In the past couple of years, a small amount of attention has been gathering around a spate of hospitalizations and deaths allegedly related to ‘research chemicals’. In particular, the drug 25i-NBOMe has been implicated. Unfortunately, incompetence or outright dishonesty has been the rule, not the exception, in the coverage of drug-related deaths and hospitalizations. Astonishingly, the major newspapers haven’t even bothered to name the substance in question, and have unanimously chosen to adopt the phrase ‘synthetic LSD’, instead. It is the role of the media to inform the public: this is what it might look like if Australian journalists had a notion to inform the public about drugs.
25i-NBOMe was discovered in 2003 by Ralf Heim at the Free University of Berlin. It is a psychedelic drug. In the public mind, this might suggest that it induces strange visions, but what actually occurs is somewhat more benign: subtler changes in perception and cognition, like colors appearing brighter, are far more common than outright hallucinations. It is characteristic of the media to focus on the exceptional, and as such we’ve heard much about the “confusion, shaking, nausea, insomnia, paranoia and unwanted feelings,” which users report accompanying the use (and in particular misuse) of this drug, but we might also mention the “feelings of love/empathy,” and “change in consciousness and unusual body sensations” which the drug brings on.
Regardless, the drug does not have a good safety profile or reputation at all. No need to sensationalize when the facts speak so clearly for themselves. There are numerous recorded instances of individuals on this drug presenting to emergency rooms in great physical and mental discomfort. Clinically observed symptoms include tachycardia, hypertension, agitation and aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, seizures, hyperpyrexia, clonus, elevated white blood cell count and metabolic acidosis. In addition to all this, it can be lethal, which is the one of two things which makes 25i-NBOMe important in the context of 2014.
The first is that it’s still relatively obscure, it’s incredibly cheap (it can be imported for as little as 50 cents a ‘tab’), and yet bares enough resemblance to LSD to be resold to inexperienced people for $15. Secondly, as I said, and this is where it differs from LSD, it can be lethal. Compare the substance to LSD. LSD kills rats in doses of 12mg per kilo of bodyweight, and the average dose is generally 100-300 micrograms (one-thousandth of a milligram) per tab. Which means you’d have to take about 80 times the recreational dose for every kilo you weigh before it is fatal. Whereas 25i-NBOMe is usually applied 1mg to a tab, and has killed in doses lower than 10mg. Which means you’d only have to take a few times the recreational dose, in total, before it is fatal. It’s easy to see how this combination of factors can render the drug lethal. Inexperienced drug users are not notoriously cautious or informed, for one thing. And for another, even the most experienced user is in danger of overdosing if he believes he is in possession of an infinitely more benign substance, namely LSD. In short, what renders the substance deadly is precisely the act of misinformation that the Australian media has been routinely committing when it misrepresents the drug as “LSD”.
This information is all vital to a conversation it is now necessary to have about 25i-NBOMe specifically, and the phenomenon of ‘research chemicals’, more generally. Before I move on to initiate this conversation, I’d like to dwell for a moment on the conspicuous absence of any of these facts, or indeed of anything more than the ill-informed phrase ‘synthetic LSD’, from the Australian media’s coverage of this important issue. It’s truly absurd. In highlighting this absurdity, let me tell you how I came by all this information. First of all, I gleamed a lot of this by showing a level of competence and integrity common to first year university students, but not to postgraduate journalists, and I googled the substance in question, and already I had quite a bit more for the public discourse than a two word misnomer.
Next, I acted like a journalist might be expected to act, and I sought the opinion of a professional in the field. Invariably, our newspapers take their information on drugs straight from the police force, and print it without comment or correction. Last time this resulted in the Australian printing outright falsehoods, prompting me to suggest to their editor that if he wanted to know about drugs he should ask a chemist, not a cop. I, for example, chose to send an email to the Independent Drug Advisory board in the United Kingdom, who were kind enough to give a few comments and attach documents filled with empirical, clinical and pharmacological information on the drug. It’s amazing what you learn when you consult somebody from the relevant discipline.
