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Research chemicals are substances which are used recreationally by people seeking to alter their moods and get high.1 Research chemicals (RC’s) are dangerous and do not have a legitimate or legal purpose for the general public. Despite the name, research chemicals are not chemicals used in scientific research. In the context of substance abuse, research chemicals are poorly understood and can be very dangerous. While MDMA is not a research chemical, some of these substances are associated with MDMA-like effects when ingested. Find out more about research chemicals in this scientific article.
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.2 However, research chemicals used to get high are a different type of substance altogether.3 These substances are developed in a lab and frequently have mechanisms of action or effects that mimic those of other abused substances such as marijuana, opioids, or cocaine. These drugs are then sold to people with little understanding of their chemical constituents or actual effects for the mere purpose of recreational use. Although the chemicals may have once derived from legitimate chemical research, the term research chemicals is misleading and hides how dangerous these psychoactive substances can be.1
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 in terms of controlled studies and probable health risks. Chemical formulas are obtained by copying publicly published research; the structure is replicated and then mass-produced and sold, typically through online vendors.4 Some vendors are selling research chemicals on social media apps, such as Instagram and Snapchat.5
Research chemicals are commonly classified as synthetic drugs for legal and regulatory purposes. Synthetics are a broad grouping of drugs which include MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine, synthetic cathinones (bath salts), and synthetic cannabinoids (Spice and K2). Many agencies refer to these drugs as new psychoactive substances (NPS), as they are all manufactured in laboratory settings, and many of them have legal analogues that were developed specifically to bypass drug enforcement laws.1 Often, the packaging for these products has the warning label: not for human consumption.
In the US, state and federal drug laws currently outlaw specific molecules or chemical structures, but research chemical manufacturers attempt to 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 stimulant-like high, the next batch will not necessarily do the same thing. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated in 2018, that most NPS reported around the world were either a combination of previously reported NPS or slightly altered versions of previously reported chemicals.6 A total of 478 different NPS were identified as being on the drug market as of 2017.
A list of research chemicals will change nearly every day as new versions of chemicals are developed. A list of dangerous research chemicals (RC’s) that have been found and seized due to reported substance abuse and overdose are outlined below.
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. Of the two, overdose reports are able to provide more objective information and underscore how dangerous and hard to control these substances can be. 18
Symptoms seen in those who are admitted to the ER after ingesting research chemicals include:
Anecdotally reported physical effects of some research chemicals, which involve a combination of stimulants, sedatives, and hallucinogens, can include:
In many cases, psychological effects are the desired outcome of using these drugs. In addition to producing auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations, effects such as derealization and time dilation can be quite dangerous for users.
Other psychological changes associated with research chemicals include:
After ingesting research chemicals, people have been 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.19
Research chemicals are designed to be potent. They act in a specific way on the brain, inducing hallucinations, feelings of pleasure, relaxation, or stimulation 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 and long they stay in 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 precisely which effects occur as a result of taking these substances, because there is no standard for what chemicals will be found in research chemicals. For example, a person who thinks they are using MDMA, may instead be ingesting a chemical which contains fentanyl.
The only way to know if a person is struggling with abuse of research chemicals is if they are hospitalized for an overdose or other physical symptoms related to their use. 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; but as a person builds tolerance to a substance ,20 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.
UNODC reported in their 2016 World Drug Report that most people who abuse NPSs, including research chemicals, are likely to be polysubstance users.21 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.
Signs that a person is abusing several drugs at once include:
Withdrawal symptoms associated with research chemicals are unknown but may be like those of drugs they are related to, including MDMA:
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.
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,24 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.25
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.26
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.