20,000 Hits a Day
Designer drugs on the Internet
The Clearinghouse: Erowid.org
When Josh Robbins first wanted to learn more about 2C-T-7, he logged onto Erowid.org, a New Agey site that tries to "document the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives." Launched in 1996 by two Web designers who call themselves Earth and Fire, Erowid specializes in first-person narratives, written by drug users. There are also scientific papers and recipes for every drug in the book -- not just exotic psychedelics like T-7 but also hard narcotics such as crack and heroin.
Only lately has the site, which logs around 20,000 hits a day, matured into a full-time operation. With that power comes a sense of responsibility. "The choice we struggle with daily is whether to keep information away from people using these substances," says Earth. "Or to publish information that could, and probably will, be misunderstood by at least a few."
Usually, they publish, and at least some people don't seem to mind. When I asked officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy about T-7, they didnt have much to say -- except to refer me to Erowid.org.
Designer-Drug Death By Mark Boal
"A Journey Into The Designer-Drug Underground"
By the time seventeen-year-old Joshua Robbins was brought to Memphis' St. Francis Hospital in the early hours of April 2nd, 2000, he was already gone, his lifeless body dragged into the brightly lit emergency room by two recent acquaintances: George Caruso, in his early twenties, and Eric Friedman, in his early thirties - fixtures, like Josh, of Memphis' small, tightknit rave scene. Josh was naked except for a pair of bloody jeans bunched around his ankles, and he had cuts all over his head, hands and feet. On his death certificate, the coroner would scribble, "Took too many drugs in too short a time." And that was that - another tragic drug death, a victim of Ecstasy or something like it.
Yet Josh was an unlikely candidate for a fatal drug overdose. In Cordova, Tennessee, a Bible-thumping Memphis suburb with tract houses and tidy lawns, where Josh lived with his parents and three younger siblings, drugs don't often kill kids who can quote Ecclesiastes. But Josh lost his life experimenting with a little-known psychedelic, 2C-T-7, a perfectly legal research compound sold via the Internet.
T-7, sometimes called 7-Up or Tripstasy for the way its effects are described as resembling a cocktail of Ecstasy and LSD, is perhaps one of the most potent and legendary compounds to have emerged from the designer-drug underground. It was, like MDMA, originally synthesized to aid psychological research, but during the past two years or so, T-7 has slowly infiltrated the mainstream, mostly through the rave scene and through various Web postings.
Gram for gram, T-7 is a dozen times more psychoactive than mescaline, but government agencies are barely aware of it. The Office of National Drug Control Policy's Web site catalogs an extensive list of drugs but does not mention T-7. The Drug Enforcement Administration has never busted anyone for buying or selling it and says the drug is "under review."
While users have raved about its mellow and sparkling hallucinogenic qualities, T-7 is also highly dangerous in ways that are still not understood. In addition to Josh, at least two people in the last sixteen months have died from overdosing. Unofficially, there's growing concern among government officials about these deaths.
"It's another one of those damn synthetics," says Kate Malliarakis, branch chief of specific drugs, Office of Demand Reduction, at ONDCP. "It's not a nationwide epidemic yet. But I say 'yet,' because everytime I say it's not going anywhere, it does."
George Caruso's first contact with T-7 was considerably milder than Josh's. He'd read about in the book PiHKAL and was intrigued by it's description of a "good and friendly and wonderful" new drug. When jlfcatalog.com, a Web site Caruso often visited, offered T-7 for sale, he sent a check immediately.
I visit Caruso at his home in Memphis' upscale suburb at Germantown. Caruso wears his brown hair long to match his long goatee. The night he clicked on jlfcatalog.com, he was sitting in his room on the second floor, illuminated by the glow of his computer monitor - and the even brighter glow of black-light posters that featured wizards and goblins engaged in fairy-tale heroics. This is where Josh Robbins came looking for T-7. "He was a pretty smart guy," Caruso says, recalling that night. "He was funny. I think we joked a little. But I didn't know him very well; he wasn't a friend or anything."
When I ask whether he feels guilty, Caruso assumes an air of cool insouciance and begins to speak expansively, almost philosophically, about the unpredictability of psychedelics. He says they place great stress on unbalanced personalities: "I believe there are some people who are not really grounded. And when they trip, they can fly off. Then they come down and they look for a place to land, and there isn't one. That feeling can be very scary for some people. It's documented that it can scare people to death. I think Josh died of fright. He scared himself to death."
