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A "Research chemical" (RC) is a psychoactive drug that is implicitly sold for use in scientific and medical research. Many research chemicals are structurally similar to scheduled chemicals, and could be considered to be analogues. Some of them produce effects similar to illegal drugs.
‘Research chemical' (RC) is a term applied to a broad variety of psychoactive drugs that are implicitly sold for use in scientific and medical research. Many research chemicals are structurally similar to scheduled chemicals, and could be considered to be analogues. Despite the evident analogy with scheduled compounds, research chemicals fall into a legal grey area under U.S. law. Since the chemicals are marketed for legitimate purposes (i.e. not for human consumption), their possession and distribution does not necessarily contravene the Analog Act.
Research chemicals have not been through clinical trials and are therefore not approved as safe for human consumption. The short and long-term safety profiles of their use are not well established in most cases. A number of drugs without psychoactive effects, including synthetic anabolic steroids, and derivatives of the erectile dysfunction medication sildenafil, have also been marketed as research chemicals for similar legal reasons.
Please note: This article is a general overview of research chemicals. More detailed information on specific chemicals and families of chemicals can be found in their respective articles.
As suggested above this class of drugs is extremely broad, covering a diverse chemical space. The wide range of compounds encompassed under the term 'research chemical' are summarized in the figure below.
Schematic higlighting the major families and subfamilies of research chemicals,
and some of their most prominent members.
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Assessment of RC batch quality and purity
While research chemicals are often sold as being of reagent or analytical grade purity (>95%), it is not wise to assume that this information is necessarily accurate. In recent years the complexity of the research chemical supply chain has greatly increased. Through issues of miscommunication, cutting corners to meet deadlines, and simple human error, supply labs have been known to distribute batches of low quality and even misrepresented chemicals. While some vendors take care to ensure the quality of their products through independent analysis, many rely entirely upon the word of the supply lab. As a result it is not safe to assume that any batch of research chemical is necessarily as described. Conclusive knowledge of the composition of any research chemical batch can only be obtained through independent analysis.
Dannie Haupt and the 'b1' batch of 2C-B-FLY
The risks of supply chain errors were tragically highlighted in October 2009 by the death of Dannie Haupt, a Danish research chemical vendor. In late September 2009, Haupt received a shipment of what he believed to be the exotic phenethylamine 2C-B-FLY from his supply lab in China. Without performing any independent analysis on the 'b1' batch, Haupt himself decided to consume 18mg (an active dose for 2C-B-FLY), and died of respiratory failure several hours later. By this time Haupt had already distributed orders of the batch to some of his clients around the world. Reports of another fatality in the U.S. and of several hospitalizations soon surfaced. Independent analysis performed several weeks confirmed that the 'b1' batch did not contain 2C-B-FLY, but instead the substituted amphetamine bromo-dragonFLY. Since the active dose of bromo-dragonFLY is in the low-to-mid microgram range, Haupt had taken a massive overdose, which resulted in his death.
Best practices for untested batches of Research Chemicals
In the absence of independent analysis, some of the risks of consuming an unknown batch of a research chemicals can be offset by starting with extremely cautious doses, and systematically working up towards the active dose. By initially dosing any new batch in the mid-microgram range (200-600µg, 0.2-0.6mg), even the most potent research chemical should still be physiologically tolerable. This minimizes the risks associated with misrepresented research chemicals, as was the case in the Haupt incident. Working upwards from this point over the course of several weeks (allowing time for tolerance to diminish between doses) until the active dose is reached is the safest approach for testing a new batch of research chemicals if analysis cannot be performed. Though time-consuming this procedure significantly reduces the risk of an overdose, and the risk of serious adverse reactions (see 'Dangers of Research Chemicals').
A notable feature of many research chemicals is their extreme potency, with many active in the low milligram, and even microgram range. The safety window for some of these drugs is also quite narrow, meaning that toxic doses are not far higher than the active doses. As a consequence, the risk of a severely toxic and even fatal overdose is significant for some research chemicals if appropriate care is not taken with measurement. It is therefore highly recommended that anyone handling research chemicals invests in appropriate sets of scales and volumetric equipment.
