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Full Review
Novel Psychoactive Substances: Classification, Pharmacology and Toxicology
by Paul Dargan & David Wood (Eds.)
Academic Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 2/19/2016

Mark Twain is reported to have said: “Those of you inclined to worry have the widest selection in history.” These days, the same sentiment can be expressed about those inclined to get high. Never before in all of human history has such a range and variety of psychoactive substances been available for consumption. Beginning with the publication of PIHKAL in 1991, the lid to Pandora’s box has flung wide open, and more marvels and monsters of experimental psychopharmacology pour forth each year. From the celebrity-slaying “designer drugs” of the Eighties and Nineties, to their more dignified recent designation as “research chemicals”, to the potpourri of colorfully marketed “legal highs”, the milieu of novel psychoactive molecules grows and transforms, spitting out new compounds and evolving new means for their dissemination and distribution. For those whose job is attempting to police and control this explosion, it is a wide selection for worry indeed.

Individuals on either side of the drug-war fence interested to learn in greater detail the positions and perspectives of “the man” (as it were) on the state of modern research chemicals and their vicissitudes now can turn to 2013’s multidisciplinary anthology Novel Psychoactive Substances: Classification, Pharmacology and Toxicology . The book contains within a single volume a broad selection of the current state of official awareness of the shadow-world of what some heads are calling “The Great Shapes War”—the push and pull grey-market arms race between lawmakers and regulators on one side, and maverick chemists and distributors on the other, to either prohibit or promote the availability of certain molecular “shapes” in the sculpting of human consciousness and experience.

To be sure, this is not a book written by, or for, the sort of person most likely to be reading this review. Indeed, the position of an Erowid reviewer reading Novel Psychoactive Substances feels a bit like an armchair version of the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which Hunter Thompson stumbles into a conference of ranking cops from across the nation with a suitcase full of contraband and a sleep deficit visible from space. I am not, to put it mildly, the volume’s target audience. Indeed, Novel Psychoactive Substances, introduced as being “essential reading and a valuable resource for any scientist, clinician, policy maker or law enforcement professional wanting to become more familiar with…the most important contemporary development in the drug field,” is a book written by and for people for whom drugs exist as a social problem and nothing else.

Novel Psychoactive Substances is a troubling volume to read on several levels. The world it attempts to describe is murky, confusing and in many cases legitimately dangerous. The fact of the matter is that every day, all around the world, people are exposing themselves to chemical compounds with absolutely zero history of human use, whose long-term (or for that matter even short-term) effects have yet to be, and in many instances may never be, fully studied. Moreover, many of those choosing to expose themselves to these new generations of research chemicals, regardless of how well informed they might be, often have no way to tell whether the substance they have been given, sold or had mailed to them from a laboratory halfway across the globe is even the substance it claims to be. People have been hurt. People have died. But that, of course, is only part of the picture. Users of novel psychoactive substances have also enjoyed good times, undergone formative experiences, grown spiritually and been healed profoundly. What then, out of the blizzard of information, and in many cases misinformation (thank you, “Bath Salt Zombies”) can the curious head looking for a more informed approach to experimentation with the explosively expanding domain of chemical modalities available in the modern era expect to glean from a perusal of Novel Psychoactive Substances?

For one thing, you can learn how difficult it is for the powers that be to deal with the situation, or even wrap their minds around the parameters, variables and defining features of the matter at hand. The book begins with a discussion of the intensely confusing issue of how to legally define (and therefore legislate) what a “drug” is. Different countries use, have tried to use, or are coming up with new systems all the time, such as the United State’s often clunky Analogue Act. (As fair warning, Novel Psychoactive Substances is a UK publication and tends to focus, though is in no way limited to, the European theatre of drug policy operations.) The problem is that while it might seem appealing to simply declare molecular root shapes held in common by certain classes of drugs illegal, the fact of the matter is that those same basic shapes are shared by numerous “legitimate” substances used in medical and in some cases industrial research. As such, regulatory agencies such as the FDA or its European cousins are faced with the constant headache of trying to create imaginary boundaries around abstract chemical classes and families that will fence off the “naughty” ones without posing roadblocks to important (and often lucrative) interest in closely related molecules with which they share a family resemblance. Indeed, much of the content of Novel Psychoactive Substances, despite its best efforts, merely ends up highlighting what folly it is to create an artificial conceptual category like “illegal drugs” and then attempt to treat it like a literal container with respect to which a given molecule is either “inside” or “outside.” No such luck.