I ask whether he could remember what he'd told Josh before he sold the dose. "If you want, I can show you exactly what I did," he says. He pulls a Tupperware container from a shelf and withdraws a small plastic baggie. At the bottom, and clinging to the sides, is about a sugar packet's worth of off-white powder: a gram of T-7. "I need to read you this," Caruso told Josh that night, glancing at a sheet of paper that came from jlfcatalog.com. "'You agree that this is an experimental raw material and that you will not ingest or insert it in your body in any way. Do you agree?'"
Caruso goes to his bookshelf and pulls down an industrial-looking scale - sort of a glass box covering a metal plate, with an LCD screen. As I lean in to get a closer look at the scale, the numbers on the screen flicker. "It's sensitive to air currents," Caruso says. "This is one of the most accurate scales you can buy. It costs a couple grand." Then Caruso painstakingly places flakes of T-7 onto the scale using a small spoon. He stops when the screen reads twenty milligrams. At this point in the transaction, Caruso recalls that Josh had asked for "a little extra." A lot had happened since then, and Caruso can't remember exactly how much extra he'd added, but he's "pretty sure" it was no more than a "tiny bit." He told Josh not to snort the T-7.
Though Caruso seems almost sanguine about Josh's death, his girlfriend, a crunchy, soulful young woman of eighteen with an almost inaudible way of speaking, who'd sat quietly for the duration of our interview, tells me in private that Josh's death had "freaked him out" considerably. And before I left Caruso, there is an incident that hints at the social cost he was paying for Josh's death. We're sitting in a local bar when a stocky guy with a crew cut stumbles over to our table, nearly spilling his beer as he sits down in a chair no one offered. His face is set in a hostile grimace.
"Heard you're in trouble," he grumbleds to Caruso.
"Is that right?" Caruso replies.
"Yeah, I heard it was your stuff that killed Robbins."
"Is that right?"
The guy presses ahead. Was it true? Did he kill Josh Robbins?
Slowly, causually, cool as can be, Caruso replies, "No, man, it's not. And, listen, if you don't mind, we're just about... to... have... our... dinner." The inquisitor doesn't look convinced, but just the same, he apologizes.
When psychedelic web sites were crackling with talk of T-7 in the early months of 2000, Josh Robbins was one of the many teens who caught wind of the fad. Researching drugs was something he liked to do, and he took particular care to acquaint himself with psychedelics and the leading psychedelic Web site, erowid.org. He kept terse notes on the political controversies surrounding magic mushrooms, LSD and Ecstasy on 3x5 index cards, which he carried around in his backpack wherever he went.
Josh was born on October 11th, 1983, into working-class family in Memphis. His father, Eddie, a thickly muscled man with a buzz cut and a thin mustache, is a store manager at a Kroger supermarket and an artillery major in the Tennessee Army National Guard. His mother, Melanie, a cheerful woman with brown bangs and a ready smile, works for Hallmark as a greeting-card distributor. Josh spent his early childhood in Arkansas, where his primary interest was athletics. A fast, lanky youth he excelled at football and had the strongest arm of anyone on his baseball team.
When he was fourteen, Josh moved back to Tennessee, where he enrolled in a Memphis-area school that blended home schooling with on-campus test-taking. One of his supervisors there, Rita McConnico, gave him the name Clip Boy because Josh clipped - the school's word for finishing a subject - so quickly and with such high marks that he was on track to become valedictorian. "Right away, we recognized that this boy was very intelligent," says McConnico. "He took one algebra test and his answer came out different from the answer key. Well, it turned out he was right and the key was wrong." His plans were to attend the University of Memphis and eventually earn a Ph.D.
To adults, Josh was invariably polite, soft-spoken and clean-cut. His mother recalls that Josh brushed his teeth, washed his hands and did his laundry without ever being told. "He was almost a perfectionist about the way he looked," McConnico says. But to his friends, Josh presented a different face. He was still the same soft-spoken youth, but he also drank hard, smoked pot constantly and, in the years leading up to his encounter with T-7, dealt a variety of drugs. Josh was a popular member of Memphis' rave circuit, in part because he was smart and funny, but it didn't hurt that he was always willing to share his ready supply of pot. "When Josh said he wasn't carrying," says Josh's cousin Micah Karr, "that meant he had a quarter ounce in his backpack."
