Top 5 Search Terms That Brought You Here

Search engines have made it far too easy for that kid who never stops asking questions (like me) to indulge in every fleeting curiosity that drove teachers nuts.  With search engine stats on WordPress, you can see all the random thoughts that Google somehow thought you were the perfect authority on.  In the interest of SEO and all that good stuff from journalism school, I dug deep into my readers’ brains.  The results were so awesome that I wrote a list of the best search terms that led my visitors here in my notebook of lists (yes I have one of those).  I give you the five best so far.

1. “sorry for nomming your face bath salts”
Occasionally, my mundane tasks will be interrupted by an unprovoked giggle.  The reason is often a sudden thought reminding me of this phrase.

2. “bill nye goggles”
Write three words describing yourself.  Done.

3. “pharmcore band”
Who are you?  Is it true that pharmcore is catching on?  Do you want to join?  Please join.  My one true mission is making this a thing.

The next great hand-symbol-based hardcore movement in DC

4. “stalin methcathinone”
And now the band has a name.

5. “infinite pestle point instincts universe”
I have positively no idea what this means or why search engines think I do, but go on with your bad self, dear reader, follow your (possibly Ambien induced) dreams.

Thank you all, whoever you may be, for being weird enough to be interesting, because the world needs more crazy people like you. Keep searching, keep learning, and of course, stay pharmcore.

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Understanding Bath Salts, Part III: Living Above the Law

“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”
-Paracelsus

We’ve come to the end of our mind-altering journey, and a new ban on synthetic drugs has finally saved the day.  The small talk crowd is over it: bath salts kind of lost their magic when the Man got involved.  Still, more potential users are discovering legal drugs with curiosities piqued by TV hyperbole.  What if a dangerous chemical really does become too big to control?  Save the knowledge-is-power-free-information hippie speeches for the Linux forums, we need action!  Harrumph!

I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy.

What we need is thoughtful action.  Anger goes nowhere, scare tactics only make curious minds dangerously so, and as for prohibition, we all know how well that worked out in the 1920′s: you tell people they can’t have booze and they’ll just start making bath salts!*
*Mephedrone was first synthesized in 1929 by Saem de Burnaga Sanchez.

Into the Unknown: My Not-So-Scary Visit to the World of the Undead

I was compelled to write this series because drug policy has gotten out of hand when police hold ultimate authority to decide if researchers are doing drugs or doing science, and I don’t trust cops with chemistry any more than I trust a polymer engineer in a gang shootout.  My research of research chemicals started about two years ago in my very first graduate level investigative reporting class.  After spending days on a reading binge triggered by my friend’s mephedrone question, I presented a proposal to conduct a three month investigation into the online sale of legal designer drugs.  The class erupted in confusion and the professor leaned back with a smile– this was crazy talk, his favorite kind.  The FDA sent me everything they knew about other drugs and the DEA dodged my calls altogether.  My professor wasn’t surprised, the whole point is that the establishment doesn’t know, nobody’s talking to the users, but they’re the best authority on themselves.  Is asking for a press release more comfortable than asking a stranger if you can watch him buy drugs?  You bet.  But if telling a story doesn’t make you uncomfortable, your story isn’t good enough.

When the media caught on a few years too late, my big I-told-you-so moment gave me little satisfaction, mostly because of the perpetual red slap mark left on my forehead from the ludicrous fantasies these reporters (who obviously never met my professor) were calling “news”.  I’ve seen a stretch or two, but this was a total fabrication full of chemically impossible claims, fruitless interviews, backwards definitions, historical inaccuracies, and this running theme of writers who seriously need to ask their parents what LSD is.

It’s true, nobody asked the druggies, but I can report that they are in fact cognizant creatures with what appear to be souls.  These “new legal highs” have been around for over a decade, but they stayed underground because people very rarely got hurt, and nobody told their mom.  The users I interviewed knew they were taking big risks, but the scene I observed was less about chemicals and more about research.  At first I was surprised that a couple random underclassmen let me take notes on their drug activities, but they seemed happy to share their hobby; after all, they knew I wasn’t a cop, there was no crime committed, and the majority of their clandestine operation was nothing more than nerdy discussions about shamanism and Ken Kesey.  “The first thing you do is read the dose, duration, the law, some experience reports…We always got into the history too.  You at least need to read the entry in PiHKAL.  What? Newt Gingrich?  For real?  Pics or it didn’t happen!”  I know it’s been a while, but there’s something I still owe someone.

I’m Newt Gingrich, and I approve this psychedelic cookbook.

For years, legal drug dealers relied entirely on word-of-keyboard referrals within the internet-based subculture of knowledgeable drug enthusiasts.  The trouble only started when the secret got out and every stoner, student, raver, retailer, and curious cat wanted a ride on the Ivory Wave.  Economic desperation gives instant appeal to the bath salts promise of affordable escapism and boundless energy, but unlike the drugs’ pioneers, unseasoned salts users had no desire to learn the science, seek advice, or prepare experiments.  Gone were the days of psychonaut scholars, hidden in plain sight, sharing their exclusive knowledge of a strange chemical artform practiced in the DIY laboratories of rogue Shulginites– an underground world that, like a delicate molecule of LSD, has become damaged and meaningless when brought to light.  (that’s how you make an LSD reference when discussing completely unrelated drugs, folks)

How to Look (Slightly) Less Crazy than the Average Bath Salts User

I’d like to have a word with the outraged mothers out there.  Hi (please don’t hurt me).  I see you care about your children, but you can’t expect the government to protect them from the consequences of their own decisions.  I watched parents of overdosed teenagers gasp in disbelief that no law could punish the shadowy villain who made their kid do drugs.  These seething suburbanites vow to lead some crusade until legislation is passed that can bring evildoers to justice and keep their innocent children safe…ly behind bars for possession (you know that’s what happens, right?).   The legal system isn’t here to fight bad guys (perhaps you’re thinking of Batman), it exists to ensure justice, and justice is blind: honor students and drug dealers have the same privileges and the same responsibilities

