Dec. 30, 2004 -- A new class of drugs is getting increased attention from police and partyers alike.
Synthetic hallucinogens, which are growing in popularity at nightclubs and rave parties, are so new that many don't even have street names yet.
Usually manufactured in small home-based laboratories, these drugs have law enforcement and health officials concerned because their long-term health effects are virtually unknown.
'Colors Were Really Brilliant and Crisp'
The drugs reportedly have effects similar to the popular rave drug ecstasy: feelings of euphoria, emotional empathy and colorful hallucinations. The typical user is a young, white, college-educated and Web-savvy person who finds that these drugs complement the dance music heard at nightclubs and raves.
"It's kind of mildly hallucinogenic and visual," said Gregory, a graphic designer from California who tried one of these drugs for the first time last year. "Colors were really brilliant and crisp, and I became really relaxed."
Most synthetic hallucinogens are still referred to by a confusing alphabet soup of names based on their chemical compounds.
2C-B is considered one of the most popular of these drugs. 2C-T-7 is often compared to LSD for its colorful hallucinations. AMT was originally developed in the 1960s for antidepressant research, but was abandoned shortly thereafter. 5-MEO-DiPT, also referred to as "Foxy," is sometimes used as a substitute for ecstasy.
"Because these drugs are unstudied in the medical literature, we don't know all of the side effects or all of the dangers involved in the use of these drugs," said Paula Berezansky, intelligence analyst for the National Drug Intelligence Center, a component agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The illicit way in which synthetic hallucinogens are sold presents another problem. "A user may not know what they're buying," Berezansky added. "Something sold as one drug may be another."
Most synthetic hallucinogens fall into two general categories, phenethylamines and tryptamines. Both chemical compounds occur in nature and are found in common plants and foods -- small amounts of phenethylamine are even found in chocolate.
Nationwide, a handful of overdoses and hospital admissions have been attributed to synthetic hallucinogens. But because many of these drugs are mixed with other drugs or their actual chemical nature is unknown even to the users, accurate records are difficult to gather.
Health Effects Are Unknown
"We've actually had patients come in with a condition called monoamine oxidase toxicity from taking combinations of drugs that include tryptamines," said Dr. Edward Boyer, director of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.
"What concerns me ... is that kids are turning to psychoactive drugs at a younger age," Boyer added. "We simply don't know what these tryptamines do to a developing neurological system. Tryptamines are powerful hallucinogens."
"People can't even decide what the long-term effects of a common drug like ecstasy are, let alone something like 2C-B," said Boyer.
Law enforcement officials echo the concerns of the medical community.
"It's a young group of people who are using this and half the time they don't know what they're using -- they're going on what a friend says," said Lt. Patrick J. Garey, a member of the Community Narcotics Enforcement Team of the New York State Police.
"There's so much poly-drug mixing of drugs that occurs, you could be taking ecstasy mixed with a bunch of other drugs," he said.
Psychonauts Surfing the Web
"One of the reasons we've seen these drugs increase in use over the last few years is the use of the Internet," said Berezansky. "The abusers can find out a lot about these drugs very easily."
She refers to users by the name law enforcement officials have coined for those who surf the Web for drug information: "psychonauts."
But drug users aren't the only ones surfing the Internet for drug information.
When Garey was called to participate in a recent seizure of a 2C-B lab at a home in Tioga County in upstate New York, he told ABCNews.com: "It kind of came out of the blue. We'd never seen it before. I'd never even heard of it. I had to go on the Internet to find out what it was."
The DEA is also using the Internet, but to snare the dealers who profit from the sale of synthetic hallucinogens. In July, the DEA announced the conclusion of "Operation Web Tryp," named for the tryptamines that were part of the operation's focus.
Operation Web Tryp targeted five Web sites and resulted in the arrest of 10 individuals from across the United States.
But many of these drugs are so new their legal status is a matter of some confusion. 5-MEO-DiPT, for example, was not even permanently placed on the Federal Register as a Schedule I controlled substance until September of this year.
A User's Experience
Rod, a computer hardware engineer in the San Francisco Bay area who preferred to use an assumed name, has experimented with the synthetic hallucinogen 2C-B.
"Initially, a friend of mine at a rave told me about it when he was tripping pretty hard on it," Rod said. "Then I followed up on it by reading this book by a guy named Shulgin."
Alexander Shulgin is widely credited with fostering the popularity of synthetic hallucinogens through his 1990 book, "Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story." (The name "Pihkal" is an acronym for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved.)
Rod describes his experience as interesting but not especially exciting. "It was just mildly hallucinogenic -- it made everything sharper and more vivid, and there was a slight hallucinogenic effect," he said. "It was all visual for me."
But when asked if he would try the drug again, Rod said, "No, probably not."