Josh smoked pot for the first time on Christmas Day when he was thirteen. "I remember we were out back of my grandmother's house," recalls Karr, a skinny young man who slouches when he talks. "Josh had made this pipe and somehow got his hands on a bit of skank. You know, we were kids, experimenting with all the shit we could find." Karr remembers getting seriously buzzed, while Josh said over and over that the pot had no effect.
"He was always saying nothing affected him," says Karr, who is now nineteen. "I would be just messed up and tripping my balls off, and he would be like, 'Well, I'm not feeling anything.' I don't know if it was true, but he was saying it." Whenever he tripped on LSD, Josh always took more than anyone else. "He would eat, like, ten hits," Karr says. "Crazy stuff." On two occasions, acid trips left Josh ranting and raving, and once he had to be hospitalized.
Concerned about his son, Eddie Robbins tried to intervene. He confronted Josh after Josh was found with a small bag of marijuana and told him to stop. But the boy was argumentative and said that God put herb on the plant for man to use. Frustrated, Eddie called the cops and turned Josh in. Looking back, Eddie says he still believes involving the law was the best thing for Josh at the time: "I knew he was dealing, and I wanted him to bottom out before he hit eighteen."
By the time he was fifteen, Josh was living with his grandmother and had gotten into the acid business. He'd buy sheets of it from a friend and then turn around and sell the individual doses at slightly higher prices. Before long, he hooked up with a local big-time acid dealer who carried around briefcases of liquid vials. This dealer would front Josh acid at nearly wholesale prices, for pennies a hit. "Then Josh would turn around and sell those for, like, five dollars," Karr says. "That's when he started making the real money." At the year's end, Josh decided to count his profits. He spread all his money out on his bed and counted it. It came to $5,000. He was so proud that he took a picture of the pile of cash and showed it to his cousin.
But before he could enjoy his gains, Josh landed in jail. The police, acting on an anonymous tip, caught him with marijuana. Since it was his second offense, Josh served a ninety-day sentence in a juvenile detention center, and the incarceration seemed to cause a change of heart. He began reading the Bible, studying for his ACTs and telling his parents he'd given up drugs for good. In a letter home, he wrote, "I finished Ecclesiastes yesterday, and today I started reading about Joseph, starting with Chapter 37." After his release, Josh served a thirty-day period of home detention, but as soon as that ended he was back in the mix, quickly re-establishing the ties he had before the bust. Karr remembers picking Josh up the day he was allowed to leave his house for the first time: "He'd just gotten out, and he had forty hits of acid on him."
Just as Josh was learning about T-7 online, a friend of his sampled it and gave a stunning report about the drug's "cartoon visuals." The friend, who requested anonymity, said Josh was eager to try it, and only a few days later, he got his chance. At a small house party, Josh met George Caruso. "I remember Josh came up to me and asked me some things about it." Caruso says. "He was really well-informed, and we talked for a while. There was a girl he liked, and I told him he should go on and talk to her. He offered me some hash, and it was pretty good - sticky, well-hammered." Caruso declined the hash but alluded to knowing how to make T-7.
A month later, Josh started a new job at a computer technical-support company named Stream. He got the job through a friend he met on the party circuit: Eric Friedman, a folk guitarist and songwriter, who was born in Memphis and educated at New York University. He was also, as he puts it, a former "facilitator" of Ecstasy transactions. Josh and Friedman became friends, in no small part, Josh's other friends say, because Friedman had enough Ecstasy lying around to front Josh large batches, which he'd then turn around and sell.
Friedman, who is now in a recovery program, has a different recollection. "I liked Josh," he says. "He was a very smart guy. He looked up to me, and in a funny way that was a good feeling. But we also hung out because he could get me drugs."
In a clinical sense, what happened the night Josh Robbins died is that he snorted a massive dose of T-7, which, combined with the lingering aftereffects of other drugs in his system, put more pressure on his heart than it could bear. The details are far more harrowing. Friedman's recollections of the night Josh died are extremely precise in some portions and vauge in others. "I was tripping for twelve hours, the last seven of which I was watching somebody die," he says, calling from a halfway house in California. "I couldn't imagine something that horrible, even if I tried." He's willing to talk about the evening, he says, because "this was an incredibly fucked-up thing that happened, and I want to prevent it happening to someone else."
