Washington, D.C., police arrested three men at Georgetown University over the weekend and charged them with illegally manufacturing a controlled substance after authorities found a drug, later determined to be dimethyltryptamine (DMT), was being manufactured in a dorm room.
The men, two students and a guest, were arraigned today. A police spokeswoman said police were directed to a certain room on the ninth floor of Harbin Hall after a student reported a strange odor. Seven people, including several students, were treated for possible effects from exposure to chemicals, but no one was hospitalized.
In an e-mail, Greg Olson, Georgetown's vice president of student affairs, told parents that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had confirmed that DMT was being made in the dorm room.
"The DEA has informed us that there was never a health risk to students in Harbin, including those on the same floor, beyond those who lived in the room. Hazardous materials experts have now removed all potential contaminants," Olson wrote in the e-mail.
University officials evacuated the dorm's 400 or so other residents but allowed them to return to their rooms around 6:30 in the evening, according to a university spokesperson.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, DMT is a powerful hallucinogenic drug that is typically smoked, sniffed or injected. It's found naturally in plants and seeds but can also be manufactured synthetically. It's also found in very small amounts in the brains of most mammals, including humans.
It acts by increasing the brain's level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences moods. DMT produces what's called the "businessman's trip" -- a high that lasts for about an hour.
"Serotonin is thought to be the target of a lot of hallucinogens, like LSD, MDMA [ecstasy], PCP and others," said Glen Hanson, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Dr. Rick Strassman, who's conducted studies on DMT use in university settings that were approved by the DEA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said the high his subjects experienced was very intense. "They had the feeling of being outside their bodies and being in an incredibly visual hallucinatory world," said Strassman, who is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and the author of a book on DMT. "The effects began very quickly and peaked wthin two minutes, then they came down."
But he warns that it can also be a dangerous trip.
"It's a profoundly startling and upsetting experience for people who aren't prepared, and even for some people who are," he said.
DMT is not very addicting, unlike drugs like methamphetamine. It's also relatively easy to manufacture, according to the DEA.
In addition to the psychedelic high, the drug can have serious physiological consequences, including high blood pressure, agitation, seizures and dizziness, according to the DEA. In very high doses, it can bring on a coma and respiratory arrest.
Regarding long-term use, experts also said there wasn't much research about how harmful long-term use can be, but Hanson suspected it could take its toll on the brain after a while.
"The brain doesn't like to be hit over the head time and time again. If you keep banging on these seronotin systems, one would expect there would be stuff that happens eventually."
DEA statistics show that between January and June of 2009, law enforcement officials seized 72 items that were later identified as DMT. In 2008, they seized 94 such items, up from 59 in 2007.
DMT is an illegal substance and is considered a schedule one drug, meaning that it's not approved for medical use.