When referring to psychoactive or intoxicating substances, the term research chemicals is intentionally unclear. Are these chemicals used in scientific research? Do they have a legitimate, legal purpose? Do scientists understand their effects? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Research chemicals, in the context of substance abuse are poorly understood and dangerous.
What Are Research Chemicals?
In medical and scientific research, as outlined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are chemicals that can be used for research purposes, to develop new pharmaceutical remedies or investigate the effects of specific molecules. However, research chemicals used to get high are a different type of substance altogether. They are developed in a lab, intentionally mimicking certain substances like marijuana, opioids, or cocaine, but the chemicals are then sold, with little understanding of their actual effects, to people who intend to abuse these drugs for recreational reasons.
Although the term research chemicals is a misnomer for these dangerous psychoactive substances, the chemicals do come from scientific and medical research. In their legitimate scientific form, research chemicals are just that – new chemicals in the research stage of development, so they come with hypotheses about their potential uses but little solid information. Chemical formulas are obtained by copying publicly published research; the structure is replicated and then mass-produced and sold, most often through online vendors. Some vendors have even been found selling these life-threatening drugs through Instagram.
Research Chemicals and the Law
Research chemicals are typically lumped into the same category as synthetic and designer drugs, which includes MDMA, ecstasy, ketamine, bath salts, Spice, and K2. Most agencies refer to these drugs as new psychoactive substances (NPS) since they are all manufactured in laboratory settings, and many of them have legal analogues that were developed specifically to bypass drug enforcement laws. Most packages have the warning label: not for human consumption.
In the US, state and federal drug laws currently outlaw specific molecules or chemical structures, so research chemicals bypass these laws by changing the structure of the drug as new laws are passed. This makes research chemicals even more unpredictable and dangerous; just because one batch led to a heroin-like high, the next batch will not necessarily do the same thing. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found in the 2016 World Drug Report (WDR) that most NPSs reported around the world were either a combination of previously reported NPSs or slightly changed chemicals that were previously reported. Global seizures of synthetic NPSs were up 18 percent from 2014 when the previous WDR was published.
Types of Research Chemicals
This list changes nearly every day as new versions of chemicals are developed. The intoxicating, dangerous research chemicals that have been found and seized due to reported substance abuse and overdose are outlined below.
- 25I-NBOMe and 25C-NBOMe: These designer hallucinogens are taken orally and sometimes confused with LSD. These drugs have caused rapid overdose deaths. They are often referred to as N-bomb or Smiles.
- 2C Series: A popular group of phenethylamines, these drugs contain 2,5-dimethyoxy. One of the more famous is 2C-E, also known as Europa. The drugs allegedly produce the same effects as LSD. Dangerous and unpredictable side effects include difficulty breathing and persistent, psychotic hallucinations. Drugs in the 2C series have been linked to overdoses.
- Acetylfentanyl: With fentanyl, a potent prescription narcotic around 100 times more potent than heroin, already devastating the country, the introduction of acetylfentanyl as a research chemical puts people struggling with opioid addiction at significant risk of death. This opioid analgesic is 80 times more potent than morphine; it is believed to be less potent than fentanyl, but as a research chemical, reactions to the substance are unpredictable.
- Arylcyclohexylamine: This group of chemicals is marketed as similar to ketamine; they allegedly produce dissociative, anesthetic, and hallucinogenic reactions. While ketamine is technically an arylcylohexamine, the group contains other, less understood research chemicals.
- Bromo-DragonFLY: This synthetic psychedelic amphetamine has led to several overdose deaths and hospitalizations. Effects from this compound have been known to last for several days; it became popular because it reportedly had one-third the potency of LSD by weight, so less of the drug means a longer trip.
- Etizolam: This benzodiazepine is 10 times more potent than Valium, a long-acting prescription anti-anxiety medication. While etizolam is legal in India, Italy, and Japan to treat insomnia, it is not prescribed in the United States. People who struggle with benzodiazepine addiction have been known to purchase this drug through online retailers when it is marketed as a research chemical; unfortunately, the status of research chemical means that this version of etizolam has likely been tampered with, making it more dangerous. The substance has been linked to an overdose death in Canada.
