Research Chemical FAQ
Experimental and Research Chemicals used as Psychoactives
v 1.6 - Jun 4, 2010
This FAQ is not regularly updated or maintained. It may include out-of-date information. Please check the version date to see when it was most recently revised. For current information, see Erowid's summary pages in the substance's main vault.
What are research chemicals? 1
When used to describe recreationally used psychoactive drugs, the term "research chemicals" generally refers to substances that haven't yet been thoroughly studied. The term "research chemical" partially came from the fact that some substances on the recreational markets were drugs that had been discovered in labs and only examined in test-tube (in vitro) or low-level animal studies.
Some are very new, while others may have been around for years but haven't had adequate enough medical investigation to quantify health risks, have not been consumed by many people over a long period, or had much data accumulated about their use. Little is known about them, and a good deal of what is known is based only on first-hand psychonautical reports. Scant to no research has been completed on the toxicology or human pharmacology of these drugs. Few, if any, formal human or animal studies have been done. Because of this, some have suggested that they would more appropriately be called "unresearched chemicals". Another term for them is "experimental chemicals", and this may better communicate the unknown risks associated with ingesting these drugs.
Unlike better-known drugs such as ecstasy (MDMA), which has been taken by millions of people over the last 30+ years, or marijuana which has been used by billions of people over millennia, in some cases the most novel of research chemicals may only have been used by several dozen people for a few months. The risks involved with research chemicals are greater than with many other drugs, since they're unknowns. It should also be pointed out that while this FAQ focuses only on chemicals, the same answers apply to any new or unstudied plant-based drugs as well. In fact, the risks of ingesting "research plants" may be even greater, because plants can contain multiple chemicals, the concentrations of which can vary greatly between different samples of the plant.
Are research chemicals safe to ingest? 2
No! While no drug use can categorically be characterized as "safe", using research chemicals may be riskier than using older, better-studied drugs. This is not to say that the chemicals themselves are necessarily more dangerous... the risk lies in the fact that very little is known about them. There haven't been enough people using them in high enough doses for long enough periods of time for us to have an idea what sort of damage the chemicals are capable of producing. When one takes a new and unstudied drug, one makes oneself a human guinea pig. The drug may be perfectly safe. It may even be beneficial. On the other hand, after three uses one might suddenly find one's body frozen-up with symptoms resembling Parkinson's disease. If you think this is an exaggeration, do some research on MPTP, a neurotoxic by-product that was produced during underground synthesis of the opioid MPPP, which contributed to the 1984 change in law that allowed the DEA to have "emergency scheduling" powers.
When taking a research chemical, one is stepping into the unknown, and could be the unfortunate person to discover a new drug's lethal dose. One could find oneself addicted. Or, if one overdoses and ends up at the hospital, the doctors may only be able to guess at the appropriate course of treatment. Some drugs, like Cannabis, LSD, and psilocybin, have a wide safety range over which there is little to no possibility of pharmacologically induced death (perhaps 1,000 times or more the active dose), while other substances become dangerous at much lower amounts such as mescaline (perhaps 24 times the active dose), MDMA (perhaps 16 times the active dose) alcohol (perhaps 10 times the active dose), GHB (perhaps 8 times the active dose) or iv heroin (perhaps 6 times the active dose). Accidental overdoses happen to most people who consume psychoactives for long enough, and overdoses of research chemicals have unknown consequences. One who is not prepared to accept these risks should avoid taking research chemicals.
This research chemical is structurally similar to a well-known drug which is very safe. Doesn't that mean it's safe too? 3
Not necessarily. In the case of a new drug that is chemically similar to another well-known drug, pharmacologists can try to extrapolate from the known drug, but there are no guarantees here. Consider the drug PMA: closely related to MDMA, but it can kill in doses only slightly over those necessary to produce psychoactive effects. Or again, consider the tragic case of MPTP. If a research chemical is similar to a known drug, there's a good chance its safety profile is similar; but there's also a very real chance it's not.
Q: Several of my friends tried this drug and they didn't have any problems, so it's safe, right? 4
No. Idiosyncratic reactions are a large part of the risk in taking psychoactive drugs. Less-tested psychoactives may cause extreme or negative reactions in a small portion of users. Just because a few people use a chemical without getting hurt doesn't mean that will hold true for everyone.
