Move over lead-containing kiddie toys; psychoactive designer drugs are on their way to becoming China's most deadly exports.
A relatively obscure compound nicknamed "25-I" is the newest in a string of these "research chemicals" available for purchase online. Also known by its street name, Smiles, this drug causes hallucinations, and in some cases has resulted in severe brain hemorrhaging and death.
Young people across Connecticut — especially those in high school and college — have begun to experiment with 25-I, despite a relative lack of knowledge about its potentially fatal side effects.
Companies distributing the drugs online use the term "research chemical" to avoid prosecution for selling illegal substances. They label the drug's packaging with warnings such as "not for human consumption," and allege that their substances are for scientific use only.
Amanda, a 21-year-old Guilford resident who attends the University of Connecticut, has used 25-I, which she bought here in Connecticut. "It was a fun visual drug," she said. "Laughter inducing, but I didn't find that it was uplifting. It didn't connect me to people like with other psychedelics. I wouldn't do it again."
Users interviewed by the Hartford Advocate asked that their last names be withheld.
25-I's chemical makeup varies from batch to batch, but the drug information website Erowid.org reports that it is most often a derivative of 25I-NBOMe. The drug approximates the effects of LSD, 2C-I, and 2C-B -- three drugs banned under federal law.
The drug is banned under the federal Analog Act, which prohibits the sale of any chemical that mimics the effects of a banned substance — in this case 2C-B, according to John Gadea, director of the Drug Control Division of the state Department of Consumer Protection.
Four men are alleged by North Dakota federal prosecutor Chris Myers to have used a company, Motion Resources LLC, based in Texas, to import these chemicals from China, Europe, and Canada, as reported by USA Today.
Writing for New York Magazine, Vanessa Grigoriadis confirmed that most synthetic drugs are produced in China: "All you have to do is send a CAS number (chemical I.D.) to the one country in the world that's best at making all sorts of weird chemicals, from HGH to soy sauce to the plastic goo that forms Walmart toys — China," she wrote.
Designer drugs — so-called because they are generally "designed" in a lab — like 25-I present a moving target for state officials, says Dr. Robert Powers, director of the state's Controlled Substances and Toxicology Laboratory in Meriden, as different chemicals come on and off the market rapidly.
"As soon as one drug is made illegal, another comes to market," Powers said. "Two years ago we had an influx of certain drugs, and in two more years we'll be seeing totally new drugs."
Powers added that although he does not specifically remember working with 25-I in his lab, he has worked with many research chemicals in the past. Its analog, 2C-B, has been banned since 1995.
Gadea of the Drug Control Division said that solving the problems with Smiles/25-I could be difficult, because under federal law the drug is not considered a Schedule 1 regulated drug.
"We had the same issue with bath salts [a street drug] and synthetic marijuana, where they were technically not identified as illegal," he said. "Historically, these kinds of drugs will come in, get used and abused, and then the regulations catch up with it. Then we start the process with a newer compound [that comes to market].
Thanks to new regulations, however, 25-I distributors are committing a crime when they ship the chemical compound to Connecticut, according to Gadea.
"Because this product can be considered an analog of 2C-B, which is a Schedule 1 drug," Gadea said, "[25-I] can be treated on a one-by-one basis as a Schedule 1 drug. It goes to the prosecutor. If they decide 'This is insane, we've got all these kids going to the ER,' then it's OK for prosecution."
The most famous designer drug, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), was first synthesized in 1938 by a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann. Within 30 years, its hallucinogenic qualities played the muse of 1960s counter-culture, acting as a significant agent on everything from Ken Kesey's Acid Tests to Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?
Better known as LSD, or simply "acid," the drug has been illegal in the United States since 1968 — labeled a Schedule 1 illegal substance. Possession, production, trafficking, and distribution of acid remains illegal today, though minimal scientific research is allowed by the U.S. government. Nonetheless, LSD has been found to lack a chemical toxicity, meaning the human body cannot overdose on the drug, though its use has been linked to behavioral incidents in which users hurt themselves or others (sometimes fatally) while on the drug.