You aren’t protecting any child’s future by demanding more laws– you’re ruining young people’s lives by slapping criminal records on them for making the same stupid decision that would have earned them “victim” status when it was your kid and the stuff was legal.  Some of you are even calling for broader, more inclusive laws that consider selling “drugs” that you don’t sell as drugs the same as selling drugs as drugs, a downright Seussical idea that would only be constitutional in a land where the Ecstasy berries are always ripe and mighty LSD trees grow high as the heavens (the award for Most Blatantly False Concept of LSD in Bath Salts Fiction goes to “plant based acid”!  You just won a lifetime supply of LSD plants, so nothing, because LSD is a synthetic drug loosely based on a fungus!  Ecstasy is also synthetic, and you almost had the hat trick with methamphetamine but here comes Shulgin with the assist!).  Synthetic drug legislation is so painstakingly detailed because simply the term “drugs” can have infinite meanings, citizens would be easily confused without legal boundaries, and the law be ruled void for vagueness.  Courts ideally reject vagueness because everybody has the right to know the law and receive a trial based on evidence, and I’m afraid “everybody knows these are drugs” is not proof.  You might not want to go around with no evidence claiming that a company is selling drugs either; because if they got bold (unlikely) they could sue you for slander.  If you find this frustrating, think of how vulnerable we all would be under your law without those picky protections:

Dear Police Department,

There’s a serious problem in our communities of young people using these drugs called “Macs” which they buy from something called an “Apple Store”.  These products are harmful to your health, and I know, because I made my assistant smoke an iPhone and he’s in the hospital now.  It’s clear that these aren’t real computers– the packaging is nothing but colorful gimmicks, the “commands” all come from one giant button, and I could program a hamster with more versatility.  The dealers shamelessly target children in their advertising, the software is outrageously expensive compared to anything I know, and these poor kids are becoming so addicted that they’re zombies, camping in front of stores and storming the gates just to get their next fix!  It’s obvious that you need to protect our children from these dangerous drugs.

Hey, maybe this idea of yours isn’t so bad…

Like Mormons and Girl Scout cookies, drugs are tempting and waiting at your door, but they won’t come in unless they’re invited.  A good drug policy works to stop the invitations by providing safe, compassionate addiction treatment and resources to address issues that lead to substance abuse.  This starts with mental health services and pharmaceutical companies that aren’t bathing in profits while patients dangerously self-medicate, but the concept can also be applied in your own home.  Our laws try to halt supply and take dealers off the streets, but the only drugs that disappear are the ones that nobody wants to buy.  Drug dealers get rich off existing demand, they aren’t out generating new interest with advertising and a catchy sales pitch.

You can have the amazing power of OxyContin for just 3 easy payments of $9.95*!

If you’re terrified of conspiring drug pushers out to destroy your family, you’re making your kids so nervous that they almost have to be high to deal with your crazies, and they figure it doesn’t matter if you see them as bath salts zombies waiting to happen anyway.  Teenagers have a tough job becoming independent and responsible adults, so it must be humiliating when mom thinks it takes an act of Congress to keep you from sticking stuff up your nose.  Your children know more than you think, and they will make more mature decisions if you trust them with your concerns directly instead of portraying them as a thoughtless victim-object for television crews. 

If you want a young adult to be honest about drugs, you need to establish a genuine, trusting relationship, and it goes both ways.  Don’t fake the “we never had these scary legal drugs when I was a kid” charade.  They know you did and they’re jealous you got all the good ones– the only reason they can buy legal drugs on the internet is because your generation ate so many legal drugs that they invented the internet.  Just tell the truth, if your case is solid enough (and unregulated stimulants are a pretty solidly bad idea), you have no use for exaggeration.  Let them know you respect their judgement, and assure them that regardless of the situation, you’re always there if they need you.  Even the most successful adults are afraid of making stupid decisions, but they’re not afraid to ask for help.  The president has his cabinet, businessmen have consultants, and even the Beatles sometimes just needed a friend’s assistance to…reach some top shelf reading material I’m assuming.

The Law Fought the Chemistry (And the Chemistry Won)

Laying down your own law yields much better results than marching on Washington.  The decision makers had a set agenda long ago, and the rest of us are too busy finding public offices for Marion Barry.

“Our mayor was really hard on drugs,” say District residents who struggle with syntax.

Ditch the petition unless your hobby is collecting mass produced letterhead spotted with the I-can’t-pay-rent tears of overworked interns, everyone here is too hammered to read it anywayThe DEA and the FDA are the major players in drug policy, and politicians (some of whom I’ve seen rolling a joint or two in fancy uptown restaurants) sell that policy as a moral issue to exploit a citizen’s most personal fear: physical safety.  I’m not Deep Throat here, we all know the Washington image is hypocritical nonsense, but the game gets dirtier (if that’s possible) when government officials line their pockets with unsubstantial panic alerts and blatant lies about your health.  They’re intimidating, they wear really clean suits, I know, but their power is superficial.  Remember that politicians are only experts in politics, the art of pretending to be an expert in everything else.

Even laws with overwhelming support go through a long political process.  Libertarians in particular waste a lot of time holding up drug legislation because they don’t believe in wasting time on drug legislation (or because Ayn Rand really loved speed).  The DEA can make faster moves by using their power of emergency scheduling, where an immediate one-year ban is placed on a substance they consider an “imminent threat” while they gather evidence to review the drug for permanent federal scheduling.  This process was first used with MDMA in 1985, sparking one epic battle between science and law enforcement.  Courts ruled twice that the drug’s significant medical value must be easily accessible to researchers and healthcare professionals (Schedule III or below), but the DEA decided twice that they didn’t care and put it right back in Schedule I anyway.  Apparently, yes they can do that.  