I read some trip reports about this chemical I want to try, but they're all so different! What are the effects of this drug? 5
People react differently to the same drug. With well-known drugs, enough people have done them that we have a pretty good sense of the range of common and uncommon effects. With research chemicals, the few reports available are often contradictory, and it's hard to say what the typical effects are simply because not enough people have taken them to generate a reliable overview.. Sometimes the particularly dangerous effects are those that hit a minority of users, and this information is not available for research chemicals. Does 5% of the population lack an enzyme without which some drug can cause serious damage? Are people with latent heart problems particularly at risk with some new chemical? One might read all the first-hand reports, then take the drug and experience effects exactly like one expected. Or, one could have an experience totally unlike anything anyone else has had. Users of research chemicals should expect the unexpected, be prepared for both pleasant surprises and horrible shocks, and have their insurance cards and the address of the closest emergency room handy.
What are the side effects of research chemicals? 6
Side effects may be different for each research chemical, and are largely unknown. While some of the stronger or more common side effects could be discovered fairly quickly, any self-experimentalist may be the unlucky individual to discover a previously unknown side effect. Before taking any kind of new drug, one should always investigate it. (This is also true of OTC and prescription medications.) Obtain information from varied and reliable sources: books, journals, and first-person trip reports. Talk to people who have done it. Such investigation is extremely important if one is considering taking a research chemical!
The wise psychonaut starts with a low dose when trying an untasted compound, because with any drug, there are a few people who are hypersensitive to some or all of the effects. A moderate dose for one person could be a dangerous overdose for another person. Careful psychonauts pay attention to what is going on with their bodies when they first try a drug, as mildly annoying side effects at lower doses could be indicators of potentially dangerous side effects at higher doses. Further, newly acquired products have a different danger that can be reduced by trying tiny doses first: as with all black market chemicals, mislabeling or misidentification of a substance are a constant threat to the health of users, because of the huge dose differences between different substances. In one notorious case from 2009, a substance with an active dose of just a few milligrams was accidentally mislabeled as a related drug that required a dose ten times higher, resulting in overdose deaths. See Bromo-Dragonfly Related Deaths
Having a blood pressure and pulse monitoring device available can be useful if one notices anything unusual happening. (Knowing one's normal pressure and pulse readings are important to have as a baseline to compare to.) When taking research chemicals, one must be prepared for unexpected side effects that could vary in strength between "mildly annoying" and "drug induced fatality".
What are the long-term risks of these drugs? 7
The long-term effects of research chemicals are unknown. They haven't been used by enough people for enough time to be able to tell what long-term use can do. Even a single exposure to a research chemical could have long-term repercussions. MPTP, the chemical mentioned above, was an impurity found in the so-called "designer drug" MPPP, a synthetic compound created by an underground chemist looking for an unscheduled heroin substitute in 1976. Using MPTP just once can cause brain damage resulting in a permanent condition resembling Parkinson's disease. Those who experiment with research chemicals may want to avoid taking them often, and put a limit on their lifetime exposure to any given chemical. (For example, only take it three times, then don't take it again until many years have passed and more research has been done--if even then).
What doses do I use? 8
The dose range may not be fully established with many research chemicals. Some people are always going to be sensitive to any given drug, so wise users start much lower than they think they'll need. It's better to take too little and get no effects than to take too much and discover that one is hypersensitive to the drug. If necessary, one may end up working up to a full dose over several tries. Leaving time in between tries, so that any possible tolerance dissipates, allows a more accurate gauging of dose-effects. Keep in mind that the overdose level for most research chemicals hasn't been discovered. Taking large doses should be avoided, unless one is willing to take the risk of being the first person to discover the lethal dose of some chemical. Cautious psychonauts consume research chemicals by the safest route possible. Taking a drug orally is the best bet; smoking, snorting, rectal administration, and injections all magnify the risk of dosage accidents. Intravenous injection (iv) is extremely risky for any substance that isn't pharmaceutically pure: the route of administration itself provides life-threatening dangers, increased risk of addiction, and small impurities can lead to potentially fatal allergic reactions, even assuming that the target research chemical is safe to inject in the first place. Experience reports on Erowid, Bluelight, or DrugsForum can be helpful to provide a sense of the order of magnitude of a dose (1 gram, 1 milligram, or 100 micrograms); from there responsible users start low and work up with new compounds. Being conservative in dosage is a healthier long-term strategy.