Friendman and Josh had spent the afternoon of April 1st working on an essay Josh had to write as part of his sentence. The subject, ironically, was a statue against possession of marijuana. Friedman had a password for the online database Lexis-Nexis and spent the afternoon with Josh, crafting the paper. By the time they were finished, around 4 P.M., both of them felt they deserved a small rewards.
They each took a roll - a hit - of Ecstasy, in the form of a pill. Friedman booked a room in the Best Suites hotel, figuring they'd invite people and make a party of the evening. They went to the hotel, where they proceeded to consume some whip-its - nitrous oxide capsules. They watched some TV and called some friends, but nobody wanted to come over and party. After about five hours, both guys fell asleep.
Friendman woke up first and stumbled over to Josh, who was sleeping in a chair. "I ate a minithin [an ephedrine wafer containing 25 mg of ephedrine and 5 mg of guaifenisen] and was like, 'Man, how are you?'" Josh said he was groggy, so he ate a minithin, too.
"Then Josh started talking about T-7 and was saying George Caruso had some," Friedman says. Josh called Caruso. "They talked about it for a while, and Josh asked him a bunch of questions. He was really interested in getting it in bulk, and in how much he could make off it."
They tried to persuade Caruso to come to the hotel, but he said he was too tired, so they went to his house. After the buy, all three went to an apartment kept by a couple Josh knew. It was a small place strewn with beer cans. Josh was all set to take the T-7 there, but Josh's friends said they had to work the next day, and the last thing they wanted was a guy tripping until all hours in the morning. "I told him not to do it," the apartment owner recalls, "but he was pretty insistent."
As with many drugs, snorting T-7 drastically changes its effect. "Snorting multiplies the potency by at least a factor of five," says T-7 inventor and psychedelics pioneer Alexander Shulgin. The dosage Josh was contemplating, around 35 mg, would be seven times higher if snorted than anything Shulgin, a man with a lifetime's worth of experience with psychedelics, had ever tried. When I told Shulgin over the phone the size of Josh's dose, I could hear him gasp. "That's just suicidal," he said. "It's an unbelievable amount."
Josh inhaled it all in one quick snort. His friends immediately started laughing. One of them, the girlfriend of a guy who'd taken T-7, said, "He's going to start puking right away - watch." The chemical burned as it surged through his nasal passages and hit his brain, then it rocketed him to a mind-bending plane where time melted and colors danced. But by the third or fourth minute into the trip, Josh was deeply nauseated. They left the apartment, and Josh vomited as soon as they got downstairs to Friedman's car. "He started puking, and he kept puking all the way over to the hotel," said Friedman. "By the time we got there, he was just dry-heaving because he didn't have anything left."
"I asked him, 'Dude, are you OK?'" Friedman says. "He was like, 'Yeah, man, I'm fine.' It never occured to me that anything weird was going to happen. I didn't know much about this drug except that it was supposed to have an X-like effect and that it was legal. The whole premise was, this is a legal drug and we'll be fine."
Back at the hotel, Friedman sat in one room of the suite watching TV while Josh sat by himself next door. When Friedman went in to check on him, Josh asked weakly, "Hey, Eric, is there any way to make this stop?"
Friedman called Caruso and asked if there was a way to counteract the trip. Caruso said no, it just keeps going. Then Josh said, "Eric, am I going to die?" To which Friedman replied, "I don't think so."
"Are you sure?" Josh asked. "Because this is stupid."
Josh went back to the adjacent room and turned off all the lights. Friedman followed him, and they sat in the dark for a while, not talking. Then Josh started mumbling, "coke, crystal meth, LSD" over and over again. Then he changed the refrain to the names of his relatives: "... Where are they?" Friedman said they were probably asleep. "This is stupid" Josh said again.
"At this point he's repeating their names constantly, "Friendman says. "But instead of saying it he becomes louder and louder and he's screaming their names." Then Josh started flailing his arms. He rushed Friedman in the dark and hit him a few times, but Friedman managed to clam him down for a while.