25i-NBOMe undoubtedly poses problems for public health and safety, but wherein lie the solutions? The prohibitionist method is a transparent failure – it is, after all, the prohibition of LSD which has led to the promotion of 25i-NBOMe as an alternative in at least 7 member states of the EU. It is prohibitionism which forces teenagers like Henry Kwan and Nick Mitchell to navigate dubious black markets alone and unequipped to guarantee the safety and standards of the drugs they buy and use. And finally, a growing web of deep web markets, the sophistication of which our police are totally incapable of keeping up with, have provided Australian citizens the means to acquire practically any substance they desire. Any intelligent solution, therefore, must be rooted in the understanding that we cannot prevent people from using these substances. This is understandably a frightening premise for parents and educators, and indeed most of the public, but it will help us formulate a humane and effective, if somewhat radical, approach to the issue of drugs in our society.
The problems surrounding drug use today are not principally the result of the drugs themselves, but the economic and social paradigm within which people consume them. In a recent work on drug policy, Alex Klein aptly sums up the problem which pervades the hidden use of proscribed substances like 25i-NBOMe when he points out that “where social convention or culture does not provide a framework to prescribe a pattern of use and restraint, individual users are vulnerable to the dictates of their appetite.” The logic is self-evident and undeniable. We’ve already applied it to sexual education, to name one example. On that issue we have come to the understanding that young people will experiment with their sexuality, and that they are better served by practical advice for harm minimization than by ignorable and dishonest moralizing. The same is true of drugs. The use of psychedelic drugs has occurred in our society for decades now and it is high time that we integrate this valid social phenomenon in a way that minimizes the associated harms and facilitates the well documented benefits. Here’s a few ways this might be done.
Firstly, education is an excellent tool for harm reduction. Teenagers are less likely to use dangerous substances like 25i-NBOMe if the safety profile of the drugs is outlined to them, as I have outlined it to you, and compared to the safety profile of LSD, as I have also done above. If they decide to use it anyway, and this is always a possibility, then they will be well served by the knowledge that one milligram is sufficient, and that two milligrams is approaching dangerous territory. This first point is common sense, and something we can and should begin doing immediately, in the press, in schools, and in our families and communities.
Secondly, we can bring the market for psychedelic drugs above ground. One of the primary dangers of 25i is that it is so often fraudulently sold as LSD – a problem which would be significantly reduced by allowing professionals to manufacture and quality control these substances, and to sell them in clearly labeled packaging with relevant health and safety warnings. A legal market for psychedelic drugs is jarring to the moral sensibilities of some, but it is clearly less fraught with danger than forcing teenagers to navigate an often dubious black market.
Lastly, and this may sound controversial, we can bring the culture which this market facilitates above ground. Drug users are a far from insignificant portion of our society, and they are entitled to safety and to association for mutual benefit, just the same as anyone else. Their place in our society is not a variable; the only question is whether or not we will accept it. One positive manifestation of an open association between the users of psychedelic drugs might be the creation of safe spaces to use them. This is not a new idea: facilities for the safe injection of heroin have been tried with excellent results for harm minimization, and the logic applies equally here. Put simply, teenagers use drugs. When they do so, they require the care and guidance of society. They simply cannot seek or receive this care or guidance when, as at present, they are forced to hide their use from society and to embark on these experiences alone.
Consider the recent deaths, accidents, and hospitalizations in Australia and elsewhere, for a moment. Consider that these youths, sometimes fifteen and sixteen years old, were without exception experimenting with these chemicals in secret, with only other inexperienced teenagers for guidance. They were, without exception, doing so in a culture in which a monolithic taboo surrounds the behavior they were engaging in, which they are understandably and profoundly hesitant to breach even when in need of medical attention. Is it any wonder they found themselves in such trouble when calling for help entails not only the threat of legal repercussions, but the loss of social standing and severe damage to their familial relations? Hence the need for safe spaces free from moral judgment or socio-legal repercussions. Would we rather they use drugs alone or in pairs, in their bedrooms, without having told anybody they’re doing so, while deathly afraid of telling anybody they’re doing so even in the event that an emergency arises? Or would we rather they have supervision from open-minded professionals, where psychological distress can be handled and medical attention sought at the first sign of physical danger? In short, do we think hidden cultures or open cultures have a greater tendency towards harm minimization?
The urge to be high is a legitimate one, and we need to stop forcibly suppressing it. The eradication of drugs is quite literally impossible. All we can really do is influence the character of youth culture and its relationship to drugs: towards moderation, education, harm minimization, and a thorough understanding of the reasons behind taking drugs, both positive and negative. But we can only do this if we have a culture in which it is okay for young people to talk about psychedelic drugs, and –if they decide to use them- in which they are provided with the resources necessary to do so safely.