- Methoxamine (MXE): This drug is a dissociative and pain suppressant, similar to ketamine; in fact, it is often sold as a ketamine derivative. MXE boasts effects like those of PCP, another dangerous synthetic psychoactive drug. The high from MXE lasts 5-7 hours. There are overdose deaths linked to this compound.
- Methylhexanamine (DMAA): This designer stimulant is marketed as a synthetic cathinone replacement, especially after horrific reports around the dangers of bath salts. DMAA is sometimes found in the dietary supplement market for weight loss because supplements are poorly regulated in the US.
- Other phenethylamines: Technically, phenethylamines can be found in the body; most mammals produce these neurotransmitters, which are associated with infatuation and romance. They are stimulants, with effects like those of MDMA or amphetamines. When mixed in research chemicals, these drugs can lead to intense highs like those associated with crystal meth or ecstasy.
- Piperazines: More commonly found in industrial chemicals, these drugs are both stimulants and hallucinogens, believed to have amphetamine-like or MDMA-like psychoactive effects. Chemicals commonly found in this group include BZP, TFMPP, mCPP, and MeOPP. They are found as tablets, which could lead to confusion with other drugs in tablet form.
- Tryptamines: These occur naturally in some plant species, although the intoxicating version is produced in a lab. These are hallucinogens that distort reality more than other forms of hallucinogenic substances. They can be found in tablet, powder, or blotter paper form, and there are dozens of chemicals widely available from this group.
- W-18: Allegedly similar to opioids, this drug was developed as an analgesic at the University of Alberta. It is related to 35 other, similar chemicals that have patents in the US. Little is known about the compound except that it is not technically an opioid, but it can suppress the experience of pain. It may be 10,000 times more potent than morphine, but this information is based on animal studies from the 1980s. W-18 has been linked to overdose deaths, which were originally thought to be fentanyl overdoses.
Mental and Physical Effects of Research Chemicals
Information on the effects of research chemicals relies on two sources: emergency department reports when a person overdoses and anecdotal evidence from those who survive the high. Overdose information is more reliable and indicates how dangerous and hard to control these substances can be.
Anecdotally reported physical effects from some research chemicals, which involve a combination of stimulants, sedatives, and hallucinogens, can include:
- Pupil dilation
- Either excitement or relaxation, unpredictably
- Vasoconstriction, or tightening of the blood vessels related to stimulation
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing rate
- Spontaneous tactile sensations or hallucinations
- Elevated body temperature, sometimes leading to hyperthermia
- Liver and kidney damage from hyperthermia
Psychological effects are reportedly the main purpose of these drugs. In addition to producing auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations; changes in perception of reality; and time dilation, research chemicals can lead to devastating changes in mental health. Because potency is variable, leading to consistent dosing problems, psychoactive effects could be detrimental, and last for a long time – sometimes days. Psychological changes associated with research chemicals include:
- Suicidal ideation
- Violence toward others
- Delusions of grandeur
- Difficulty communicating
Because mental and physical effects from these drugs can last for hours, many people are hospitalized due to erratic behavior, seizures, depressed or stopped breathing, and other dangers. Emergency rooms are getting better at recognizing designer drugs, largely because of the swath of overdoses from bath salts or synthetic cannabis; however, the presence of the chemicals is still difficult to identify in many people who are admitted for overdose treatment since the chemical formulas are not widely known. This makes reporting overdoses on specific chemicals difficult.
Signs of Research Chemical Abuse and Addiction
Research chemicals are designed to be potent. They act in a specific way on the brain, inducing hallucinations, feelings of pleasure, relaxation, or stimulation very quickly. Dangerous side effects last for a long time, with little understanding of how long the chemicals will bind to receptors in the brain, or how they are metabolized out of the body.
