Glass vials filled with powders are carefully labelled and organized in rows, as if they belong behind the counter of a pharmacy, but there is something far more nefarious about this collection of drugs.
Many of the 45 vials contain research chemicals, experimental drugs that produce euphoria. Swaths of them are not regulated by federal laws. Some are available for sale only on the dark web. An Alberta man, who goes by the pseudonym RunTheDMT, said he keeps the bizarre stockpile in his bedroom for personal use, though he also shares with willing friends.
The drug stash is dangerous but he is proud of it. He posted a photograph of the clandestine inventory online, the neatly arranged vials surrounded by clear plastic bags stuffed with pills and magic mushrooms. Blotter paper is doused in acid or LSD, among other drugs.
The vials of research chemicals are eye-opening and unusual. Before he buys the compounds, RunTheDMT said he reads reviews from other users who took the drugs and reported back to online forums on what their high felt like.
He occasionally posts his own formal reviews of research chemicals and the clandestine vendors who sell them, rating them for price, purity and stealth for ducking suspicion from authorities.
More often, he shares snippets of his experiences with illicit and unregulated drugs, and offers expertise to other users seeking advice. They share their stories not in some dark corner of the Internet but out in the open, on web forums such as Reddit.
RunTheDMT said he isn’t scared of taking unregulated drugs, insisting he researches everything he buys and chemically tests them once they arrive. But he knows the system isn’t foolproof. Users have died taking drugs more powerful than what they thought they had bought.
“I’m aware that what I do is dangerous and could say I’m playing Russian roulette with my life sometimes,” RunTheDMT said in a private message to Postmedia on Reddit. “But I’ve luckily never been sent a wrong chemical.”
Government authorities around the world have become increasingly concerned about clandestine labs that constantly modify the chemistry of illicit drugs and sell them as legal alternatives. As governments ban new drugs, chemists change a molecule or two and put them back up for sale, leaving law enforcement with limited powers to stop it.
In Alberta, health officials say the popularity of unregulated research chemicals is unknown and difficult to track. RunTheDMT said the only time he’s seen people sell these types of drugs in the province has been at music festivals. Online, this drug world is far more visible. The research chemicals forum on Reddit has more than 10,700 subscribers and climbing.
Bluelight, another forum where recreational drug users share experiences, is home to about seven million posts, though it also features online discussions about relationships, music and gaming. Canadians accounted for about five per cent of Bluelight traffic in a recent 30-day period, according to Monica Barratt, a research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia and a Bluelight administrator.
Twelve per cent of Canadian traffic in this 30-day period occurred in Alberta, where more than 4,000 separate IP addresses accessed Bluelight, said Barratt, who cautioned that one person could be using multiple IP addresses, and that many non-drug users, such as police, monitor the website.
Still, the analytics are an indicator of interest in a website that features field reports from benders on myriad illicit and unregulated drugs.
There is also anecdotal evidence of drug users in Alberta messing with substances not restricted by federal laws.
A research chemical called U-47700, an opioid painkiller developed by chemists at an American pharmaceutical company in the 1970s, appears to have recently turned up at a Calgary emergency room. The patient told doctors that he bought the powder over the Internet and snorted too much, triggering an overdose, said Dr. Mark Yarema, medical director of Alberta’s Poison and Drug Information Service.
Physicians who treated the patient contacted Yarema asking what he knew about U-47700, which is not regulated by drug laws. They wanted to know how long they needed to keep the patient for observation. The assignment required some background research.
“When we do our literature search, especially with new drugs of abuse, we tend to search sites like Reddit and Bluelight as well as Erowid.org to see if there is anyone that’s identified this drug as one of the drugs they’ve had experience with,” Yarema said.
“The patient ended up getting several doses of naloxone and needed to be on a naloxone infuser for several hours in the emergency department,” he said, referring to medicine that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.
It was the first case of U-47700 Yarema has seen in Alberta, but the drug has cropped up across the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration has found that U-47700 can be acquired from online vendors of research chemicals for as little as $70 per gram and delivered in less than a week.