How do I measure doses of research chemicals? 9
As carefully as possible! An accurate scale is one tool all those considering using research chemicals should have access to, especially if dealing with chemicals active in dosages under 100 mg. Users of research chemicals should never measure out doses under 100 mg by eye--not even using the "graph paper method" or by repeatedly dividing. Those who don't have a scale can dissolve many chemicals in water or alcohol (testing a small sample for solubility first). A known weight of some drug is dissolved into in a known volume of liquid (for example, 500 mg in 50 ml). Doses can then be measured-out by volume (in the previous example, 1 ml of liquid contains 10 mg of drug). Tragic accidents, including freak-outs, trips to the emergency room, and even deaths, can result from inaccurately measuring doses. Crystalline materials differ in how "fluffy" they are; the volume of the same mass of material can vary dramatically and even with careful eyeballing, mistakes of 10-30 milligrams are common. One's life, health, and sanity depend upon accurate measurment. There are few things more horrible than accidental overdoses of psychedelic drugs. Note that because a vendor sells a packaged chemical marked as 1 gram, it is not reasonable to assume that's the mass of the contents. Many vendors intentionally or unintentionally do not weigh their products carefully. See The Importance of Measured Doses for more details.
Can I mix chemical X with drug Y? 10
Even with well-studied drugs, combinations can produce unexpected results. With new, barely studied drugs, we don't fully understand what they do on their own, much less in combinations. The more drugs one throws in the mix, the more unpredictable things get. Those who choose to mix research chemicals with other drugs would be wise to use much lower doses of each drug than one would use if one was taking them separately, because there is always the risk of unforeseen dangerous interactions. Looking at how closely related drugs interact may provide a hint of what to expect, but there are no guarantees. The risks are even greater if one mixes two or more research chemicals. The wise drug user does not mix any given drug with something else before he or she has become familiar with the effects of the drug on its own.
Are research chemicals legal? 11
That depends on which chemical and on where you are geographically. If you live in a country that has "drug analog" laws, such as the United States, then some unscheduled chemicals may be illegal to consume or possess. An "analog" is a drug that is structurally similar to an illegal drug, has similar pharmacological effects, or is "represented as having" or "intended to have" similar effects. In the United States, the drug analog laws come into play if one consumes such a chemical, sells it for consumption, or possesses it with the intent to consume it. If one intends to use the chemical to kill some poison ivy plants in one's yard or to clean the toilet, then the analog laws don't apply.
It is also illegal in the United States to mis-represent a research chemical and sell it as an illegal drug. If one puts some nonscheduled chemical into a pill and sells it as ecstasy (MDMA), one can be charged with selling actual ecstasy. (This is true even if one is selling bogus sugar pills that contain no active drug.) Unless either the analog or look-alike laws are involved, though, most research chemicals are not strictly illegal. Some states have placed controls on chemicals that are for sale in other states, so it may be important to look into the laws in one's specific area. In countries like the United States or Germany, where the government has emergency banning powers, a research chemical can be declared illegal immediately; so a drug can become illegal overnight without one knowing it. Those who keep research chemicals around should stay abreast of changes in the law. A key concept to keep in mind is that one can be arrested, charged, and have one's property seized in the United States based solely on the presumption of possession a scheduled substance. Any white powder that "looks like a drug" and is seen by a cop may get one put in jail and one's lawyer will have to sort out whether or not any laws were actually violated. Analog prosecutions are expensive and tend to be reserved to punish sellers, but simple possession can lead to awful consequences, even if a felony conviction isn't the final result.
The DEA busted and arrested a handful of research chemical vendors in July 2004, using hospitalizations and information suggesting that the chemicals were sold for consumption as their justification for declaring them to be controlled substance analogs:
These website operators attempted to give an appearance of legitimacy to their websites by presumably selling these chemicals to bona fide researchers; however, a review of customer lists revealed purchasers with e-mail addresses such as acidtripo420@; ecstasylight@; madtriper17@; moontripperdipt@; partys_with_glow_sticks@; professor@; psychedelic_stoner@; and ravergirlny@.Between 2000 and 2004, the research chemical market had become so prevalent that a search on Google for "Erowid", or any of the dozens of names of psychoactive phenethylamines, piperazines, or tryptamines, would yield several advertisements for their sale. Erowid removed the Google search engine interface from the site, in order to to avoid having Erowid search results surrounded by advertisements for these psychoactives.