Then Josh began saying he was superhot - burning up inside. To cool off, he went into the bathroom, where he stripped off his shirt and sank to the cold tile floor. Friedman remembers calling Caruso and asking him waht to do about his friend's strange behavior. Caruso said it was no big deal, give him a blanket and a glass of water and tell him to chill out.
Josh was not going to chill out. Friedman could hear him from the bathroom, and it sounded like he was having a fight with someone in there. He found Josh savagely kicking the toilet. Friedman grabbed him in a bearhug and again told him to chill out. Instead, Josh started swinging wildly. They scuffled in the bathroom and it spilled out into the main room, Friedman again holding Josh and Josh flailing. He landed a blow on Friedman's eye, at which point Friedman, who was the larger and stronger man, gave up trying to restrain him. "He started throwing himself into the wall and screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs," Friedman says. That's when Josh started screaming, "I don't want to die! I don't want to die!"
A couple from California staying in the room next door heard the wails. It sounded to them like the cries of a woman being beaten by her husband, and they called the police. Meanwhile, Friedman called Caruso again. Caruso recalls that he, too, could hear Josh's screaming in the background. "It sounded to me like he was having a very bad trip," Caruso says. "But, you know, lots of people have bad trips all the time." Still, Caruso suggested that Friedman move Josh someplace less public than a hotel. Friedman called some friends, who said they'd be right over to help.
Friedman managed to persuade Josh that they had to leave. Now buck naked, Josh ran down the hotel's staircase to the parking lot, where his other friends were waiting. They hustled him into Friedman's car and locked the doors, and Friedman went back upstairs to gather his things. He wasn't there long when he heard a cop knocking on his door. As the cop peered around the bare hotel room, Friedman explained that the trouble, started by his friend, was now over. The cop looked around, shrugged and left.
Friedman went back to the car. Josh was in the passenger seat, banging his head against the dashboard. Friedman called Caruso one last time; they agreed they would go to Caruso's house. Friedman remembers driving at 70 mph, and because he was tripping, he saw streaks of light flashing in the pitch-dark sky. "I'm not religious at all, but I felt like a higher power was out there, wanting me to know it existed," he says.
When the car pulled up, Caruso came down in his boxers and saw Josh in the front seat. His fists were balled up like a baby, and he had a blank look on his face. Caruso felt Josh's pulse and said, "Holy shit, I think he's dead." They dragged him out of the car, and Caruso performed CPR on him. He pumped and breathed and pumped and breathed, but Josh didn't breathe back. Friedman freaked out. Caruso freaked out. Josh was bleeding all over the grass from the cuts on his feet and hands. Caruso ran upstairs, threw on a pair of jeans and took another pair for Josh. He got them around Josh's ankles but couldn't pull them up to his waist because his legs were bent and stiff. They crammed him back in Friedman's car and sped off to the hospital.
The police impounded Friedman's car and told him and Caruso not to leave town. The next morning, Friedman called a lawyer, who suggested he check himself into a drug-rehab clinic in California, which he did. Although he showed up in Memphis a month later to attend a grand-jury hearing along with Caruso, he hasn't been back home since. He's taken comfort in the recovery movement. "Josh's death is a horror," he says. "But I have to say it's changed my life completely. I got sober. I am literally scared sober. But I am reminded of that night every day of my life."
Officials convened a federal grand jury, but they didn't have much to go on, and no arrests have been made. "There was nothing they could do to me," Caruso said one night as we talked about it. "Nothing that happened that night was illegal." Driving home from the grand jury, Caruso joked to his girlfriend, "Well, there goes my chances of being president."
Josh's circle of close friends all left town after he died. Those that remained took to wearing necklaces bearing a laminated picture of him. In the photo, he's smiling; his eyes seem wider than normal; his pupils are dilated. A girl who decided she liked him just days before he died says his death has "cleansed the scene." In not so many words, she mentioned the cruel irony that Josh, who had spent so much of his life researching drugs, had died from one he barely knew. "This was so unlike him," she said. "He was so careful."
Josh's parents cope in their separate ways. For Melanie, the tragedy "was like a dream - unbelievable, happening to someone else." For Eddie, there is meager solace to be had from the dim prospect of revenge: "I know my son was no saint, but somebody gave him that drug, and justice ought to be done."