Every day, people use designer drugs—synthesized, quasi-legal analogues to drugs like ketamine, molly, and even weed—to get high. At least one researcher thinks that they, by experimenting with largely untested substances, could unknowingly be doing crucial research that might eventually lead to breakthrough cures for psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, and, perhaps even Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
Synthetic drugs often get a bad rap because theyre created in a laboratory and often have very little testing before theyre sold to users, but they must have some redeeming qualities, because people keep doing them.
Every class of psychiatric drug except for one has been discovered by accident
Internet forums, various subreddits, and community websites are loaded with stories about people’s experiences—both positive and negative—with using all manner of substances. But drug companies and government regulators thus far haven’t been willing to tap the knowledge base of recreational drug users to actually make new therapies for disorders that continue to baffle scientists.
That reticence makes a bit of sense, considering that emergency room visits are way up since the designer drug boom. But not every chemically synthesized drug is going to be terrible for you. In fact, its very possible that one of them has largely beneficial properties.
“Every class of psychiatric drug except for one has been discovered by accident. For the last 50 years, we’ve just been refining our own serendipitous finds,” David Nutt, a psychiatric researcher at Imperial College London, author of a new piece on the subject in Nature, told me. “There are thousands of people out there inducing changes in the brain that we cannot do ethically, so we ought to be learning from them.”
In his paper, Nutt notes that the calming effects of benzodiazepines were accidentally found while doing unrelated trials on animals; the first antidepressant was originally used to treat tuberculosis; ketamine was used as a war anesthetic. He says we should be looking for more positive side effects in synthetic drug users, prescription drug users, and traditional illegal drug users.
With drugs like ketamine, MDMA, and mushrooms, researchers are finally beginning to do serious clinical trials into their therapeutic uses. Many of those initial tests are promising, but lots come with side effects that aren’t always acceptable. The boom in traditional illegal drug research is encouraging, but so far, that hasnt extended to synthetic drugs. Maybe its time for that to change.
If you do use them, share your experience
“If you take a lot of ketamine, and you’ll need to because it’s a drug people build tolerance to fast, you get terrible bladder problems,” Nutt said. “Well, there are hundreds of synthetic analogues of ketamine, many of them legal, which could be a better antidepressant than ketamine. If someone says ‘I took [a ketamine analogue] and it made me feel a lot better for a few weeks, it’s worth looking into. If three to four people say that, then it’s justification for a small trial.”
There’s little doubt that this is at least an idea worth looking into: As I mentioned, drug users are already doing this to an extent online. And there’s reams of information about the negative side effects of both recreational and prescription drugs. All governments and researchers would have to do is start asking people about the good things that happen when you take drugs.
That’s certainly a mental hurdle that governments are going to have to get over, but Nutt says it’s really a no-brainer.
“We’ve got nothing to lose—we should be trying to get a more complete picture of legal highs anyway, so people can avoid the ones that are more dangerous,” he said. “It’s controversial, but all they’d have to say is ‘If you do use them, share your experience.'”