See DEA Press Release, July 22, 2004
If research chemicals are not safe to consume, wouldn't they be illegal? 12
The legal status of a drug cannot be said to accurately reflect its inherent danger. Cannabis, for example, is illegal in many countries, yet the scientific evidence clearly shows it to be safer than alcohol in most ways. Sometimes a drug becomes explicitly scheduled following an accidental overdose. While the likelihood of accidental overdose does may relate to the toxicity of any given drug, it also relates to the popularity of the drug. As non-controlled research chemicals become more popular, the opportunity for an overdose increases. The fact that the law has trouble keeping up with the marketing of new unscheduled compounds is one justification in the United States for the DEA's "emergency scheduling" powers and the creation of the federal Controlled Substance Analogue Act. "Legal highs" are not necessarily "safe highs".
Where do people buy or get research chemicals? 13
Chemists sometimes make their own. (However, those asking how to make them, likely aren't qualified to do so). Legitimate chemical supply companies may carry some research chemicals, although most of these companies require that customers provide credentials proving that they work for a research institution. Occasionally, research chemicals are commercially available to the public due to them having another non-psychoactive purpose. (Gamma-butyrolactone, for example, has been available as an industrial solvent.) Some people get research chemicals by discretely asking trusted friends who have better access to such things. And although research chemicals may be available from strangers at parties or clubs, this avenue for obtaining them is notoriously problematic, with issues of poor quality, cut and/or misrepresented product, and potential for legal troubles due to undercover operations. On and off for over a decade, there have been online vendors of research chemicals operating in a sort of grey market, often selling under the premise that their products are not for human consumption. Potential risks related to ordering from such companies range from being ripped off entirely, getting poor-quality or incorrectly identified materials, and being contacted by government authorities interested in buyer's activites.
Many online drug forums frown on (or outright ban) posts asking where to obtain research chemicals or posts that advertise the sale of any drugs. Such actions may attract the attention of enforcement agencies, which could speed-up the scheduling of a new drug. In addition, discussions like this tend to get repetitive and noisy, attract spammers and scammers, and are generally considered rude. Also, most companies that sell these things are not allowed by law to sell them for human consumption as drugs: if the companies discover a product of theirs is used recreationally they may choose to or be forced to stop selling it to avoid criminal or civil liability. Posts about consumption that name sources could be used in legal cases against those companies. Finally, if one is caught with a chemical and charged under the Controlled Substance Analogue Act, that person's posts could possibly end up being used as evidence that he or she intended to use the chemicals illegally.
Another possible source for research chemicals is via headshops and online vendors selling "legal high replacements" for illegal drugs, or selling products that are advertised as being "incense" or "bath salts" or "plant food". The trouble with many of these products is that the active ingredient is not listed, so it can be hard to know what one is getting or how much is included.
Has anyone ever died from taking a research chemical? 14
Yes. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get reliable data about causes of deaths. Friends of users may be fearful of reporting deaths because of potential criminal, civil, and political repercussions. News media are sometimes overly quick to erroneously report that a death may have been related to the consumption of a research chemical, before toxicology results have definitively shown this to be the case (q.v. 4-methylmethcathinone improperly linked to deaths). There are also people who report a death but don't provide enough details to follow up on the information. If anyone knows of any deaths or serious injuries directly related to research chemicals, please send as many substantiating details as possible to Erowid so we can look into it and make sure users know about it.
I purchased a commercial product called "Euphorex 3000", and it got me pleasantly high. The label lists a number of herbs, but nothing that seems like it would have produced the effect that I felt. Did this product contain a research chemical? 15
In the past, many of the so-called "legal highs" sold in headshops were composed of herbs that had little actual psychoactive effect (although some of these products may have been supplemented with caffeine, or ephedrine, or synephrine, giving them some stimulant qualities). In more recent years, a bounty of legal highs have appeared that have been augmented with research chemicals, which often have gone unlisted or misrepresented on the product's ingredients. Consuming some unidentified research chemical in an unknown dose definitely increases the health risks, and makes it much more difficult to speculate intelligently on the potential problems--particularly in the case of possible contraindications with other medications that one may be taking.