Volumetric measuring of RC's - a pictorial
Research Chemicals Weighing Methods for Beginners
Poll - How many of you use a 0.001g (1mg) scale to measure potent RCs?
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The apparent danger of research chemicals remain in dose, uncertainty of vendor products, and quoted potency and purity of the product. Vendor mishaps such as the incident of a massive party overdose in Mustang, Oklahoma give precedence to these problems where bromo-DragonFLY, a very potent psychedelic active in the micrograms, was sold as 2C-E and dosed as such by the party attendees. In the end, two people died and others were hospitalized with traumatic overdose symptoms. The buyer and administrator of the drug was charged later with murder in the case.
Inconsistencies in batches and mistakes in shipping have resulted in many instances of hospitalization and death throughout the world. These instances have incited harm reduction techniques and measures to prevent dangers such as:
Even these measure cannot protect fully against vendor and user mistakes. The danger remains as research chemicals are never assured in all aspects. Vendors agreements are given on websites explicitly stating that the items are sold for research and reference purposes only, and it is stated that all internal use or any intentional/unintentional mishandling and usage is explicitly grounds for denial of sale and forbidden by the vendor.
Another aspect of danger is the irony in "research chemicals" being unresearched as whole. As they are not intended for pharmaceutical uses, the pharmacological effects are left unknown and the risk is taken by the end user that ill-health effects may be possible through usage of the research chemical as a drug. Various medical issues, such as Onley Lesions, and left unknown and possible through the use of these chemicals. The long term effects are certainly unknown at this point; therefore, it is strongly necessary to consider these dangers as a factor in usage.
Please note: Information in this section is an overview of the general legalities surrounding research chemicals in various countries. Chemical-specific information can be found in their respective articles.
There is currently no consistent international policy on the legality of research chemicals, similar to those laid out for chemicals covered by the United Nations treaties on narcotic drugs (1961) and psychotropic drugs (1971). As a result the legal status of any research chemical is highly variable from country to country, depending on the specifics of local legislation.
The U.S. currently has no legislation which explicitly identifies individual research chemicals as scheduled. However the term ‘Research Chemical’ was specifically applied in an attempt to avoid prosecution under the Federal Analog Act (see History of Research Chemicals). Since a majority of research chemicals bear some functional and structural similarity to a scheduled chemical, they could theoretically be considered to be scheduled provided that intent for human consumption can be demonstrated. Precedent has already been set that vendors of research chemicals may be contravening this law (see Operation Web Tryp).
While those involved in distribution of research chemicals have been shown to be vulnerable, there are currently no known cases of prosecutions against individuals for possession of a controlled substance analogue. As a result the legality of mere possession of such chemicals remains a grey area, as it is unclear whether intent for human consumption is demonstrable.
The United Kingdom is widely regarded as having some of the most focussed and robust legislation covering research chemical legality. In addition to naming specific substances that are controlled, derivative laws enable whole families of compounds to be controlled, allowing the scope of such legislation to be broad. These laws are dynamic and frequently amended to prohibit novel structural families of research chemical.
Since the U.K. system relies on explicitly identifying chemical modifications which are considered to be analogues, novel chemicals can be designed to circumvent the existing laws, if only for a short period of time. An example of this is the beta-ketone family of research chemicals. For example while JWH-018 is a class B controlled substance, its closely related analogue AM-2201 remains uncontrolled as it is not classified as a controlled substance derivative by the current legislation.
Summary of research chemical families specifically controlled under U.K. law:
2C-x (substituted phenethylamines) – class A, last refined in Misuse of Phenethylamines Act 2002
DOx (substituted amphetamines) – class A, last refined in Misuse of Phenethylamines Act 2002
Synthetic cannabinoids – class B, amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effective from 23rd December 2009
Beta-Ketones (cathinone and Pyrovalerone derivatives) - class B, two amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effective 2010
Piperazine derivatives – class C, amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effective from 23rd December 2009. Piperazine itself is also controlled under the Medicines Act.
Phenazepam and desoxypipradrol - uncontrolled but both under import embargo at the request of the Home Office.
Note that the specific substances covered by each of the above laws requires the precise wording of the legislation to be considered. For example while many synthetic cannabinoids are controlled, others are not covered by the current legislation.