On October 21, 2011, the DEA emergency scheduled the common ingredients in “bath salts”: MDPV and mephedrone.  This fall, those drugs would be reviewed and surely added to the Controlled Substances Act, but Congress took full political advantage of bath salts hysteria and passed a superfluous law before the emergency ban even expired, when they could have been, oh I don’t know, making college affordable or something.

In July, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was signed into law, banning most remaining psychedelic 2C-x phenethylamines and “any substance that is a cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1 receptor) agonist as demonstrated by binding studies and functional assays”, so if it does something similar to marijuana in your brain, it’s illegal.  This could mean Solvay Pharmaceuticals can no longer profit from Marinol® the end of “spice”. 

As for bath salts, only mephedrone and MDPV are specifically listed, but you can sleep soundly at night knowing that they are now double illegal.  Meanwhile, the growing panorama of unregulated “research chemicals” remains off the public radar until one of these drugs gets mephedrone-famous.  My money’s on methoxetamine, and you heard it here first! (stay ahead of the media panic with my simple formula: read what they’re banning in the UK, wait a year, act surprised).  If one paragraph can prevent varieties of synthetic marijuana that don’t even exist yet, why are we still on this wild chemical chase when it comes to bath salts?

The first problem is that “bath salts” refers to a legal cover up strategy, not a drug itself.  We can only grasp at common denominators among formulas sold with the same product claim; it’s about as precise as defining an organized criminal as any moustachioed man connected to the waste management industry

Even if they ban moustaches, the victim is science.

Unlike the cannabinoid “spice” blends, bath salts are stimulants; their neurotransmitter action is too similar to your morning coffee to define in law.  If you use their common phenethylamine foundation, you risk a DEA raid on your chocolate stash.  You could eliminate most (but not all) bath salts with a ban on all cathinones, but you have to meticulously define what “cathinone” means (Wellbutrin and several other pharmaceuticals are cathinones) within the wide spectrum of similar ephedrine-based compounds, and we already have a law that treats you like a very congested drug cook every time you buy Sudafed.  I have no time for paperwork at drug stores, besides, I prefer the vapo-action of those mentholated inhalers*.  What I’m trying to tell you is, I snort levomethamphetamine, and it’s exactly what it sounds like.  Go around CVS reading the backs of things some day, it gets wild.  The point is, any drug has potential for both good and evil.  Now more than ever we’re finding amazing uses for what were once considered “drugs of abuse”, so remember that every chemical you ban because someone got high is another potential treatment that will never have a chance to cure cancer.
*my recommendation for instant, relaxing congestion relief.  It’s almost flu season!  What were we talking about?  Right, killer zombie drugs.

D.A.R.E. makes everyone think they can spot a “bad” drug from a mile away: obviously, dangerous drugs are always sold by that guy in the dark alley who approaches strangers in broad daylight to offer them handfuls of pills and random syringes.  If he hasn’t busted this guy yet, your D.A.R.E. officer is terrible at finding drugs and should try using the stuff between his ears.  No, literally.  Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is a highly illicit psychedelic drug found right there in your brain tissue.  That means, while I am absolutely NOT validating the claims of Jesse Ventura, theoretically the government does consider your brain more dangerous than crack.  Hold on space cadet, it gets worse.  This is a dangerous world we live in– bath salts all over the place, you’re tripping face non-stop, and to top it off, I think Mother Nature slipped something in your drink.  GHB, best known as the colorless, odorless, Schedule I “date rape” drug sensationalized in the 90′s, is a natural component of wine, certain beers, meat, human cells, and just for kicks, it’s in your clothes too.  You can also get your recommended daily intake of club drugs by consuming MSG, which metabolizes to GHB in your body’s endogenous drug labs.  Natural levels are far too low to prompt blackouts at the Panda Express, but some say these trace amounts are essential to mental wellness, promoting GHB as an organic miracle cure.  I don’t know, a roofie-yourself-to-better-health plan doesn’t sound like a best-seller, but then again, maybe loving your body means appreciating all of its natural flaws, limitations, imperfections, and illicit narcotics.

Some Structural Analogue of Justice

Like it or not, we were born to be on drugs.  That’s why no law can forbid the act of getting high or define molecules as “stuff kind of like that other stuff”, but oh no, we have that law.  If the language wasn’t too abstract to be enforced, that law could be useful in keeping our streets and internets free of dangerous almost-drugs.  But like my grandmother always said, almost only counts in bocce and the Federal Analogue Act of 1986!

  • (A) Except as provided in subparagraph (C), the term controlled substance analogue means a substance -
    • (i) the chemical structure of which is substantially similar to the chemical structure of a controlled substance in schedule I or II;
    • (ii) which has a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system that is substantially similar to or greater than the stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system of a controlled substance in schedule I or II
    • (iii) with respect to a particular person, which such person represents or intends to have a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system that is substantially similar to or greater than the stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system of a controlled substance in schedule I or II.
  • (B) The designation of gamma butyrolactone or any other chemical as a listed chemical pursuant to paragraph (34) or (35) does not preclude a finding pursuant to subparagraph (A) of this paragraph that the chemical is a controlled substance analogue.
  • (C) Such term does not include -
    • (i) a controlled substance;
    • (ii) any substance for which there is an approved new drug application;
    • (iii) with respect to a particular person any substance, if an exemption is in effect for investigational use, for that person, under section 355 of this title to the extent conduct with respect to such substance is pursuant to such exemption; or
    • (iv) any substance to the extent not intended for human consumption before such an exemption takes effect with respect to that substance.