The agency reported a rising number of deaths linked to the drug, with at least 30 fatal overdoses in the Pittsburg area during the second half of 2015.
RunTheDMT said he has overdosed on U-47700 three times, though he’s never been hospitalized. The first time, he felt his heart rate slowing down. He shared a blow-by-blow of the meltdown on Reddit.
“My breathing gets very shallow and my heart rate starts to drop off,” he wrote after obtaining the drug from an online Chinese supplier. “I start to panic and run to my stash. My heart rate is becoming erratic, I grab a big meth shard and run back to get some foil and take a huge hit.
“My hands are shaking and my whole body feels very weak but after about 10 seconds the meth takes hold and levels me out a bit. Still feel a (little) weak but my breathing is better.”
The drug’s effect, he wrote, “comes in waves and brings my heart rate down and then I get very tingly and weak, this is seriously scaring the shit out of me. Almost ready to call an ambulance if this keep happening.”
Later in the thread, he reported that he felt better. “That tingling feeling and my body going numb is going to haunt me for a while . . . Yup I really feel like an idiot, I think I’m going to stash the opiates away for a long time.”
Dr. David Juurlink, a toxicology and pharmacology professor at the University of Toronto, said scientists know more about U-47700 than they do about W-18, another research chemical that has turned up in Alberta. W-18 has been widely reported to be an opioid 100 times more potent than the deadly drug fentanyl, but several scientists including Juurlink now question research behind the claim, though they warn it may still be dangerous.
Juurlink said “empirical evidence” from animal studies indicate U-47700 is a synthetic opioid about six or seven times more powerful than morphine, which means it’s roughly as potent as the painkiller Dilaudid. He said anybody with a chemistry degree, a “reasonably sophisticated lab” and access to ingredients could produce the drug and sell it.
“It’s just not that hard to do.”
There are serious risks with taking unregulated drugs with no guarantees that users get what they pay for, said Juurlink, a medical toxicologist at the Ontario Poison Centre. Vendors selling the chemicals “want your money and nothing else,” though “ideally, they would like to have you as a repeat customer.”
At the same time, he argued having detailed public accounts of recreational drug experiences serves a useful purpose. User reviews and other information posted on these websites are “generally of good quality,” he said, but there are concerns that cases of users being seriously hurt or killed aren’t necessarily published online.
“Given that people will always experiment with drugs, I think it’s useful to have access to a repository of information about the drugs one might use, about the potential effects, the pros and cons,” Juurlink said. “People sometimes are probably dissuaded from trying certain drugs based upon what they have read online.”
RunTheDMT said some of the chemicals he has taken over the years were adopted from pharmaceutical research, such as U-47700. Others were modified illegal drugs, such as methylone, which is chemically similar to ecstasy. Some were new chemicals.
“It’s basically a cat-and-mouse game with the designers/manufacturers of the chemicals and governments,” he said in an online conversation with Postmedia. “They may ban something and a week later (chemists) tweaked or made a change that makes the chemical legal again, so they can keep exporting it.”
Police in Canada have limited powers to stop local dealers of unregulated drugs, said Staff Sgt. Pierre Blais of an Alberta law enforcement agency that targets serious and organized crime. If traffickers pass these chemicals off as restricted drugs, such as ecstasy or heroin, police could lay charges, Blais said.
“Some of these people who are bringing in chemicals, say, from China, that are not illegal, and if they’re experimenting and they’re synthesizing and they’re only using it for their own consumption . . . it’s not something police can deal with,” Blais said.
Blais’ policing agency, the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams, seized four kilograms of W-18 in Edmonton in December, when the drug was still unregulated in Canada. The agency was powerless to lay any criminal charges. W-18 is now a Schedule 1 controlled substance in Canada, which makes possession and sale illegal, but Blais said police still cannot lay charges, because the drug was not illegal at the time it was seized.
Lawmakers in the United Kingdom recently implemented a blanket ban on psychoactive substances after becoming concerned that chemists were producing drugs that mimicked the effects of illicit drugs such as heroin and ecstasy, but ducked federal laws.