Novel Psychoactive Substances goes on to include, as advertised, a fairly broad range of topics from a variety of disciplines. There is information on what the powers that be can figure out concerning the availability and distribution of research chemicals (both above and below ground), epidemiology reports and a noteworthy paper on the social issues surrounding the use of NPSs (as the book designates them). The book contains material on analytic techniques for the detection of NPSs as well as a collection of papers on what little—in most cases—is known about the pharmacology and toxicology of any of the individual substances covered in the book. To give an idea of the general ballpark covered here, that list includes mephedrone and its substituted cathinone kin, synthetic cannabinoid agonists (“Spice”, JWH-18, et al.), piperazines (BZP), 2C-series phenethylamines, 4-substituted amphetamines, the FLY-series benzodifurans (“Bromo-dragonFLY”) and benzofurans (6-APB), novel trypamines from 5-MeO-DMT to 4-HO-MET), methoxetamine, MDPV, and so forth…the multifarious “alphabet soup” of molecular shapes that have sprung up in the last ten years or more. The volume also covers synthetic substances such as ketamine, along with plant-based products such as kratom, Amanita muscaria, or Salvia divinorum, about which nothing can be said to be “novel” save official awareness.

As with the section on attempts at legal classification, what stands out in the pharmacology and toxicology studies presented in Novel Psychoactive Substances is more the negative space of what isn’t there than the positive space of what is. In addition to the obvious and explicit lack of research-based knowledge about the great majority of the compounds and substances discussed, for the most part the contributors to Novel Psychoactive Substances seem united in a profound lack of awareness of the effects of these substances as an experience. Indeed, for many of the contributors, while many types of information or data are considered admissible, actual first-hand accounts are relegated to the dustbin of “anecdotal” accounts. In this sense, the viewpoints presented represent a classic case of the struggle between 3rd person “objective” and 1st person “subjective” approaches to knowledge. On the one hand, the rationale used in almost every case for the dismissal of first-person accounts is fair: outside of controlled, clinical trials, none of the individuals self-reporting can be 100% sure that what they took was what they thought they’d taken. On the other hand, as was shown in an exemplary fashion in Jon Hanna’s article in Erowid Extracts #23 (see Aliens, Insectoids, and Elves! Oh, My!), while individual accounts gathered outside of clinical settings can always be called into question, nevertheless there is a tremendous amount of information that can be gained through statistical analysis of large populations of experience reports.

Indeed, for the most part, the contributions to Novel Psychoactive Substances show little to no awareness of the variety and range of NPS experiences, going so far as in some cases to, say, lump Salvia divinorum in alongside 4-methylmethcathinone without any discussion of the night and day differences between them. This again being indicative of the fact that for most of the contributors to the volume, a drug is a drug is a drug. Many of the later sections given over to individual NPS properties and toxicology seem similarly addled. The section on “novel” tryptamines, for instance, comes off as particularly brain-dead, listing as it does kratom alongside 5-MeO-DMT as, somehow, both being representative of the same drug class (tryptamines, sort of). It may be true that they both share some root chemical structure, but… seriously?

For an Erowid reader, the highlight of the volume is sure to be the chapter by Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at Durham University, titled “Social Issues in the Use of Novel Psychoactive Substances”. Measham is to be commended on her paper, the only one in this volume which bothers to do things like interview subjects who work in the field, or which deigns to consider either that (a) people might have legitimate reasons for using psychedelics; or (b) prohibition might not work. Among the many excellent points the paper brings up, perhaps most damning is the fact that many vendors of NPSs would greatly prefer to be able to include dosage guidelines and safety information, but are prevented from doing so by legislation which forces them to disingenuously label products as “not for human consumption” so as to avoid prosecution. The entire reason for being of entities such as the FDA was supposed to be to prevent the unscrupulous from selling snake oil to the unwary. As matters currently rest in their prohibitionist stance, it has become impossible to be a vendor of anything but snake oil. This is a serious point, especially taken in light of some of the grim consequences of user ignorance. One of the most upsetting accounts in Novel Psychoactive Substances is that of a 29-year-old man who died after his boyfriend administered him a dose of 5-MeO-DiPT roughly ten times higher than the amount (informally) considered normal. It makes this reviewer’s fists clench to think that the information that could have prevented this tragedy was suppressed by a legal system ostensibly set up to ensure the health and safety of its citizens.

In conclusion, it would seem that while there is great NPS availability, there is yet no culture for curating them. Apart from websites such as this one, there is little in the way of lay-accessible media. At the most recent MAPS conference in 2013, only one presenter, the great pioneer psychopharmacologist David Nichols, had anything to say on the subject (check out his excellent lecture at the MAPS website). While many NPS have great potential to be used as transformative medicines or simply as good times, the trouble remains that many of the people clever enough to order bulk powders off the Internet are not clever enough to, say, figure out how to do a basic unit conversion when apportioning doses. Whatever one’s position with regards to NPSs, the fact remains that there are only going to be more out there, year after year, and it is incumbent on the drug geek community to learn the skills to facilitate safety and to make healthy choices. Let’s not have any more dead boyfriends out there, folks.

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