What does it mean?  Are my benzocaine cough drops an illegal cocaine analogue?  Is love an illegal cocaine analogue?  Am I an illegal cocaine analogue!?

Don’t worry, the Analogue Act makes a good threat, but it has limited (not impossible!) practical use.  It was written at a time when MDMA and other new synthetic drugs were spreading fast, law enforcement didn’t know anything about them, and the people who did know used way too many big words.  Oh, how some things never change.  The act questionably bans anything chemically similar to an illegal drug, any bag of oregano sold to gullible high school kids, and any form of matter that makes you feel happy, fall asleep, or hear the voice of God in Pink Floyd albums.  Several cases upheld this law and set precedents for its undefined terms, but several others declared it void for vagueness.

The Analogue Act has a pretty big loophole: it only applies to substances intended for human consumption, so clearly not to substances with big labels that say “not for human consumption.”  Every package of bath salts is a little 500 milligram joke on the DEA!

Snorting Arbitrary Amounts of Powder from the Internet and Other Things that Make More Sense than Drug Laws

The chemicals in bath salts are relatively safe in doses comparable to similar common pharmaceuticals (as they tend to be substantially less potent than most ADHD medications), but the danger lies in a lack of information on safe use.  Unlike illegal drugs, these chemicals are often uncut binder-free lab grade material, so the dosage is an absurdly tiny portion of the product.  Vendors can’t legally tell you how much to use, and the stigma surrounding drug abuse makes it difficult for well-intentioned sources (who only want to keep your kids out of the hospital) to provide this information without being publicly condemned as a devilish minion of drug dealing predators.

The erratic effects of bath salts are likely the result of users blowing a month’s supply up their nose in a matter of seconds because of some notion that powder-form drugs are universally measured in “lines”.  This is not cocaine: a “line” of any synthetic cathinone of such potent purity is like replacing your cereal with Adderall pills.  Maintaining these superhuman doses for any length of time will rapidly increase one’s chances of stimulant psychosis (also common in caffeine users), which can lead to paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and making outrageously false claims that somehow pass as “journalism”.   News corporations profit just as much from sensationalist stories as the drug dealers they’re writing about.  Sensible drug news won’t get nearly this level of attention because there’s no profit in facts, people want narratives with sides to take and winners to invest their interests in.  How can you pull at purse strings if you can’t pull at heart strings? 

The media and political profit machines are making money with the exact same strategy as the designer drug market: if one page-turning lobbyist-funding drug epidemic is solved,  create a new, nearly identical one to sell!  But of course, package it as “public service”, not intended for profitable consumption *wink*.  That’s capitalism!  Even repackaged Soviet pharmaceuticals aren’t immune.  Lenin must be turning over in his um…glass box right now.

Zombie Lenin used to be so charming before the bath salts…

In 2004, the Analogue Act picked a fight with the internet.  In what was known as “Operation Web Tryp”, the DEA raided online research chemical vendors, making 10 arrests and closing 5 websites.  These companies sold the same kinds of drug analogues we see today, but they just weren’t sneaky enough about the “human consumption” thing.  This action was carried out as planned, but full force raids based on less-than-stable laws are too risky to be a first line of defense against mail-order drugs.  And this is the DEA, too–  they pretty much do what they want.

To get an idea of how Operation Web Tryp has deterred online drug analogue sales, enter the name of an unscheduled research chemical into any search engine.  I chose methiopropamine.  Right on page 1, after the basic resources telling me what it is, I got no fewer than 5 websites who wanted to sell it to me.  Web Tryp was a lesson learned for modern online vendors, who stay on top of the law with delicate precision.  Most are not based in the United States, they never possess regulated substances in their jurisdiction, and they maintain up-to-date legal databases to avoid shipping restricted products elsewhere.  Most importantly, these businesses are very strict about leaving no holes in their story of legal intended use.  A buyer agrees to terms and conditions, where they confirm they’re over 18, they will not resell the product, and they will absolutely never ever put it in their body.  Even whispering a word about consumption will cancel the sale and ban the customer, so if a teenager lies and overdoses on this product, the vendor has gone too far beyond the warnings required of other dangerous household items to be held accountable for inappropriate use.

Turn On, Tune In, Chill Out

So with all these fingers wagging, does anyone really know who to blame?  Let’s get past the witch hunt and make some progress.

If you’re determined to fight for innocent drug victims, consider donating to help women suffering from cartel violence in Mexico.  At least take a moment to think of them.  Our laws give us nothing but creative users on this side of the border while expanding the product line of bloody business rivals on the other.  There’s no need to make victims from a victimless crime.

Now that you know enough about bath salts to raise a suspicious eyebrow or two at your next PTA meeting, your only job is keeping them out of the orifices of the people you care about.  It’s been a long voyage through the salty seas of sketchy science, but I hope you found a little more peace of mind, and a lot more motivation to turn off the television when it tells you what your kids are doing so you can ask them yourself.

Now I don’t know about you, but after all this talk, I could use a nice, long bath.

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Pints of Linux Make You Strong: Memoirs of the Broke, Nerdy, and Disconnected

Thanks for sticking with me, folks.  The past few weeks have been rough.  Mishaps with a roommate switcheroo left me sooner than expected with no internet service, and no internet service to order new internet service (meanwhile I had 6 days to find New Roommate and the gas company’s there to cut me off when I paid that bill so long ago, it’s been donated to the National Archives).  I found a temporary (legal!) WiFi fix only after accidentally hacking myself no less than three times.  My hunt continued for a local internet provider other than the dominant not-so-Linux-friendly major-cable-corporation-that-shall-remain-nameless I was previously mentally directing my most creative curses subscribed to.  My research found that in the capital of the capital of the global free market system, this cable-beastie was in fact my only available option.  My hands were tied: If I don’t get high speed internet, I can’t finish writing about people getting high on speed from the internet.  I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that.

