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Travels in the New Psychedelic Bazaar

The synthetic drugs being invented, refined, and produced today—and often shipped in from China—would have blown Timothy Leary’s mind. Who knows what they’re doing to the brains of users.


A few years ago, on the West Coast, I made the acquaintance of a 32-year-old whom some people call “the Wizard.” He’s a nice guy, quiet, with a long beard that he wasn’t going to cut until Americans stopped killing civilians in our two wars, and a deep interest in organic chemistry. He was once a computer programmer and at another time a pot dealer. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to drive around with pounds of weed in my truck,” he says. “I’d just put on a hillbilly hat, load up the car, and throw tools in the back.” Now, though, he’d wandered through a different door and found himself in the midst of a bazaar of weird new drugs. In the Wizard’s offline world, which was made up of patchwork-­wearing hippies and Rainbow Family elders, there was acid, pot, and MDMA, usually called ecstasy, and that was about it. But on the online forums he began to obsessively frequent, the Wizard learned about a vast array of new white powders. It was as if MDMA (now being called “Molly”) and LSD had somehow melded together, producing dozens of new psychedelic substances. On the forums, there were also whole new classes of dissociatives, stimulants, sedatives, and cannabis-based products (“cannabinoids”), along with a group of drugs called “bath salts,” which, of course, have nothing to do with Epsom salts or the lavender-scented kind purchased at Aveda.

The gray market for these new drugs, referred to as “research chemicals” or “synthetics,” has gotten little attention outside the tabloid media in the past few years, even as there has been worry about Mexican cartels and cocaine and heroin rings and medical-marijuana laws. It’s not a huge market, but it is a vivid one and fervent. For young guys interested in drugs today (and the users of these drugs are “150 percent male,” as one aficionado puts it), this underground scene of hobbyists and tinkerers, hippie-meets-hipster drug geeks, who like to call themselves psychonauts, there’s no better reason to try a new drug other than it happens to be just that—new. These drug users imagine themselves as amateur chemists, proto–Walter Whites, sampling and resynthesizing drugs to achieve exactly the state of consciousness they find most pleasurable. And there are no end of drugs to play with. As Hamilton Morris, the son of filmmaker Errol and a ­Williamsburg-­based journeyman drug historian, as well as an independent chemist conducting research at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, has noted, this era “is to ecstasy what the Cambrian period was to arthropods.”

The Wizard claimed a highfalutin motivation for his interest in these drugs—it’s about studying the way that changing one’s brain chemistry alters consciousness, he says, and drawing conclusions from there about what “is” is—but it seemed to me that the drug-taking itself had become the thing. He was constantly scanning the forums to check out the best dosages and “delivery methods” of various drugs—discerning whether, say, E-Cat, a bath salt, was better taken buccally, insufflated, perhaps injected (though the Wizard didn’t like to do that), or “pegged” in a “shamanic enema,” which is lingo for putting a packet of drugs up the butt. Eventually, the list of substances that he tried, in addition to old standards like alcohol, heroin, MDMA, cocaine, marijuana, acid, ether, nitrous, hydrocodone, mescaline, and cubensis mushrooms, grew to include MDA, DOM, LSA, MDAI, DOB, DOI, DOC, DMT, K, GBL, GHB, TMA-2, AMT, BZP, 2C-B, 2C-C, 2C-D, 2C-I, 2C-T-7, 5-MeO-DiPT, 5-MeO-MIPT, 5-MeO-DALT, 5-MeO-DMT, PCP, MDE, 4-Acetoxy-DET, 4-Acetoxy-DiPT, FLEA, 4-FA, JHW-018, MPA, AM-2201, AM-2233, 4-MEC, 4-EMC, 5-APB, 6-APB, ALD, MXE, BHO, Bromo-DragonFLY, Salvinorin A, Soma, fentanyl, Dilaudid, Marinol, thujone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, and some of the “bath salts,” which is just a catchy, ­consumer-friendly name for “synthetic cathinones,” a slew of amphetamines and MDMA-like substances invented in 2008 to mimic the chemical composition of the African khat plant. (In Belize, before his legal troubles, McAfee Virus founder John McAfee claimed to have synthesized, though he later walked this back, MDPV, a bath salt that he called “super perv powder” and that is supposed to feel like doing a bunch of meth and then, twenty minutes later, a line of very fine cocaine.*)

As we sit in front of a crackling fire at his neatly kept cabin in the woods, the Wizard smiles. “These are all awesome substances, if you know what to expect,” he says. It’s possible he may have missed a few drugs when he put together this list, he adds—given the hammering to his cerebrum over the years—but he feels satisfied that he could remember most of them.

The story that America tells itself about drugs, particularly psychedelic ones—that term, invented by Humphrey Osmond, is preferred these days, since “hallucinogens” implies that one is not actually on a trip through one’s mind (or a universal mind) but seeing things that aren’t there—is that they exploded in the sixties and seventies, in circles like Timothy Leary’s and on Haight-Ashbury, then were demonized by the government and shortly dispensed with, relegated to being the plaything of curious college kids at Oberlin and Brown.* These days, though, almost every drug, from pot to GHB to morphine, has been messed with, as chemists find that removing a methoxy group or adding a benzene ring makes a new drug with different properties: body-grooving with a side helping of visuals, euphoric or speedy, long or short, or administering just the right dose of primal fear. These man-made compounds were called “designer drugs” in the late nineties; you might have thought, as I did before I researched this story, that they had such a name because they were carried around by trendy types in designer Gucci handbags, but it refers to a chemist’s “designing” a new molecular compound that replicates the effects of an illegal drug.

*This article has been corrected to show that McAfee only claimed to have synthesized MDPV and that Humphrey Osmond, not Aldous Huxley, invented the term "psychedelic."


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