Research chemicals are collectively a type of new psychoactive substance (NPS), each of which is a synthetic version of an established psychoactive substance. Research chemicals are often marketed and sold as the pure active ingredients found in other synthetic drugs, yet the reality is that they do not always contain what is listed on the label. Essentially, they are synthetic or designer drugs intended for recreational use yet labeled “research chemicals” to evade law enforcement efforts. Using research chemicals can lead to consequences that include overdose and addiction, but treatment can stop this path.
What Are Research Chemicals?
Research chemicals are human-made substances created to provide effects that are similar to various psychoactive drugs. They tend to be inexpensive to make and purchase, and they provide an intense high that makes them desirable. Research chemicals are synthetic or designer drugs and are included in the classification of new psychoactive substances (NPS).
Research chemicals can be synthetic versions of legitimate research or prescription drugs, or they can be the active ingredient found in other synthetic drugs. However, the labeling is often misleading, and research chemicals tend to contain different drug types or doses than what is listed.
While these drugs are called “research chemicals,” they are designed and sold for recreational purposes. They are simply labeled as research chemicals to avoid classification as controlled or illegal substances. Manufacturers often use currently legal chemicals and commonly change the drugs from batch to batch to avoid legal repercussions.
The use of research chemicals has the potential to lead to addiction and overdose. Professional treatment provides support to overcome a dependence on these drugs and stop behaviors associated with addiction.
Types of Research Chemicals
Research chemicals contain psychoactive substances of varying types and amounts. The ingredients are often not listed—or not listed correctly—and vary batch-by-batch, so the purchaser will not definitively know what he or she is taking.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation explains that active ingredients found in numerous NPS can be classified as research chemicals. The labeling of research chemicals often includes these main active ingredients, yet the labeling is not always accurate.
Some research chemicals are synthetic versions of real research drugs. One example is W-18, which is an opioid-like research drug created by chemists that has shown painkilling ability. Legitimate companies sell limited amounts to purchasers with DEA licenses allowing them to possess controlled substances. However, labs in Asia have been designing and selling synthetic versions of W-18 on the Internet.
Manufacturers of research chemicals will often slightly modify the chemical makeup of a drug to create a new derivative. For example, labs have been creating new derivatives of opioids to sell on the Internet. Manufacturers design a new drug that is not listed as a controlled or illegal substance, and they continually change the formula to stay ahead of legal systems.
Research chemicals often include combinations of drugs that have included pharmaceuticals, controlled substances, and adulterants. Some drugs that have been found in research chemicals include:
- Synthetic opioids
- Piperazine derivatives
Facts and Statistics
Research chemicals are generally labeled as “only for research purposes” or “not for human consumption,” when the opposite is true. Instead of being referred to as research chemicals, they may be called plant food, bath salts, or other names denoting they are for purposes other than human consumption.
Some street names for research chemicals include:
- Ivory Wave
- Dr. Death
- Magic mushrooms
Research chemicals tend to come in crystals, white powder, capsules, or packaged on blotter tabs. They have numerous methods of administration, including ingesting, injecting, smoking, snorting, and using anally.
The World Drug Report 2016 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) gives global data on new psychoactive substances (NPS), which include research chemicals:
- Sixty-six new substances were first reported to the UNODC in 2014. The World Drug Report 2016 already included 75 new substances first reported in 2015, before data collection was yet complete for the year.
- 644 NPS were reported from 2008 to 2015 globally.
- Some NPS stay on the market, while others are removed. From 2008 to 2014, there were 569 NPS reported, yet 26 of those stopped being reported by 2012 and 69 stopped by 2013. Often, new ones arise that are derived from previous substances.
- From 2012 to 2014, most substances first reported were synthetic cannabinoids, but 2015 showed reports of new substances that included synthetic cannabinoids as well as synthetic cathinones, synthetic opioids, benzodiazepines, and other sedatives.
- A portion of NPS, including those labeled as research chemicals, are sold and purchased on the Internet, especially through marketplaces on the “dark net.” As law enforcement efforts take down one marketplace, another often begins or rises in popularity to take its place.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Research Chemical Addiction
There is a lack of research on the potential effects of research chemicals on humans, including any withdrawal symptoms that may present themselves from abruptly stopping use. Also, research cannot be conclusive because the formulas constantly change.
However, certain characteristics of research chemicals can be precursors to dependence and addiction: They are psychoactive substances that are designed for misuse and abuse, and a review in Toxicology Letters notes that designer drugs from the Internet can create a strong urge to “re-dose.”
The addiction potential can vary based on the formula. Yet, one drug found in research chemicals, mephedrone, showed a similar abuse potential to cocaine in a study.
Symptoms of physical dependence include:
- Tolerance: needing more of the drug to achieve the same effects
- Withdrawal: experiencing symptoms from abruptly stopping intake of the drug
Dependence may or may not be part of an addiction, depending on the drug. More definitive symptoms of addiction include:
- Not being willing or able to stop using a drug
- Not managing the responsibilities of family, work, or other areas of life
- Using the drug in higher doses or frequencies than intended
- Continuing to use the drug despite negative consequences
Overdose is also a concern with research chemicals, particularly because of inaccurate labeling. A lack of understanding of the type and dose of the drug could result in taking a dangerous amount and overdosing. Overdose is also likely because research chemicals tend to change to evade law enforcement. Since the type or dose may have changed, previous use does not indicate that the person can safely use the same amount of the drug again. The risk of overdose increases when these drugs are combined with other drugs or alcohol.
Causes and Risk Factors
Research chemical use is recreational. People buy these drugs on the Internet or from local shops with the intention of experiencing their psychoactive effects. These drugs are referred to as “legal highs,” which gives the misconception that their use is safe. Also, these drugs tend to be cheaper, more accessible alternatives to other psychoactive drugs.
Risk factors could include those common to any addiction, such as:
- Parents or peers who use substances
- Community poverty
- Child abuse or neglect
- Mental health disorders
Risk factors specific to NPS include:
- A binge drinking episode in the last six months
- Increased psychological distress levels
- Trying tobacco products
- Lower self-perceived ability to resist peer pressure
- Use as party or club drugs
- Marginalized youth
- Access on the Internet
- Labeling that lists positive effects without mentioning potential negative effects
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Treatment and Prognosis
Despite a lack of understanding on the type and dose of drug included in each package of research chemicals, a professional treatment program can help someone with research chemical dependence and addiction. Many components of these problems are the same regardless of the type of drug, so a quality treatment program will be able to tailor a plan to fit this type of addiction. These programs are experienced in creating individualized plans to fit each person’s needs.
Overall, a residential program will be able to spend the most time understanding a person’s individual needs and providing a comprehensive treatment plan to address them. That is because residential programs involve living on-site with continuous interaction with addiction professionals. Also, they include a combination of treatments, including individual therapy, group and family therapy, medications, and other methods to address every aspect of a person’s addiction. They are also able to include treatment for a co-occurring disorder, such as an addiction to another drug or a mental health disorder. Inpatient treatment often lasts from 30-to-90 days and includes an aftercare program to follow treatment. The aftercare program and skills learned in treatment, such as healthy coping strategies, can help prevent relapse and promote ongoing change in the person’s life.
Even though they are not classified as illegal, research chemicals are psychoactive substances that can change the brain and lead to dependence and addiction. Just like other substances of abuse, their ongoing use will lead to problems in a person’s life, some of which can become irreversible. Quality treatment can stop this decline and help the person live a better life.