The beastie allowed me to skip the in-home installation, as I was sure I need not pay $40 for a professional to plug a modem in the wall (the instructions were one. picture.). Activation was a different story. Dearest service provider and his hardware lackeys were truly concerned about my well being.  I thought they just didn’t understand me– I’m normal, right?  It’s just…I have all these loans, and software is so expensive, how could I resist?  I just wanted to feel free, man.  Apparently, my problem is out of control, according to every tech support employee involved on any level of my internet setup.  It was always the same lecture: “Are you sure you want to do this?  If bad things happen we can’t help you, then you’ll be all alone, scared and helpless and billed in full.”  I know they want to help, but I need to accept their offer to change, or they simply cannot continue to support my addiction to open source software.

“Hi?  The setup screen told me to call.  I need to activate my router and it says there’s a block.”

“OK, connect the ethernet cord from the internet port on the router to your computer.  What operating system are you using?”

“…Kubuntu 10.10″

“Ohh…hmm…I’m sorry ma’am, we do not support that system.”

“Yeah, I know, I got this.  I support the internet, I promise.  I just need the internet come out of the box.”

“You have to install the software for me to properly connect the router, and our software is only compatible with…”

“I know.  It’s fine, it’s all installed, I’m looking right at it.  It’s just waiting for you to remove the block and send the signal.”

“I’m sorry, but after the router is activated you will still need to complete installation, and we are only authorized to assist you on Windows or Mac.”

“Then tell me how to do it on Windows.”

“OK, let me know when you’re connected to your Windows PC.”

“No…I meant, if you give me a list of instructions for Windows, I’ll do it myself, the only issue is the block on the device.”

“We cannot guarantee successful Windows installation on your…”

Right. Can you pretend I said “Windows” from the very beginning then?  I’ll take the liability here.”

“Ma’am unfortunately I cannot resolve your issue today. Activation requires access to the router’s software. If you are considering a Windows system, we provide a full year of personal tech support…”

“BUT THE SOFTWARE IS INST…fine. I’ll go ask the internet.”

This circus of nonsense also featured performances by my ISP and modem manufacturer in a stunning display of cyclical call transferring.  I was unsure whether they thought I was a hacker they couldn’t trust on the network or somebody with no idea what they’re doing about to screw up something big and blame the company, but I guess after my multiple self-hacking incident, they’d be justified either way.  It seemed my only problem was not that I was unable to connect to the internet, but that sometime in the future I might be unable to connect to the helpful troupe of knowledgeable tech supporters I’ve come to know so well.  If that’s the case, please, give me all your problems.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Enter: the ZuneMachine.

ZuneMachine is a little netbook where I spared the life of the native Windows 7 to serve me as…well, a Zune machine.  Zune software is notoriously hard to crack outside Windows, even with emulators, so ZuneMachine manages my music despite being too slow to download any.  This is not the ideal tool for wireless installation, but if they want Windows, I’ll give them Windows, and they’re going to suffer through all of the extended freezing spells they deserve. Tech support got the satisfaction of reciting their rehearsed lines uninterrupted, and I got some internet.

Until I boot up the non-ZuneMachine. Activate services? But…didn’t I…

This war is practically a full time job for several weeks.  Then we got the infestation. New Roommate and I discovered one evening that we have matching insect bites on our ankles and feet.  Cute!  Oh wait, no, it can’t be……BEDBUGS!!!

Paranoia was running wild, and we were convinced that everything simply must be crawling with blood-thirsty arthropods.  We each captured an assailant in action: Black, jumpy, pretty positively fleas, and they’re definitely living indoors.  We don’t have pets, we don’t even have any carpet, and they only seem interested in feet.  What are they going for here, exactly?  We called our landlord, who didn’t believe us at first, but after crawling around the floor with a magnifying glass, forceps and a glass vial collecting a range of specimens, I convinced/scared him enough to pay a visit.

It seems as though order is beginning to prevail again–I finally achieved reasonable internet stability, and while pest control never came, my hydrogen-peroxide-Rambo phase proved rather devastating to flea populations (and every dyed fabric that stood in my way).  Time to get back to some real work.  Bring on the next plague!

I swear if he doesn’t free those Hebrew people I’m calling tenants’ association, this is violating my lease.

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Understanding Bath Salts, Part II (Appendix): Reference

Science can be confusing.  In my last post, I mentioned the endless variety of research chemicals out there.  I wish I could write a 3 part series on each and every one, but there just aren’t enough pictures of Russian leaders on drugs.

Instead, I found a useful chart to help you visualize the greater universe of designer drugs.  It isn’t comprehensive, but it’s great at showing the range of these legal (or newly illegal) compounds and what they do.

Research Chemicals by Class and Effects

Some notes:

  • Ethylphenidate and desoxypipradrol are floating far apart on the chart, but they’re closely related to each other, both being similar to methylphenidate, or Ritalin.
  • Dimethocaine belongs to a group of chemicals related to cocaine.  There are more, but they aren’t too popular.
  • Phenylalkylpyrrolidines are considered cathinones, just a specific subdivision.
  • “Psychedelic amphetamines” are also substituted amphetamines, except with psychedelic (perception altering) effects.  They are usually called psychedelic phenethylamines.
  • The 2C-x drugs are psychedelic phenethylamines as well, and there are many, many more.  Shulgin explains each one in PiHKAL.
  • Phenazepam is a benzodiazepine (a class of common anti-anxiety drugs) used mostly in eastern Europe.  Basically, Soviet Xanax.

“Hello? Is this the KGB? It seems somebody has liberated my trousers.”

Ok, maybe one more.

Until next time, comrades.

