morris, H. (2011), Interview with a Ketamine Chemist
- Erowid Bromo-Dragonfly Vault : Fatalities / Deaths
- Baum, R. M. (9 September 1985). "New Variety of Street Drugs Poses Growing Problem: Designer drugs—analogs of compounds with proven pharmacological activity made by underground chemists—present novel challenges to law enforcement officials, legislators, and scientists". Chemical & Engineering News Archive. 63 (36): 7–16. doi:10.1021/cen-v063n036.p007. ISSN 0009-2347.
- King, L. A., Kicman, A. T. (July 2011). "A brief history of 'new psychoactive substances'". Drug Testing and Analysis. 3 (7–8): 401–403. doi:10.1002/dta.319. ISSN 1942-7603.
- Freye, E. (2010). "Pharmacology and Abuse of Cocaine, Amphetamines, Ecstasy and Related Designer Drugs: A comprehensive review on their mode of action, treatment of abuse and intoxication". In Freye, E. History of Designer Drugs. Springer Netherlands. pp. 183–189. doi:10.1007/978-90-481-2448-0_27. ISBN 9789048124480.
- Research Chemicals - TripSit wiki
- Erowid 2C-B-Fly Vault: Death Reports 2009
- Griffin, D., Second Victim Dies After Taking Designer Drug In Konawa
- Shevyrin, V., Melkozerov, V., Nevero, A., Eltsov, O., Shafran, Y., Morzherin, Y., Lebedev, A. T. (August 2015). "Identification and analytical characteristics of synthetic cannabinoids with an indazole-3-carboxamide structure bearing a N-1-methoxycarbonylalkyl group". Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry. 407 (21): 6301–6315. doi:10.1007/s00216-015-8612-7. ISSN 1618-2650.
- 25 killed, over 700 hospitalized: Cheap ‘Spice’ designer drug causes severe poisoning across Russia
- "Clinical presentations of intoxication by new psychoactive compound MDMB(N)-Bz-F. Thesis of The II Scientific and Practical Seminar 'Methodical, Organizational and Law Problems of Chemical and Toxicological Laboratories of Narcological Services', Moscow" (in Russian). | http://www.narkotiki.ru/objects/narkotiki02/1414709242.ppt
- Erowid AMT (AlphaMethylTryptamine) Vault : Fatalities / Deaths
- Erowid.org: Erowid Reference 6603 : Fatality due to acute alpha-methyltryptamine intoxication : Boland DM, Andollo W, Hime GW, Hearn WL
- Gillman, P. K. (October 2005). "Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, opioid analgesics and serotonin toxicity". British Journal of Anaesthesia. 95 (4): 434–441. doi:10.1093/bja/aei210. ISSN 0007-0912.
- Erowid DOC (2,5-Dimethoxy-ChloroAmphetamine) Vault : Fatalities / Deaths
- Erowid 2C-T-7 Vault: Death Reported
- Erowid 2C-T-7 Vault: Death Reported
- Erowid 2C-T-7 Vault: Seattle Death Reported, April 8 2001
- Gallardo-Godoy, A., Fierro, A., McLean, T. H., Castillo, M., Cassels, B. K., Reyes-Parada, M., Nichols, D. E. (1 April 2005). "Sulfur-Substituted α-Alkyl Phenethylamines as Selective and Reversible MAO-A Inhibitors: Biological Activities, CoMFA Analysis, and Active Site Modeling". Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. 48 (7): 2407–2419. doi:10.1021/jm0493109. ISSN 0022-2623.
- Erowid 25I-NBOMe (2C-I-NBOMe) Vault : Fatalities / Deaths
- Erowid NBOMe (Other or Unknown NBOMe-Compound) Vault : Fatalities / Deaths
- Erowid 2C-C-NBOMe (25C-NBOMe) Vault : Fatalities / Deaths
- Erowid 5-MeO-DIPT Vault : Japanese Death Blamed on 5-MeO-DiPT (June 2004)
- Andreasen, M. F., Telving, R., Birkler, R. I. D., Schumacher, B., Johannsen, M. (10 January 2009). "A fatal poisoning involving Bromo-Dragonfly". Forensic Science International. 183 (1–3): 91–96. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2008.11.001. ISSN 1872-6283.
- Erowid.org: Erowid Reference 8804 : First Reported Fatalities Associated with the “Research Chemical” 2-Methoxydiphenidine : Elliott SP, Brandt SD, Wallach J, Morris H, Kavanagh PV
- Notes from the Field: Acetyl Fentanyl Overdose Fatalities — Rhode Island, March–May 2013
- Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. "Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs warns about acetyl fentanyl: drug caused at least 50 fatalities in 2013 in Pennsylvania.". Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. | http://www.pa.gov/portal/server.pt/document/1345188/department_of_drug_and_alcohol_programs_warns_about_acetyl_fentanyl
- Grunfeld, David (November 1, 2013). "Couple found dead in Old Metairie home killed by lethal new synthetic drug". NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Retrieved 28 March 2014. | http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2013/10/couple_found_dead_in_old_metai.html
- DHHS Issues Health Advisory for Deadly New Synthetic Drug
- Kronstrand, R., Thelander, G., Lindstedt, D., Roman, M., Kugelberg, F. C. (October 2014). "Fatal Intoxications Associated with the Designer Opioid AH-7921". Journal of Analytical Toxicology. 38 (8): 599–604. doi:10.1093/jat/bku057. ISSN 1945-2403.
- Twee doden in België door overdosis met fentanylpleisters | http://deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/binnenland/1.2558454
- McGovern, D. G., U-47700 death: “As we pretend that policing drugs deters users, we can expect more harm, more deaths”
- Zalkind, S. (2016), Synthetic opiate makers stay step ahead of US drug laws as overdose cases rise
- Erowid MDPV Vault : Fatalities / Deaths