18 February 2013

I’m Waiting for my UPS Man

There are two websites where you can add a gram of heroin to your shopping cart as if you were buying asparagus on Fresh Direct. One belongs to Sigma-Aldrich, the St. Louis chemical company that synthesizes pure opioids for use in laboratory studies. For this you need to be a federally accredited laboratory. The other is Silk Road, the anonymous marketplace where drugs are priced in untraceable Bitcoin currency. For this you just need an internet connection.

Most of us do so much online shopping, and the interface has become so standardized, that the bland machinery of ecommerce is part of the texture of our waking lives: clicking “add to shopping cart” is like flicking a light switch. So although you might be perturbed if a salesperson offered you heroin from behind a department store counter, the aesthetic of the product page makes the transaction seem instantly mundane. Really, the only surprise is that Amazon hasn’t gotten into the game already. It’s strange to recall that rock music once made the act of buying drugs sound as mythically cool as the act of taking them. Today, Lou Reed would go to Silk Road instead of Lexington and 125th, and the man he’d be waiting for a week later would be totally unwitting, and from UPS.

Silk Road got a lot of publicity in 2011 for its heroin and LSD offerings; most of the websites that sell recreational drugs specialize in experimental compounds imported from China, still legal or quasi-legal because no legislative body can possibly keep up with an enterprising chemist. However, to dodge broader regulations about what you can encourage people to put in their bodies, most of these drugs are advertised under some other category: bath salts, plant food, pool cleaner. Like the ecommerce interface itself, the product pages are redolent of dull domestic life. So far, the most popular of these drugs is mephedrone (not to be confused with methadone), a substitute for MDMA that arrived in the UK in around 2009 and in the US last year. Mephedrone became famous in the British tabloids as “Meow Meow,” a “street name” that turned out to have been the invention of a lone Wikipedia user. It’s now been banned almost everywhere, after being implicated in a handful of deaths (and one notorious face-eating, which later turned out to have nothing to do with it). But dozens of its relatives still count as legal highs.

While Silk Road is like eBay, many of the websites offering “research chemicals” are more like Zappos: full-featured specialist retailers that operate openly and expect to be around for long enough that it’s worth investing in customer retention. These websites don’t just have shopping carts and checkouts: they also have user reviews, product alerts, seasonal sales and multiple worldwide delivery options. (“Really great product these pellets are. compared to the “o5” pellets, and the 6apb powder ive had from numerous sources, these absolutely blew me away. 2 pellets made for an amazing reaction, the 5apb adds SO much to the mix. Also, top notch customer support and service, as usual. Shipped same day. rc-lab is always a pleasure to do business with.”) We all know from The Wire that drug dealers have learned a lot from the marketing techniques of legitimate businesses. But the timing of their seasonal sales, for instance, doesn’t quite make sense: it’s not as if you need to clear out all your heavy winter junk to make way for the graceful new spring collections. One wonders if the retailers are so delighted with their off-the-shelf e-commerce platforms that they’ve decided to imitate more mainstream websites by any other means that occur to them.


There is, however, one area in which they really fall down, and that’s friendliness to the newbie. Methoxetamine, methiopropamine, ethylphenidate, etizolam, benzofuran, camfetamine, pentedrone—who can keep up? The merchants can give you the best customer service in the world, but the one thing they can’t do is explain the effect of these drugs and how much you might want to swallow, because, remember, they’re only selling plant food. Could it be that, just when it seemed like the internet was robbing the drug world of all its dangerous glamor, the problem’s actually just been flipped upside down? In the old days, you knew what you wanted but didn’t know where to get it. In 2013, you can get almost anything but have no idea what it is.

That is, if you want anything at all. The UK edition of Vice magazine is basically the Martha Stewart Living of recreational drug abuse, but even there, you won’t find much hype any more. One of the editors wrote recently, “When was the last time you took a mysterious chemical that made your life better? Over the past few years, all the new drugs that have cropped up have been horrible. None of them work until you’re actually addicted to them, the comedowns last for about sixteen weeks, and every time you go to sleep, you get night terrors and think that you’re going to die.” One reason for the frequent clearance sales on these websites may be that a lot of these drugs only have a short period of commercial viability before word gets around about how grim they are. I’ve even heard the Zizekian theory that products like mephedrone are a sort of delayed act of vengeance for the East India Company’s aggressive trade in opium: two hundred years later, the Chinese finally get to sell a debilitating narcotic back to the British. In 2010, undercover reporters from the Daily Mail visited a “filthy Shanghai laboratory” where legal highs were synthesized right next to “heart-disease drugs” and “fake Viagra”—from the start, the new chemical underground goes hand in hand with middle-aged tedium.