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Understanding Bath Salts, Part II: African Flowers and Stalinist Powers

Comrade Hoxha's been hitting the salts.My social function, besides providing living room chemistry lectures and restaurant-floor pill identification, is as the Chief Have-You-Heard-Of-This-Chemical Specialist.

About 2 years ago, a good friend from Northern Virginia employed my services. If you’ve never experienced the DC suburbs, it’s a typical scene. Strip malls, mini vans, and teenagers with huge drug problems.

I’m sorry, did I say huge drug problems? I meant nobody cares because daddy works for the Pentagon.

Anyway, this friend has seen some gratuitous substance abuse, but this time he heard some talk of a new drug. He asked me if I knew what “mephedrone” was, and to the bookshelf we go.

What Is This Stuff?

Mephedrone, and other chemicals (formerly!) sold as “bath salts” are almost always substituted cathinones. Basically, they’re cheap stimulants.

Substituted cathinones are based on a naturally occurring substance called cathinone, found in the khat plant. Khat has a long tradition of both psychoactive and therapeutic use in East Africa and the Arab world, where the leaves are chewed or made into tea.  It’s like coffee, except, you know, way older.

As with many African and Middle Eastern customs, the West decided they didn’t understand it, so it must be funding Somali warlords. At least this was the logic in the US when khat was banned in 1993.

Cathinone and all its derivatives have similar effects. Some synthetic cathinones, like mephedrone, release more serotonin in the brain, causing an “ecstasy-like” response, but they all act as stimulants. Cathinones are accepted to generally be more potent than ephedrine, but less than amphetamine. In fact, when ephedrine was the cool thing to study before WWII, Western chemists took a liking to amphetamines (especially methamphetamine), while the Soviets preferred the milder methcathinone. The USSR marketed methcathinone as an anti-depressant, and experienced the same patterns of abuse that we experience with amphetamines in the USA.

That’s right. The greatest threat to our children and the very fabric of our society: Soviet trucker speed!

Yeltsin and Clinton

“You’re tweaking so hard right now.”

So when you see these guys in lab coats on television telling you how “we have no idea what this drug is” or “nobody knows the effects,” they’re lying, or they don’t deserve that coat. The particular compounds in question have a very short history of human use, and there could be variations that I wouldn’t recommend testing on yourself, but the short-term and long-term effects of chemicals in this class have been well documented and a reasonable hypothesis can be made. Hypertension, insomnia, anxiety, and agitation? Likely. Face-chewing, goat-killing, “LSD-like hallucinations,” and zombie tendencies? Absolutely not. Take dose and personal history of drug reaction into account, then expect relative effects slightly weaker than Adderall.  That’s.  It.

Methcathinone has been illegal since 1993, long before substituted cathinones were an issue. In the golden age of bath salts (over a year before anybody wrote about it), the compounds sold were typically a combination of Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (or MDPV, and if you challenge me to say that 5 times fast you will lose) and the aforementioned mephedrone, the chemical referred to as “meow meow,” or in English, 4-methylmethcathinone.

See what they did there? They took that base, methcathinone, altered it slightly, and boom, a drug with similar or possibly more potent effects than the scheduled original, legal and ready to be sold to the masses.   Um . . . yeah science?

MDPV is a different alteration of the cathinone molecule, but with less serotonin and more norepinephrine. Less happy, more scary. The worst (actually true) stories coming from the “bath salts epidemic” are often attributed to MDPV, but unbeknownst to everybody in the media ever, that “legal drug” being “sold to children right there in every store” has been neither legal nor in stores for a long time.  The DEA scheduled both MDPV and mephedrone in October 2011, and they were permanently banned this July by Chuck Schumer’s synthetic drug legislation, which he called the “final nail in the coffin for legal bath salts.”

Are you kidding me?

First of all, congratulations, you banned already illegal drugs.  Companies selling branded “bath salts” changed their formulas, but they started down the tubes long ago. Synthetic drug laws got too real; between molecular variations and state-to-state differences, staying legal got tricky.  Customers would rather buy clearly labeled products from “research chemical” vendors over some unknown “Ivory Wave” concoction. This way, they knew the exact compound they were buying, they could clearly find laws that applied to them, and sometimes the product even came with a material safety data sheet and purity test results.

You got a little science on your drugs there.

Also, remember that little methcathinone molecule? It was illegal, but with a little cut and paste job, it was back on the market as mephedrone. Those little chemical alterations can infinitely produce new drugs faster than Schumer can say “methylenedioxypyrovalerone.”

The so-called “street chemists,” aside from being the concept for my next Metro station magic act, already replaced mephedrone and MDPV several times over. They’re now developing replacements of the replacements of the replacements. In your driveway!

And what were the chemicals they made?

There was methylone, ethylone, 4-MEC! Eutylone, butylone, and 3-FMC! Flephedrone, brephedrone, bupropion! Pentylone, pentedrone, and. . . Phthalimidopropiophenone?

OK, maybe research chemicals aren’t that whimsical, but infinite nonetheless.

Now stop it, science isn’t as scary as it sounds. Chemistry has always been capable of killing us in a million ways, and humans have always been capable of finding just as many ways to get high. Being cognitive creatures, we have the upper hand in choosing the concepts in chemistry that serve us, even if we can’t control the reaction itself. Above all, we have an instinct to survive. We make mistakes, we find the wrong chemicals, or we use them in the wrong way, but eventually we learn, we spread the information, and suddenly what was once a crazy killer zombie molecule is just another diagram in another book on your shelf, waiting for somebody to ask you if you’ve heard of it.

Join me for the next segment, Part III, where I get more in-depth on law, what we’re wasting time doing, and what we can actually do about this “crisis.”

For now, kill your neighbor’s goat.

I mean, stay informed, and stay safe, friends!

