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New Black Market Designer Drugs: Why Now?

2C-E and other illicit new drugs are a danger to users and a threat to psychedelic research, experts warn.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Designer Drugs, Deadly Consequences

Earlier this year, a 19-year-old Minnesota teen died and 10 others were injured after taking large doses of 2C-E -- a drug with far more potent and dangerous effects than the 2C-I they thought they were taking at a spring break party. The 21-year-old who supplied the drug -- police found him unconscious in a snow bank -- has been charged with third-degree murder.

Last May, in Oklahoma, two young people died and six were injured when they took what they thought was 2C-E, but which seems actually to have been the extra-dangerous 3C-bromo-dragonfly.

Most of the new designer drugs have psychedelic properties, although many have mixed features of psychedelics and other drug classes such as stimulants or amphetamines. They are dangerous for users who don't know what they're getting -- or getting into. And it's casting a pall over the renaissance of scientific research into legitimate uses for psychedelic drugs.

Both of these dangers worry Purdue University pharmacologist David E. Nichols, PhD, a leading figure in psychedelic research.

"These newer so-called 'legal' highs, we really don't know anything about them. They have never been tested. People are playing a game of Russian roulette with these things," Nichols tells WebMD. "These are proliferating now. A lot of them came from my lab. We may have done one or two rat studies, but we know nothing about what these compounds do in humans."

Designer Drugs: What's New, What's Not

What's new about the new drugs? In one sense they are not terribly new.

"A lot of these drugs have been around for a while, and many of them are derivatives of existing compounds," Shurtleff tells WebMD. "Take this 2C-E that resulted in the death in Minnesota, for example. That is the third, or fourth, or fifth of a line of compounds coming from ecstasy or MDMA."

One thing that makes this crop of drugs different is how they're sold.

"What is really a different factor here is the Internet -- information, right or wrong or indifferent, gets disseminated at lightning speed and changes the playing field for us," says the DEA's Boggs. "It is a perfect storm of new trends. Before the Internet these things took years to evolve. Now trends accelerate in seconds."

A quick web search turns up dozens of sellers offering not only the raw ingredients for making designer drugs, but brazenly advertising the drugs themselves.

Beyond the rapid spread of the new drugs and new drug trends, something else about these designer drugs is new. Terribly new.

In the 1960s and 1970s, people seeking psychedelic experiences usually took LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), or mescaline (peyote). These drugs are potent hallucinogens. For people genetically predisposed to mental illness, or those who take the drugs in an unsafe setting, this is quite dangerous. But these drugs are not directly toxic, even at high doses.

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