The most recent designer drug to make headlines in the U.S. was bath salts — an insanity-inducing stimulant and designer drug marketed beginning in 2007, until it was made illegal in October 2011 by the federal government. This substance became the focus of national attention in 2012 after Rudy Eugene chewed off a part of another man's face in Miami while allegedly on the drug. (A postmortem drug test later showed that marijuana was the only substance in his blood during the attack.)
The designer drug 25-I falls into the same category as bath salts. Though the effects of the drugs vary greatly (bath salts is a stimulant, while 25-I is a hallucinogen), they are both man-made substances with questionable chemical makeups whose origins can be traced to China.
One Connecticut resident, Bill, said that he was sold 25-I as a hallucinogenic replacement for LSD or mushrooms, but that the drug was not as powerful or "fun" as LSD. He said he thought it was cheap and easy to get, but not as desirable as the older drug. He also mistakenly assumed it was legal.
LSD usually sells for around $10 a dose on the street, while you can purchase 10 milligrams of 25-1 for $18.89 on a site like biochemdistribution.co. With a threshold dose of 25-I being 50 micrograms, $18.89 buys the equivalent of 200 25-I doses.
The most troubling difference is 25-I's chemical toxicity. Unlike with LSD, it is possible to suffer a chemical overdose on 25-I.
Both traditional news sites and drug-focused message boards have information regarding 25-I, though the information might not always be reliable. It has been on the United States Internet market since at least early 2012 (and in Europe before that time), but there has been little research into the chemical and its effects.
Many online forums claim that the drug is safe, but Erowid.org includes multiple articles in its archives regarding the chemical toxicity of 25-I. Four of the articles directly link the use of 25-I to untimely death.
One article reads: "2C-I-NBOMe [25-I] is a very new substance, with little known about its pharmacological or behavioral risks. It is extremely difficult to determine [a median lethal dose] for a drug in humans. [Median lethal doses] are only ever experimentally determined in animals, and extrapolations from one species to another for lethal dose are notoriously unreliable. With a new drug like 2C-I-NBOMe, there isn't even animal data."
One of the cases archived on Erowid.org occurred in February 2012, when the Richmond Ambulance Authority reported to WWBT in Richmond, Va., that they had responded to two cases of 25-I overdoses. Both of these cases, as reported by WWBT, resulted in "bleeding in the brain after overdosing."
Another incident in East Grand Forks, MN, caused the death of 17-year-old Elijah Stai. The case was initially investigated by Lt. Rod Hajicek, of the East Grand Forks Police Department.
Lt. Hajicek said in a recent interview that the drug was ingested by Stai and his friends by placing the drug (which comes in white powder form) into melted chocolate. They then froze the chocolate and shared it.
"Within a couple of hours, Elijah Stai was dead," Lt. Hajicek said. "The official cause of death was massive cerebral edema possibly related to a chemical overdose." This was the same cause of death as reported in Richmond.
The Elijah Stai incident eventually sparked the investigation by Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers in North Dakota, Lt. Hajicek said, which resulted in 19 arrests. The man responsible for distributing the chemicals, Andrew Spofford, is facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Those cases apparently haven't registered with users in Connecticut.
Another Connecticut student, Amy, said that she had taken 25-I once, and has taken LSD in the past. Her experience with 25-I was not like an LSD experience at all, and was instead "accompanied by my throwing up within an hour of taking it, and lots of nausea throughout the evening," she said.
Within the past year, college campuses in Connecticut have begun to experience a steady increase in use of 25-I as a replacement for LSD, according to students at schools in the state.
Despite widespread reports of the chemical's toxicity, drug dealers in Connecticut are certainly not warning their consumers about the possibility of overdosing on 25-I. The users interviewed for this article did not realize that the drug was toxic, or even illegal.
Amanda and Bill at first believed that 25-I was like acid, something that might lead to intense or overwhelming mental states, but that wouldn't result in death.
Amanda told the Advocate that the man who sold her a dose of 25-I gave no warning about the drug's overdose potential. Both Amanda and Bill said they were shocked to hear that 25-I could result in death.