Information regarding the general drug policy towards RCs in other countries would be greatly appreciated! Please add this information to the article. For those without Wiki editing rights, feel free to PM the information to Phenoxide (your contribution will of course be credited).
Use of the term 'research chemical' first emerged during the 1990s, with a number of online vendors purporting to sell a variety of psychoactive chemicals (many of which were analogues of scheduled chemicals) for legitimate research purposes. The vendors believed that this marketing strategy would allow them to avoid prosecution under the Federal Analog Act, an amendment to the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (effective 1986). Under this legislation, any chemical which is functionally and structurally ‘substantially similar’ to a Schedule I or II controlled substance can also be treated as scheduled, but only if the prosecutor can demonstrate intent for human consumption.
The term 'research chemical' is distinct from the more antiquated phrase 'designer drug'. Research chemicals may be clearly identifiable as analogues of scheduled chemicals, but remain in a legal grey area (under U.S. law at least) due to the difficulties in proving intent for consumption. 'Designer drugs' on the other hand are chemicals which have been synthesized with the intention of circumventing more specific scheduling laws.
Popularity of Research Chemicals over time:
In 2004 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) concluded a national operation dubbed ‘Web Tryp’ to investigate vendors distributing tryptamines, phenethylamines, and piperazines which may contravene the Analog Act. This came in response to rapid growth in awareness and sales of research chemicals being distributed by online vendors, in addition to several reports of hospitalizations and deaths relating to research chemicals that had occurred over the previous two years. The operation ended in July 2004 with ten arrests relating to five online vendors.
Despite believing that sale as research chemicals served as protection from the Analog Act, many prosecutions on charges of drug conspiracy followed. In many cases the defendants opted to accept guilty pleas. In those cases that went to trial, it was deemed that there was still sufficient evidence that the defendants knowingly and actively distributed their products for human consumption. Practices such as offering ‘sample packs’ equating to individual recreational doses of a range of chemicals, as well as a clear lack of effort and discretion in screening potential clients were cited as evidence of intent.
David William Linder, an online vendor of research chemicals operating out of Virginia, faced the full force of the DEA prosecutors. Linder, whose website had been linked to one death and three serious non-fatal overdoses, was convicted on 27 counts including drug conspiracy charges, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Michael James Burton, another vendor operating out of Louisiana, was sentenced to 13 years and 4 months inprisonment on drug conspiracy charges and for his role in the death of James Edwards Downs. Downs died following an overdose of the phenethylamine research chemical 2C-T-21.
Other vendors and their associates also faced significant jail terms after convictions on various charges. A majority of sentences ranged between two and three years jail time.
The DEA opted not to seek prosecutions against U.S.-based customers of the five websites taken down by the operation. As a result a legal grey area persists as to whether prosecution of an individual in posession of research chemicals would be viable under the Analog Act.
Customer records from the five websites seized by the DEA during Operation Web Tryp were shared with international collaborators of the U.S. in the War on Drugs. Based upon the collected information, U.K. police forces mounted Operation Ismene in December 2004, resulting in the arrests of over 20 individuals who had purchased controlled substances from the U.S. vendors. Given that the purchased chemicals (in most cases phenethylamine and tryptamine analogues) were already clearly controlled under U.K. law, many of the arrests resulted in successful convictions. This is the only reported example of widespread legal action being taken against customers of a research chemical vendor.
The successful prosecutions as a result of Operation Web Tryp set precedent within the U.S. that vendors were vulnerable to the Analog Act. As a result the viability of U.S. based vendors was effectively terminated. While the scale of the operation undoubtedly had a temporary impact in reducing research chemical sales, international vendors operating out of countries with weaker drug laws soon moved in to capitalize on a lucrative gap in the market.
Perhaps a longer lasting effect of Web Tryp has been to drive discussion of online vendors underground. In previous years open discussion of vendors was common, as it was believed that their websites were operating within U.S. law. Post-Web Tryp information on reliable vendors is often jealously guarded for fear that if sources are not treated discretely, then a second wave of legal action would be inevitable. A negative consequence of this induced secrecy is that there is little readily accessible information as to the professionalism of any vendor. This isolation leaves prospective clients much more vulnerable to scams and to vendors whose practices are unreliable or unsafe.
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