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Travels in the New Psychedelic Bazaar

The prosecutor on the Wizard’s case was interested in whom he knew, but he refused to talk. He might have run, but for the ankle bracelet. His friend, a naturopath once close to Shulgin, said that they could found an institute for research chemicals on Native American land. In the end, the judge was relatively lenient: The Wizard was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

The new psychonauts are comfortable with the notion that their explorations will have casualties, that all of the seekers won’t necessarily make it back. “All of this [experimentation] is producing valuable toxicological information that would never exist otherwise,” says Morris, who also notes that if the government hadn’t made so many drugs illegal, probably no one would be taking synthetics and risking their lives at all. “Because of THC’s benign nature, cannabinoids have long been considered one of the safest drug classes,” he says, “but now there are instances of people becoming addicted to synthetic cannabinoids or even reports of death.”

Besides, even scientists inside the academy believe that these drugs have uses beyond Burning Man. “These research compounds have the potential to teach us something about brain chemistry and different neural circuits—they’re potentially gold mines of information,” says Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist and editor of a book on cannabis and another about MDMA. She talks about a study in Arizona using psilocybin to treat OCD. “Are you going to get those people high on mushrooms every day? No. But is it possible that the mushrooms are targeting a particular receptor beyond the way that Prozac or any other SSRI works?” It’s a matter of refining the medicines we have. When your car needs oil, you don’t just lift up the hood and pour oil on the engine. “It’s possible that SSRIs that flood the entire brain with serotonin aren’t the answer—maybe working on one circuit where your anterior cingulate is.” Holland believes that it’s a foregone conclusion that the next decade will include a new generation of Big Pharma meds based on marijuana. “You’re going to have medicine for inflammation and metabolism tickling the cannabis receptors—they’ll act like cannabinoids, but aren’t going to get you high.” (Harvard Medical School professor John Halpern recently started a company, Entheogen Corp., to develop 2-bromo-LSD, a non-hallucinogenic LSD analog, to treat cluster headaches, one of the most painful conditions in medicine.)

Some academics who study drugs view the research-chemical scene as an annoying sideshow, pointing out that it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between drugs in the same class with similar durations (MDMA and 2C-B, for example). The focus, they think, should be on gaining mainstream acceptance of old-line psychedelics, and they’re excited about current studies on psilocybin, the magic in magic mushrooms, for end-of-life care at Johns Hopkins and NYU. A privately funded group, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is studying the ways MDMA can help soldiers with post-traumatic-stress disorder (therapists schedule sixteen non-drug sessions as well). Their goal for the next ten years is to reinstate the original use of MDMA, which was embraced by the psychiatric community in the seventies, and force the FDA to approve prescriptions for use during therapy.

The pathology of the underground psychonaut isn’t hard to imagine, and not that different from the video-game addict or extreme-sports obsessive—someone who also likes the rush of alternative reality more than the quotidian one. Real life can remain at a standstill, with jobs and relationships less important than surfing the edge. The possibility of addiction isn’t to be underestimated. “The reward circuit in the brain is very clever,” says Richard Friedman, director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. “When you’re off the drugs, the background pleasure state of your brain may be changed for a week, a year, or even permanently. This is a wild social experiment.” Nevertheless, some users say they’ve had spiritual breakthroughs. “I know now that there’s more to the world than science has been able to explain so far, and it’s not to be feared,” says Chemical Ali. “I don’t have a death wish, but I’ve practiced death. When it happens, it will be fun, a cool experience.” He’s talking to me on the phone with a Björn strapped to his chest, and the baby boy inside, only a few weeks old, starts to wail. “I do feel like I should put this stuff away, at least for a while,” he says, “because I have something to live for.”

The Wizard’s story is a cautionary tale, almost a parable, but the government may start to take a closer look at this world. The Feds even recently scheduled 2C-N, a necessary intermediate for the manufacture of many synthetic drugs, though it doesn’t actually get you high—but it is useful in a synthetics lab. Morris calls the current situation an “infinite game of cat and mouse,” where the government schedules a drug, then chemists race to find a new legal compound. “Three weeks ago, we had our first detection of new derivatives, PB-22 and 5F-PB-22,” says Kevin Shanks, a forensic toxicologist in the Midwest. “Quinoline derivatives are uncontrolled by the federal government, and I see them becoming prevalent very quickly.” Adds Lapoint, the toxicologist: “Until we can break the model of releasing a new chemical that retains the same affinity for the receptor of an illegal drug but is structurally dissimilar enough that you can avoid getting popped, this is the new normal. Brick-and-mortar quasi-legal head shops are hard enough to stop, but the Internet vendors are fully whack-a-mole … The new drug dealer is the mailman.”

Will the cat finally catch the mouse? Some psychonauts fear that the government, in desperation, might take a pharmacodynamic backward approach, looking at the receptor activated by the drug and scheduling backward from there, claiming that any organic molecule that binds to the CB1 receptor and makes you stoned is a schedule 1 drug. * But then they’d have to schedule other drugs with CB1 affinity, including Tylenol. And they’d be “banning specific states of consciousness,” says Morris. “If the plan weren’t so futile, it would be utterly terrifying.”

Lapoint starts spitballing about what may happen in the future. “If I was a [research-chemical drugmaker], I’d want to make a structure of an endogenous chemical,” he says, “one that’s already in your brain and [can be enhanced] to hit the right neurotransmitters to get you high. The problem is that if you took this drug out of your brain and tried to eat it, it would be quickly broken down by enzymes. But you could tweak these [naturally occurring] structures, or add a substance that inhibits these enzymes, and you would get a psychoactive effect.” This would surely stump regulatory officials. Lapoint is completely against the proliferation of these drugs—he’s not interested in more patients in his ER. Still, as a man of science, he can’t but marvel at this type of reverse-engineering. “Whoa,” he says. “That would be really cool.”

*This article has been corrected to show that the psychonauts fear the government's approach will be "pharmacodynamic backward," not "pharmacode dynamic password."