Brown sugar’s got a challenger ' Blue Mystic. Crack’s rival is Special K. Ecstasy is sharing human mind space with liquid ecstasy. The arsenal of chemical agents that can propel the human mind into fantasyland ' albeit at the risk of addiction, ill health, or even death ' has grown. So has the repertoire of their street names.
The decades-old ‘war on drugs’ is still in progress. Law enforcement resources worldwide are pitted against the spread of illicit, recreational drugs that come with the promise of rewards for the brain. Yet a range of new psychoactive substances ' some created for legitimate uses ' continues to capture minds.
The reign of traditional illicit and recreational drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin has endured. However, psychiatrists and de-addiction specialists in India are now also encountering a burgeoning number of patients on new molecules that deliver high intoxication, euphoria, hallucinations, a temporary pass into another world.
“It’s particularly frustrating because some of these psychoactive substances are legal prescription drugs that people can buy without prescriptions in India,” said Dr Puneet Dwevedi, a consultant psychiatrist in New Delhi.
Ketamine, an injectible painkiller, has gained popularity among drug addicts. A cocktail of pentazocine (another painkiller) and diphenhydramine, a drug used to prevent motion sickness and induce sleep, has also emerged as an attractive euphoria-inducing substance. “We even call up chemists in the neighbourhood and warn them not to sell such drugs to patients. But it doesn’t work. They just buy it from another part of town,” Dwevedi says.
“It’s a lot easier and cheaper to buy a legal prescription drug than look for illegal narcotic drugs,” says Dr Kedar Ranjan Banerjee, secretary of the National Institute of Behavioural Sciences in Calcutta. The use of sedatives such as nitrazepam or even cough syrups to achieve a state of intoxication is “abundant and rampant” in some parts of the Northeast, Banerjee notes. “Unlike alcohol, such substances don’t smell and are easier to conceal.”
But across North America and Europe, where prescription drugs aren’t available for the asking, new designer drugs have emerged with new patterns of use. The search for dark and dingy rooms to seek solitary pleasure has given way to the chase of all-night ‘rave’ parties where mind experiments are pursued with chemicals.
As Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers George Ricaurte and Una D. McCann cautioned last year in a paper on illicit, recreational drugs, there has been “a cultural repackaging of the drug experience”.
Medical and pharmacology experts also caution that the enthusiasm for recreational drugs is unlikely to wane in the near future. A report on the future of psychoactive substances released last year by Foresight, a British government project to explore science and technology trends, has predicted “new recreational substances”.
These are expected to emerge from new research in brain science as well as from databases of small molecules that have the potential to act on the brain. The Foresight report said some new products could provide similar effects to those available from the existing substances “but with a reduction in their potential to cause harm”.
The report also contemplates how genomics might alter the use of recreational drugs. Genetic studies might allow scientists to predict which individuals are susceptible to becoming addicted to certain drugs. New detection technology might allow an individual to monitor the level of drug in the body in real time and avoid an overdose.
But those are futuristic scenarios. For now, medical experts continue to grapple with the addiction and the emergency visits brought about by emerging psychoactive drugs. Here are some of them:
2C-T-7 (Blue Mystic): First synthesised in 1986, it belongs to the family of phenethylamines and shares similarities with ecstasy. It produces a sense of well-being and hallucinations. The drug is taken orally and the effects are said to last up to eight hours. In 2002, the US government classified it as a Schedule I drug, implying that it has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use in the US.
Flunitrazepam: First synthesised in the 1970s, this sedative has now come to be classifed among the date rape drugs, for it produces anterograde amnesia, a condition in which any events that occur under the influence of the drug are not remembered. In the US and the UK, Flunitrazepam has been used in rave parties and has sometimes been used to bolster the high produced by heroin.
Gamma hydroxybutyric acid (Liquid Ecstasy): On the street, GHB is known as Liquid Ecstasy and has been in use in the UK since the mid-1990s. In low doses, it produces a state of relaxation and mild euphoria that can be followed by drowsiness. However, users of GHB have been known to suffer from seizures or even coma. The US Drugs Enforcement Agency has documented dozens of GHB-related deaths.
Ketamine (Special K): Ketamine is an injectible painkiller that has emerged as a substitute for the traditional psychoactive agents such as heroin, cocaine or LSD. The US Drug Enforcement Agency says high doses of Ketamine can produce an ‘out of body’ experience. Psychiatrists in India are concerned that addicted persons can access Ketamine from chemists without the mandatory prescription.
• Blue mystic: Synthesised in 1986. Oral drug. Induces sense of well-being and hallucinations that can last for several hours.
• Flunitrazepam: Synthesised in the 1970s as a sedative. Induces high state of intoxication. Classified among date rape drugs for it can cause people to forget events that occur under the influence of the drug.
• Liquid ecstasy: Synthesised in the 1960s and used as general anaesthetic. Induces a state of relaxation and mild euphoria.
• Special K: An injectible anaesthetic drug synthesised in 1960s. Offers hallucinatory experiences that last less than an hour. In high doses, it induces an ‘out-of-body’ experience.