Designer Drugs: My Addiction to Research Chemicals

My wife came with me to the intake session at the city’s drug and alcohol center even though I had a protection from abuse order pending on the court’s docket. She knew I’d been in recovery and had started drinking again, but she’d only recently learned of the extent of my addiction when I broke down the bathroom door to stop her from calling the police. Why she stuck with me or what she was thinking I couldn’t say; I was too ashamed of what I had done to ask her if she was all right. 

Instead, I buried myself in the mundane paperwork of medical billing and told the counselor my story while my wife sat mostly silent. For almost two years, I trafficked in grey market drugs for my personal use. An assortment of chemical mixtures was delivered to my door, sometimes within reach of my kids.

4-FMPH, a Synthetic Analog of Ritalin with a Fluoro Substitution

The first drug I purchased was 4-FMPH, a synthetic analog of Ritalin with a fluoro substitution. Fifty dollars, plus the cost of shipping, bought me a few grams of the stuff from an unassuming website called “Plant Food USA.” People who know about these types of things remember that site for the scams that it pulled, like selling α-PVP as 2-FMA. These are the risks in a chemical world.

It wasn’t a clandestine operation, save for what I hid from my wife. I found the site through Reddit and paid with Google Wallet for two-day delivery via the U.S. mail. An unlabeled bag of white powder arrived at my door in a large white priority envelope. I swallowed a portion of it without question and spent the next couple hours worrying about how to throw out the packaging without anyone finding it.

Before long, the drugs, and the schemes, became more intricate. I tried ethylphenidateisopropylphenidate3-FMA, and Hex-en. Bitcoin became my new banking system, which meant keeping my wife away from our finances and making her think we had less than we did. I’d stay late at work emailing vendors while ignoring her texts for help with the kids. 

It was exhausting, hiding my habit from her. The day the cops showed up to serve me those papers would have been a relief, had she not been outside with her family trembling in fear. And yet here she was, a week later, sitting in a Medicaid-funded outpatient program listening to a counselor ask me how I was doing while telling old war stories from his days off the wagon.

His brother doesn’t speak to him, I remember he said. “But that’s his problem and not mine anymore.”

The Molly Enigma

Designer drugs, research chemicals, synthetic analogs, and novel-psychoactive substances, as they’re sometimes called, have long been on the periphery of the illicit drug trade. Often, local news channels reduce them to fodder about bath salts and flakka and face-eating zombies. But today, experts are beginning to draw a straight line between the overseas chemists who create these drugs and the overdoses that plague so many people who unwittingly use them.

”[It’s] what I refer to now as the Molly Enigma,” said Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities. For the past 35 years, Hall has tracked patterns and trends of substance use disorders in southeast Florida for the National Drug Early Warning System.

“We missed the boat when Molly first appeared, went in the wrong direction, and avoided a lesson which could have predicted the fentanyl crisis,” he continued.

One of the more well-known designer drugs to hit the scene, Molly is thought of by many to be pure MDMA. According to the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, however, it’s more likely to be a cauldron’s brew of synthetic cathinones like MDPV, 4-MEC, 4-MMC, Pentedrone and more. My vendors sold all these at discounted rates.

Somewhere Between Face-Eating Zombie Hysteria and the Fentanyl Crisis

When looked at alone, most of these drugs lie somewhere between face-eating zombie hysteria and the fentanyl crisis, vanishing from small pockets of the country as fast as they appear. In 2015, around 30 people died in the Pittsburgh area after overdosing on U-47700, an opioid painkiller that pharmacists developed back in the 1970s. Two years earlier, an Oklahoma man pleaded no contest to second-degree murder after accidentally selling a highly-toxic mixture of Bromo-DragonFLY at a party. He purchased it on the web, thinking it was a less caustic drug known as 2C-E.

But as Dr. Hall explained, taken as a whole, this new trend in substances has its roots at the turn of the decade, when discarded medical research turned up on the web. 