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Understanding Bath Salts, Part I: The Irony of Drugs (or Enjoy Your Semi-Legal Bath)

Remember that time the media completely made up a scary new drug craze that barely existed?

Of course you do, they can’t get enough of it.  Because nothing gets Midwestern soccer moms glued to the screen like a terrifying load of nonsense about the two things they understand the least: drugs and their kids.  The newest assassin of youth: addictive, hallucinogenic, harbinger-of-the-zombie-apocalypse “bath salts”.

First of all, can everybody stop calling it that?  It’s just making the headline readers of the world think that teenagers are dialing the Avon lady to get high.  Sure, at one time there were some psychoactive chemicals sold as “bath salts”, and they were pretty widely available if you knew how to ask, but that was well over a year ago.  No physical establishment sells bath salts anymore, and hasn’t for a very long time.  Some websites still do, but they’ve been mostly replaced by more sophisticated vendors selling “research chemicals.”   That term is a bit absurd too, but at least it’s accurate.  They are chemicals.  They can be researched.  Just not in your nose.

So I present you Part I of a three part series explaining what you should know about bath salts and why you should (still) never believe anything WebMD tells you (it wasn’t Japanese encephalitis after all).

Today, we’re looking at the history and background of synthetic drugs.  So sit down, turn off The View, and for the love of all that’s good and covalent, calm down!

Chemicals: What They Can Do for You, What They Can Do for Science, and What They Can Only Do for TV Ratings

“They said it was like a mix of PCP and LSD.”

I heard this outside my restaurant one night, and my heart cried in the name of chemistry.

Let’s be realistic about drugs for a minute.  They can mess you up, but they do have limits.  Nothing is “like a mix of PCP and LSD”, except an actual mix of PCP and LSD. Dextromethorphan can almost be comparable, but come on, that was so last year’s media-fueled drug panic.

And before you ask, no.  There is no drug on this planet capable of prompting a normal, healthy individual to eat a face.

Furthermore, stop thinking about unfamiliar drugs in terms of the ones you already know.  They are entirely unique compounds, they’re only like themselves.  And there’s nothing “in” them either, except exactly that chemical and various impurities.  There’s no ecstasy in bath salts, there’s no meth in ecstasy (assuming, probably incorrectly, that it’s pure MDMA), and there’s no Drano in meth.  Drano can be used in manufacture, but the only thing in meth is meth, or you’re doing it wrong.  But please, please, don’t do it right.

Anything called “bath salts” is generally a stimulant.  Caffeine is a stimulant, cocaine is a stimulant, the pill you give your kids to focus is a stimulant.  PCP is dissociative.  LSD is psychedelic.  “Hallucinogenic” isn’t even really a thing, and definitely not a thing that can describe any chemical sold as bath salts.  That wouldn’t be too hard for the news to explain, but they won’t.  Because logic doesn’t make you fear for the security of your face.

You don’t need an aching chemist’s heart to understand the basic effects of drugs and make informed decisions, but pharmaceutical companies would never want you to do a silly thing like that.  It would interfere with the whole basis of their operation.

Branding!

If the companies that sell drugs teach you everything you know about them, they have the privilege of making stuff up.  There are some little laws against blatant lies, so you tiptoe around it.  Don’t lie about what the chemical is, just don’t mention it at all.  People are bored by facts, they like personality.  Just give the drug a character, and it won’t matter what it is, everyone will want to be its friend.  Paxil is happy.  You want happy.  Ask your doctor today!

The same strategy is reversed in anti-drug campaigns.  We don’t want you to do this, so don’t complicate things with “research”, just know that these chemicals are the bad guys, they lurk under your bed at night, and they have a secret agenda to slither into your life and destroy you.

Unless of course that same chemical is bought by a corporation, stamped with a trademark, and called “Desoxyn”.  But hey, I’m not here to be the judge of words like good or bad or methamphetamine.

The truth is, drugs don’t have personalities or agendas. They don’t have friends. Most of the time they won’t even return your phone calls.  Every drug is complex, it reacts differently with different people, and there can be a wide range of effects, positive and negative, depending on dose.  If you eat too many “bath salts”, you might die, but you can die from eating too many actual bath salts, too.

For example, let’s look at a drug that’s both therapeutic and recreational: dextroamphetamine.  It’s an effective treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder, but it also has a very high potential for abuse.   Like every other drug, it has a threshold dose, where it starts to cause desired effects, an overdose, where it starts to make you sick or impaired, and a more concrete number, the LD50, where it kills half of you, or in less MySpace-goth terms, it was lethal for 50% of the lab rats tested.  The LD50 for d-amphetamine is 96.8 milligrams per kilogram of body mass, rather high when the prescribed dose is usually 5-30 mg, however overdose ranges very close to threshold.  Simply put, it’s easy to get high and a lot harder to die.  Perfect for a drug of abuse.

The difference is, while these drugs have tried and true dosage patterns, users of these new legal drugs barely have a reference, only a faceless online vendor who is telling you how to not consume it (wink).  Mistakes are made because nobody is providing the right information, not because the drug had a diabolical plot.  Bath salts didn’t want to kill those kids in the news stories.  Nobody would want George Stephanopoulos to win that easily.

A (Very) Brief History of Designer Drugs

That’s another term I can’t stand.  Designer drugs.  It acknowledges the specialized quality, but it makes complex chemicals sound like Gucci purses.  In all fairness, you can probably buy cheap knockoffs of both from the back of that sketchy Russian guy’s van.

Designer drugs are as old as drug design itself.  Some people start their history around the time of crack, but you’ve all seen the PeeWee Herman PSA, so I won’t get into it.  I’ll start with a special chemist who I admire for reasons very different than those of anyone holding glow sticks.  Meet Sasha:

Meet Sasha!