Most drugs have an understood therapeutic window: how much of the drug is required to produce a specific effect, how long before adverse symptoms begin, and how much is required before overdose symptoms occur. When scientific researchers examine new chemicals, the second step after development is to begin examining the therapeutic window through animal studies. Unfortunately, designer drugs in the research chemical group rarely have featured animal studies before they are sold to the public.
Changes in behavior may appear like those associated with other hallucinogens like LSD, psychoactive drugs like MDMA, potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, or more famous synthetic chemicals like bath salts. It is hard to say because there is no standard for what chemicals will be found in research chemicals, regardless of what high they are marketed to produce.
The only way to know if a person is struggling with abuse of research chemicals is if they are hospitalized for symptoms, often of overdose. Their behavior will most likely be paranoid or psychotic, and they may report seeing or hearing things that are not there for several hours. Their breathing may stop; they may vomit a great deal; they may stop eating; they may suffer from hyperthermia; they may have seizures; they may have a heart attack; or they may fall into a coma.
There is no such thing as a mild high, and there is rarely a ramp-up stage for abuse with these drugs. More widely known and abused drugs like cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and opioids often begin with small doses here and there; as the person begins to struggle more with addiction, they will take more and more, as their body begins to rely on the presence of the drug to create equilibrium with neurotransmitters in the brain. They will seek out these substances; they will lie about their abuse; and they may begin to avoid work, school, or social events in favor of taking the drug. In contrast, one dose of research chemicals could lead to overdose, or it could product little effect.
Treatment to Overcome Research Chemical Addiction
UNODC reported in their latest WDR that most people who abuse NPSs, including research chemicals, are likely to be polydrug abusers. This is largely because people who frequently ingest NPSs do so without knowing what they are taking; they are at a large social event like a rave and purchase drugs sold as other drugs, like ketamine, LSD, or ecstasy. They are more likely to consume illicit substances in combination with alcohol and other street drugs. However, other reports suggest that some people who abuse NPSs do so intentionally, after purchasing research chemicals through online vendors.
- Consistent, bad hangovers or comedowns
- Experiencing a serious accident, like a fall leading to head injury or broken bones
- Violent behavior toward oneself or others
- Worsening mental health, especially depression and anxiety
- Medical problems, such as infections, heart disease, liver damage, or kidney failure
- Overdose and hospitalization
Since people who struggle with research chemical abuse are more likely to be polydrug abusers, withdrawal can be complicated by physical dependence on other substances, including alcohol, marijuana, opioids, or cocaine.
Meeting the Needs of People Struggling with Research Chemical Addiction
Finding a detox program that can manage intense symptoms is very important. A person who struggles with research chemical abuse may have to detox in a hospital setting with 24/7 supervision from medical professionals. Because little is understood about research chemicals and how the body metabolizes these substances, there are no medicated options for medically managed withdrawal, unlike opioids, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and some other intoxicating drugs. However, medical interventions may be necessary, including breathing support, tranquilizers, and IV fluids.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has guidelines for treating people struggling with polydrug abuse, which may work well as a foundation for treatment of research chemical abuse. EMCDDA states that withdrawal management/detox is the first step, followed by drug-free physical and social techniques, like psychotherapy, geared to improving the individual’s wellbeing and independence.
Rehabilitation after detox requires evaluating the individual’s physical and psychological health. Co-occurring mental health disorders, like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, must be treated at the same time as substance abuse; otherwise, failure to treat one issue increases the risk of relapse in symptoms of the other condition. The person should also be assessed to determine if inpatient or outpatient treatment will work best.
NIDA reports that most people get the best benefit from rehabilitation if they remain in treatment for three months or 90 days. The agency also notes that it is important that treatment is easily accessible and widely available. For many people, however, insurance will only cover one month of treatment, if any; other financial obstacles could get in the way of appropriate treatment like unemployment.
Finding a rehabilitation program that specializes in designer drugs, NPSs, or research chemical treatment may be challenging, as these are newer substances. Most rehab centers can address abuse of and addiction to these substances even if they don’t specialize in them. As more information about these substances is gathered, rehabilitation programs are expanding their therapeutic treatment options to help people struggling with research chemical addiction.