“We saw the beginning of clandestine manufacturing of these chemicals primarily occurring in China, but also some in Eastern Europe, [and] in the former Soviet Union,” Hall said. “Then the spread first of the synthetic cannabinoids, the K2 or spice into Australia, New Zealand, and then into the European continent. Then to North America, which has also been a sort of pattern of the emergence of these substances rather than first appearing in the United States.” 

Novel Psychoactive Substances and Drug Tests

I discovered alpha-Pyrrolidinohexiophenone, or A-PHP, when 2-FMA dried up in a big Chinese ban. Shortly after that, I disappeared from my family for a week. The “Missing” posters that my wife put up finally prompted me to make contact, but only because I was angry that she would do something like that to embarrass me. I didn’t ask about our kids, only why she used such a terrible photograph of me.

At the time, she made me beg to come home for what I did to the kids, so I told her the things that she needed to hear. Then I spent another night away from the house because everything would be the same regardless. Who knows what she was thinking when she took me back in; I didn’t care to ask her if she was all right.

Novel psychoactive substances, or NPS, live in a grey market world, walking a line of legality that’s tough to pin down. MDPV begat α-PVP, which begat A-PHP with the tweak of a molecule. Chemists create new drugs faster than officials can schedule them. The process results in a few hollow legal victories along the way, and a drug supply tainted with chemicals that can’t be tested because they don’t really exist.

“You can have all these people intoxicated on, say a new form of fluoro-amphetamines, but most hospitals have what are called targeted panels,” said Roy Gerona, a toxicologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who, along with a team of researchers works with the DEA to identify new NPSs as they come on the scene. 

“So even if the patient comes in and is intoxicated by this new derivative when the hospital tests the patient, it will test negative,” he continued. “They will not confirm the drugs.”

Gerona, whose work was explored in an article about designer drugs a few years ago, told me how NPSs create a new set of problems for both the legal and scientific communities. The DEA can’t schedule a drug without first showing that it’s both toxic and addictive, something that’s difficult to prove rapidly, he told me. Meanwhile, strict guidelines from the FDA have researchers hamstrung when it comes to identifying new substances quickly.

“In that six months in 2015, for example, there have already been three generations of synthetic cannabinoids, meaning that by the time that you have developed and validated those methods, the draws that you’ve included in the panel, it’s not popular anymore,” Gerona explained.

Cathinones: Bath Salts and Antidepressants

Some of these drugs have actual medicinal properties and can be used as prescriptions, Gerona told me, negating the idea of a blanket ban on them all. The Federal Analogue Act tried to rein in the problem by making any substance that was “substantially similar” to Schedule I or II drugs also illegal. Still, it’s rarely been used or held up in court.

“Bupropion or Wellbutrin is an antidepressant,” he explained. “Wellbutrin is a cathinone. Cathinones are the active chemicals in bath salts. So, if you schedule all cathinones, then research on a lot of these medicinal chemicals would also be impeded.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.

Building off of his work surveilling such cases, Gerona and his team developed what he calls a “Prophetic Library” of new drugs, hoping to outwit the overseas chemists and lessen the downtime it takes to respond to further incidents. 

“We thought if people creating these are chemists, we are chemists,” said Gerona. “If they can look at the literature [and] know what tweaks that they can make from publications or expired patents from drug companies, we should be able to predict what they would be potentially doing.” 

For Gerona and his team, there’s no glory in the task, because publishing their findings would create reference material for more clandestine operations. They’re hidden away until, hopefully, they can help.

Predicting the future can be a difficult task, because the stories we write, well, they never end. On the day after New Year’s, my wife went to bed, and I went online to buy more A-PHP. For me, I was looking for more of the same, until I noticed she moved all our money to a separate account.

Not All Right

I woke her up, intent on throwing her out of the house, and stormed through the place with fire and rage. When she locked herself in the bathroom to call the police, I broke the door down and ripped the phone from her hand. What right did she have to come between me and my drugs?

When the cops did arrive, I said what they needed to hear and taunted my wife as soon as they left. But I felt ashamed of what I had done. I apologized to her and asked if she was all right.

The next day she filed that protection from abuse order on me. She wasn’t all right. 

Originally Published in The Fix November 19, 2019