The new drug strains, dubbed legal highs, “proliferated at an alarming rate” and have been openly sold in retail shops and websites with U.K. domains, according to a background document produced by the Home Office.
Realizing the government could not restrict every new substance individually, lawmakers banned all substances that cause psychoactive effects, with some exceptions, such as previously controlled drugs, alcohol and medicines.
There are fears the blanket ban will handcuff medical research by restricting access to potentially therapeutic drugs while doing nothing to reduce public demand for substances that produce euphoria, potentially shifting sales to online and illicit markets.
In the United States, police can lay charges under narrow conditions if they seize unregulated drugs. The compounds must be chemically similar to controlled drugs, produce similar effects and be intended for human consumption, factors than can be difficult to prove in court, said Russell Baer, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently vowed to work with colleagues and federal agencies to draft measures that would fast-track the process of banning new synthetic drugs in an attempt to stop the wave of law-ducking chemists.
“Regardless of the type, synthetic drugs pose a deadly and quickly evolving public health threat,” Feinstein told a Senate committee hearing.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has identified 400 new psychoactive substances in the past four or five years, and comes across two or three new substances each month.
“For every one substance we’ve controlled legislatively or administratively, there are 11 more out there that are uncontrolled, and it’s changing all the time,” Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA’s administrator, told the Senate hearing.
Health Canada said it is monitoring the various steps other countries have taken to control new psychoactive drugs. When possible, the federal regulator said it bans entire classes of drugs, not just one strain, in an attempt to prevent labs from modifying a drug’s chemistry to avoid prosecution. For instance, Health Canada banned synthetic cannabinoids, often toxic chemicals that mimic and exaggerate the effects of marijuana, and all of its potential variants.
Dealers who sell chemicals not regulated by federal drug laws could be charged under Canada’s Food and Drugs Act, which threatens product seizures and site visits for violators, the department said.
“Health Canada is very concerned about the issue of problematic substance use, particularly the increasing rates of overdoses and overdose deaths,” the department said in a statement. “Finding effective, long-term solutions to this problem will require a collaborative effort that addresses both the supply and demand for both licit and illicit drugs.”
In Alberta, RunTheDMT said he began building his stash of drugs about two years ago and doesn’t see it getting any smaller, given that new research chemicals are always emerging. He guesses the stockpile could kill 100 people, if taken all at once, but he expects it will last him for the next 20 or 30 years. Some vials contain 50 doses.
“I do this because I enjoy altered states of mind,” he said in an online conversation with Postmedia. “It’s also fascinating what these chemicals can make you experience and they are just different. I guess it’s kind of a hobby, collecting rare and exotic chemicals.”
Australian researcher Barratt said RunTheDMT appears to be a psychonaut, a type of drug user who explores altered states of consciousness with myriad chemicals. He’s among a minority of recreational drug users who take designer or synthetic substances, she said.
Most of these users are simply looking for legal alternatives to restricted drugs or are taking them unknowingly, having been sold one drug that turns out to be another, said Barratt, who serves as a conduit between researchers and drug users on Bluelight.
Barratt said her research shows that users share their stories on online forums not just to enhance their drug experiences, but also to reduce their risks.
“You can look at the trip reports there and you can go to certain substances and they’ll literally say, ‘Do not take this substance. I did and this is what happened’,” Barratt said. “Those sorts of warnings are much more taken (seriously) than, say, a government campaign.”
RunTheDMT won’t disclose his real name or exactly where in Alberta he lives. He said he works in the energy industry, but that he doesn’t use on the job because he could “easily cause a serious incident and either injure/kill myself or someone else.”
His first research chemical was the psychedelic 2C-I, which he took when he was 20 after finding a Canadian vendor that has since closed down. Now, he posts field reports from benders under a Reddit moniker that refers to dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a psychedelic drug illegal in Canada and the U.S. that causes intense hallucinations.
“There’s a community like this because these substances are considered ‘legal’ and therefore I guess some people feel they can’t get into trouble with the law,” he said. “Also some people want to experience new things and they are also looking for the next best high.”