Alexander Shulgin is a psychedelic folk hero.  He’s also a man who pours his soul into science so profoundly that even an agent from the DEA once told me that his book brought her to tears.  That book was PiHKAL, a beautiful narrative co-authored with his wife, Ann, about their love and the art of chemistry.

Oh, it also gives explicit instructions for manufacturing Ecstasy.

Dr. Shulgin is best known for rediscovering an old discarded Merck patent for MDMA and exploring the compound for its therapeutic value (testing it on himself in careful incremental doses), calling the drug “Empathy”.  And he might have been on to something; studies today continue to confirm its effective use in psychotherapy for PTSD and anxiety.  Still debatable is its use in making dubstep sound like real music.

MDMA is perhaps the most famous research chemical (it actually was a chemical for real research) that became a legal drug pandemic after drug dealers at night clubs learned they could make a big profit with little consequence. But Sasha’s work here isn’t done.  Dr. Shulgin is also the designer behind a great deal of the designer drugs gaining popularity now. He synthesized, tested, and published his findings on several of these “plant foods” and “bath salts” (he absolutely did not use those terms, this is real science) many, many years ago, effectively setting the foundation for a whole world of legal highs. PiHKAL (with its sequel, TiHKAL) is the gold standard for synthetic psychoactive reference and the first book I pull from the shelf when asked about a new “bath salt”.  My copy is personally signed by Newt Gingrich.  I wish I was kidding.

Now Shulgin didn’t invent the entire getting-high-with-science idea so please don’t start blaming him, he’s just a scientist who wants to grow some cacti and teach people to love.  Blame ravers for taking therapy drugs out of context.

The concept behind bath salts isn’t surprising, people will always find new ways to alter their minds and most prefer to avoid legal issues.  There were PCP and LSD analogues in the 70s, ketamine and fentanyl-like opiates in the 80s, and even alcohol alternatives during prohibition.  With the power of the internet today, there’s a whole catalog of other legal chemicals that anybody can get their hands on: opiates, dissociatives, sedatives, steroids, and of course, the salts’ sister-terror, “spice.”

Remember how I told you to calm down?

Coming up in Part II, I get down to chemical business with what these drugs actually are, and later in Part III, I’ll talk about the law, the politics, and what is to be done.

Stay tuned my friends, and remember, don’t eat anything you don’t trust, whether mystery stimulant, or doctor-prescribed mystery stimulant.

Until next time, hold to your faces.

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Burn Your Apron: Resume Tips for the Underemployed Scientist

You’re smart.  You’re talented.  You’re versatile.  You’re educated.  You’re waiting tables.

Your resume sucks.

I know.  Against the stifling forces of small town Appalachia, I made a break for DC to chase that ticket to the promised land, a diploma.   I graduated with honors from an amazing university, collected a diverse portfolio of school projects, volunteered for some great causes, but of course I had to pay for it.  Enter the twin sirens of career delay: retail and food service.  Pretty soon I found myself yearning for the professional world.  I saw Maria Parrotta, as the doctor or the reporter or the person who discovers 3 cures for cancer, a handful of planets, and reconstructed a human brain entirely from pig cells.  Unfortunately, my lack of experience gave the world a different impression.

Maria Parrotta, as the Eternal Busboy.

Through my journey, I’ve collected some resume dos and don’ts for the young dreamer who’s ready to throw in the kitchen towel and start a brand new career in medical science.
 
 
DO:
Think about your transferable skills.  Compare what you gained from food service to what you want to do.  What have you learned about communicating, multi-tasking, teamwork, and meeting deadlines?

DON’T:
Stretch the comparison too far.  Avoid referring to pharmacy technicians as “the busboys of the medical industry.”
 
 
 
DO:
Use strong words like “lead”, “accomplish”, and “analyze” to illustrate daily tasks and communicate your future desires.  Action verbs and precise language show that you have passion for everything you do.

DON’T:
Use strong words like “desperate”, “starving”, or “pharmacoterrorist”.
 
 
 
DO:
Mention language skills that your Spanish –speaking coworkers taught you.  Informal education can be far more valuable than classroom experience when using conversational language with patients.

DON’T:
Provide a full list of the words they taught you.  Even if you consider it a “physiological term”.
 
 
 
DO:
Discuss your volunteer work in relevant scientific or health-related subjects, like malaria prevention or medical marijuana advocacy in states (or Districts of Columbia) with successful legislation.

DON’T:
Talk about your volunteer work in pro-smoking advocacy, zombie virus prevention, or medical 2C-B.
 
 
Here’s an example of how to (and not to) demonstrate your objectives and skills.

DO:
Maria Parrotta
Russian language graduate seeking an opportunity to apply an international education and five years’ customer service work to a career in medical interpretation.
Skills and Qualifications:

  • Excellence in immersion environment:  3.9 semester average at Russian university.
  • Understanding of medical terminology: dedicated student in post-graduate pharmacy program.
  • Efficiency in communication:  trained new employees while serving over 50 customers in a high volume restaurant.

DON’T:
Maria Parrotta
Seeking a job that appreciates my knowledge of Star Wars trivia, where I use microscopes and wear a lab coat. Can I wear a lab coat?
Skills and Qualifications:

  • Served martinis to a former member of Minor Threat this one time.
  • Lit myself on fire shooting homemade rockets on the fourth of July.
  • Proven record of never, ever falling asleep in church.
  • Contributor to the web’s leading source of information about gesticulating singer/biologists, Greg Graffin Pointing at Things.

 
So you see, resume writing is a matter of presentation.  All the above statements are true about me, but a good resume demonstrates my most relevant and favorable skills (notice how I didn’t choose my record of giggling in church).  Conjure up all your confidence.  If you can sell overpriced liquor after happy hour, you can sell yourself.

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