Still, if you are truly determined to experiment with this stuff, then you will find that the merchants have their necessary counterparts: message boards that translate the specials that are untranslated on their menus. These message boards are enthralling even if you’ve never taken drugs in your life, because, like William Gibson novels, they make you feel as though you’ve jumped twenty minutes into the future. Some of their users are evidently trained chemists, while the rest are enthusiastic autodidacts, rather like Victorian gentleman scientists, so there is much talk of moieties, isomers, and chiral centers, as well as debate about the best cheap microgram scales. On the message boards, the pursuit of pleasure is coldly pragmatic, with none of the hippie transcendentalism you sometimes find on older sites like Erowid. Here, no one gives a shit about Terence McKenna and his elves.


When we talk about the deglamorization of heroin, we normally have in mind films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream—heroin as aestheticized nightmare—“outstaring death,” as Edward St. Aubyn sardonically characterized it, “returning with the scars and medals of a haunting knowledge, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Leary.” But on the message boards, heroin for the most part comes across as an obscure hobby that takes up way too much free time. People start threads asking about the most “heroin-friendly city” in the US; hard tar versus soft tar; picking your cuticles too much between injections. There’s no secrecy, no rebellion, and no post-punk soundtrack. It’s an opium den with Ikea furniture and very bright lights. These forums do what no government anti-drug campaign has ever been able to accomplish: they make hard drugs seem boring.

Once in a while, though, the stakes get raised. In October 2009, an administrator posted a thread with the subject line “If you have ordered 2C-B-fly from Haupt-RC, then your life may be in danger.” He explained that an acquaintance of his, a 22-year-old man from Copenhagen with the online handle “Minimal,” had died after taking 18 mg of a substance imported from a wholesaler in China. Minimal was not only a forum user himself, he was also a small-time online vendor, and in the five days between making the compound available on his site and accidentally ending his own life he had sent out “an unknown number of orders around the world.” Soon afterward, there were reports from San Jose, California of another death from the same batch, which in subsequent laboratory tests would turn out to have been a mislabeled hallucinogen called Bromo-DragonFLY mixed with various lethal impurities. Warnings about new products are seen every so often on the forums, but this was the first time that, in some sense, the message board itself was the disaster site.

The two hundred replies that followed the original post are worth reading because they constitute such a genuine report on what the internet has done to drug culture. By post 9, someone has uploaded a photo of a 500mg bag of the compound to help out others who thought they might have bought some. By post 14, someone is complaining about a Wikipedia editor taking down information about Minimal’s death on the basis that, the editor claimed, “Wikipedia is not a newswire or a drug advice center, it is an encyclopedia.” By post 24, someone is asking for advice about how to convince his friends to throw away their stash of the drug: “These are Texans we’re talking about here, I need hard data.” By post 60, the high-level chemical discussion has begun: “The RC vendor’s website’s structure for the so called 2cbfly indicated saturation on the outer furan rings.” By post 62, two friends of the man who died in San Jose have arrived to tell their stories. By post 111, someone has uploaded a photo of their DIY Marquis reagent test on the compound, and by post 157, someone has uploaded a graph of the gas chromotography-mass spectrometry data from a Spanish drug analysis organization called Energy Control.

The superabundance of information that’s now accreting around drug use will no doubt save a few (or more than a few) lives. But there’s also something paradoxical about it, because drugs are, by their nature, anti-informational. Rationality trickles off them like water off Gore-Tex. One of the most common reasons people give for staying off psychoactives is that they don’t want to lose their sense of self-control. And surely all this online scholasticism is on some level an attempt to wrest some of that control back.

But it’s a futile attempt. Proust once suggested that no matter how much we educate ourselves about medicine, we will still find it impossible to make sense of what’s going on in our bodies when we’re ill, because our interiority is just a glimmer in a fathomless expanse of shadow. Illness, he wrote, makes us “recognise that we are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us, with no knowledge of us, and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood.” Drugs are the same. We can pretend all we like that buying them is just like buying a new TV, but when our neurotransmitters start vomiting catecholamines, that’s one of the few things in our lives that still take place entirely and irretrievably offline. 

There is another drug you can buy online. It’s a little mean sometimes, and dangerous, but the aftereffects are mostly salutary and it won’t lead to the Feds breaking down your door (not that they won’t want to). Get it here.

Image: Image copyright (c) 2010 by J. Peter Siriprakorn

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