Welcome to the future of recreational drug use – by Dr. Caspar Addyman

Welcome to the future of recreational drug use – by Dr. Caspar Addyman

Posted On: May 30, 2012
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Dr. Caspar Addyman trained as a developmental psychologist.  He works at the University of Burgundy and University of London. Before becoming a psychologist he spent eight years writing trading systems in the City of London. He is a co-founder of YourBrainonDrugs.net, an independent, non-profit organisation developing free smartphone games to track the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Ever heard of dimethocaine, methoxetamine or JWH-18? They are ‘research chemicals’ similar to cocaine, ketamine and cannabis respectively. They were all first synthesized in the last few years and are being produced in large quantities in Chinese factories. They are quasi-legal and readily available over the internet. As a consequence, they are already widely taken. Like mephedrone before them, it probably won’t be long before they are banned. And, like mephedrone, no-one really knows if they are safe or not.

The structural similarity between cocaine and dimethocaine molecules

People haven’t been taking these new drugs for long enough for us to know. Scientific research is lagging far behind casual self-experimentation. Science can’t keep up.  In 2010, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction, 40 completely new substances were taken by UK recreational drugs users.   In the same year, 1,700 new medicines and drugs were licensed for the UK market. Many of these are psychoactive and some are liable to be abused. Psychopharmacologists and drugs professionals have a full-time job trying to keep up with the pace of change. So what chance does the weekend clubber have?

In my view, when it comes to new recreational drugs, casual users might well be better informed than the professionals. We experiment on ourselves and we see the effects on people we know well. We share information and develop our own jargon. We have a good idea what ‘monged’ means and we know how this differs from ‘spangled’. The internet ‘helps’ too. Sites like Bluelight, Erowid and urban75 seek to capture and spread this 21st century folk wisdom. And, Frankly, I’d recommend them as a more reliable source of knowledge than any government funded drugs ‘information’ service.

Of course, this e-commons will never conduct comprehensive research into issues like neurotoxicity or receptor interactions. But there are a lot experts out there. They may be keen amateurs rather than somber professionals but they are far more likely to have first person knowledge of the drugs they are discussing. Besides, the plural of anecdote can be data. If a lot of people are online warning about the dangers of some new substances, they’re probably onto something.

One place where this is already evident is in terms of dosage. Many of these new drugs are far stronger than milligram for milligram than street drugs, they are also sold at 99% purity (at least where still legal).   Methoxetamine is active at doses of around 10mg, whereas a ‘typical’ line of ketamine is anywhere between 60 and 150mg. Naively assuming that familiarity with latter is a good guide to the former  can lead to disaster. Similar problems occur with drugs like psychedelic 2CP* where as little as 2mg can be make the difference between terrific and terrifying. Worse yet, with 2CP inexperienced users can also be tricked into redosing by the fact it takes several hours for the full effects to be felt. And the effects don’t stop for 12-18 hours. (If this ever does happen to you, try to remember that the effects will eventually stop.) Not surprisingly, it is these cautionary tales that spread fastest.

However, these anecdotal horror stories are still scattered randomly across the internet.  It can be very difficult to get a fair sense of what a drug will or won’t do. Combine two or more drugs and the problem becomes even more complex.  Even worse, to make it difficult for government to ban their latest products online retailers are ditching chemical formulae and hiding behind opaque brand names like NoPaine, NRG and BenzoFury.

Given the scarcity of solid, evidence based data, the only real solution is to educate yourself and make your own mind up. As best as you can. As we say in the disclaimer at the bottom of our homepage. “Some drugs are illegal, all drugs carry risks.”

The European Union operate a drug early warning system. Reports from law enforcement and hospital admissions are collected to allow a rapid response to any particularly dangerous new drugs and more especially to detect contaminated batches of street drugs. Mind you, if alcohol were invented tomorrow, then based on hospital admissions alone, one could be pretty sure it would be banned within weeks.

Whether that would be a good thing or not is a debate for another time. But it illustrates one important point, for any minority of bad experiences with drugs that make it into casualty, the mortuary or the tabloids, there are vastly many people taking the same drugs quite happily. Typically only 10% of users of any drug develop an addiction or associated problems. It is important for society to address harm and addiction in this minority and it is wrong to let policy affecting everyone be driven by the problems of a small subset of the population.  But with little information on those missing millions of ordinary, unaddicted drug users and even less on the new drugs themselves, it is understandable if politicians choose to be safe rather than sorry.

At YourBrainonDrugs.net we are hoping to provide a modern solution to this perennial problem. We are creating a set of smartphone games that gather data from ordinary drug users. We will provide users with a self-administered battery of cognitive psychometrics. We will combine this with a personal consumption tracker and emotional diary to provide a full history and timeline of drug consumption and its effects. We encourage participation by making the application into a set of fun and easy-to-use games. The games provide useful information in an accessible and comprehensible format. Feedback is instantaneous allowing the user to evaluate how their chosen intoxicants are affecting them.   An individual user’s data is entirely private and cannot be linked back to them.

Aggregating the data from all our users will be invaluable in calibrating our psychometrics and will provide a novel dataset to researchers, policy and care workers. But this also brings a social element into our game. Users can compare their consumption and cognitive performance to their peers or their demographic, providing a secondary level of feedback. Potentially highlighting problem consumption levels or drawing attention to drug choices or combinations that are particularly bad for them personally.  As, we all know just from alcohol, individuals reactions to drugs can vary massively.

We are shortly starting beta testing on the first version of our software. Initially it will only available on Android phones and will be restricted just to alcohol. The software will be free. The source code is already available. All the analyses are completely open and transparent. All the data will be available (completely anonymised) to anyone who wants to look at it. We want the data to speak for itself and we want to be demonstrably  above charges of using this project to push any particular agenda. This is by no means a solution to all the problems associated with the fast changing recreational drug use but hopefully it will add some useful information to the debate.

While we make no secret of the fact that we are strongly opposed to the blanket prohibition of drugs currently in place, we are not seeking to prove that all drugs are all good. We believe the truth is more nuanced than that and that more data is required, in order to allow people to make their own minds up.  This is an uphill battle.  Lots of good research is being done into the scientific, economic and social effects of drugs and drug prohibition. But, ironically, it is the impeccable academic credibility of this research that weakens its impact. Because this ivory tower research doesn’t connect with the grassroots, governments have long been happy to short-cut the process by deciding policy on purely populist or ideological grounds. More recently, policy seems to be made in the response to a few tabloid headlines.

We hope that our own project and that of the KnowDrugs.net can add some useful first person data to the debate. Together with the continued efforts of organisations like Transform, Erowid and Students for Sensible Drug Policy we will start to redress the balance in the current discourse on recreational drug use.

*Similar problems occur with drugs in the 2C-X family. 2CB, 2CE, 2CI & 2CP are all psychedelic and all fairly easily available but vary considerably in their strength and effects. 2CP is the strongest with the steepest ‘response curve’; the difference between 10 and 12 mg can be the difference between terrific and terrifying.

Related links

YourBrainonDrugs – http://www.yourbrainondrugs.net

Source code for YourBrainOnDrugs App – https://github.com/YourBrain/YourBrain

Sign up for beta testing of Your Brain on Drugs – http://yourbrainondrugs.net/beta-sign-up/

European Early Drug Warning system – http://www.emcdda.europa.eu

Erowid – http://www.erowid.org

Blulight – http://www.bluelight.ru/vb/home.php

Urban75 – http://www.urban75.net

Talk to Frank (goverment drug information website) – http://www.talktofrank.com

Transform – www.tdpf.org.uk

Students for Sensible Drug Policy – http://www.ssdp.org