2. Chemscape

A Chemical Journey #

A psychoactive drug is typically defined as a chemical that changes brain function and results in alterations in perception, mood, or consciousness. Whilst the use of such compounds can be traced to prehistory, the modern era has been framed and dominated by the doctrines and brutalities of the war on drugs.

In the early years of this century, however, a situation developed in the UK which temporarily created a respite from this unremitting prohibition. This period can reasonably be referred to as the Legal High Years.

Until May 2016, a large and thriving market existed for what were collectively referred to as “legal highs”, or “research chemicals”. This was served directly online, and by retail outlets across major towns and cities in the UK.

It had emerged via the pressure of demand, the use of idiomatic terminology, and a stagnant unresponsive legislature.

Wikipedia describes research chemicals in the following terms:

Many pharmacologically active chemicals are sold online under the guise of “research chemicals,” when in reality they are untested designer drugs that are being consumed by buyers taking advantage of many of the compounds’ transitional or nonexistent legal status.”

And designer drugs as follows:

A designer drug is a structural or functional analogue of a controlled substance that has been designed to mimic the pharmacological effects of the original drug, while avoiding classification as illegal and/or detection in standard drug tests

Whilst this is accurate, it is incomplete: the market also offered a number of products which were novel, rather than approximated copies (analogues) of traditional and existing drugs.

It is worth noting that the traditional underground drug trade continued as usual, and that historically many of these illegal substances were technically once research chemicals. Some of these are included within this section, with sampling having been undertaken under appropriate foreign jurisdiction.

The transient and dynamic nature of this unique market not only produced an ambiguous legal position, with new legislation unable to keep abreast with the emerging new products, but created a number of bizarre ironies. For instance, chemicals clearly intended for human consumption were routinely labelled NOT FOR HUMAN COMSUMPTION on both front and rear.

The sophistication of the market developed equally quickly, with internet forums becoming a hive of often detailed discussion. These communities became increasingly important vehicles, and not only through the dissemination of safety information. They were central in framing vendor reputation, which in turn would positively influence the conduct of suppliers.

Such was the open nature of this situation that many vendors engaged in the forums themselves, often exploring entirely new products based upon feedback, commentary and debate.

The UK Chemical Research Forum - The Largest UK Focused Community

The UK Chemical Research Forum - The Largest UK Focused Community

During this period, the UK based user had a huge array of psychoactive chemicals available to choose from, which could be delivered directly within 24 hours. Further, whilst some of these were often new and relatively untested, large groups and communities existed to share information and report early experiences.

The market operated entirely legally, and in most respects, vendors offered their wares in exactly the same manner as any other online supplier of products or services (see Section 1.2.5).

An astonishing scenario of market/public self-regulation flourished, no doubt saving many lives, until the Cameron Government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, under the blinkered stewardship of Theresa Mary May. This free to access source of developing and life critical information, and of self-sustaining consumer protection, was instantly destroyed, with the inevitable tragic consequences.


This was the background against which most of my chemical research was conducted. As well as becoming academically and intellectually intriguing, it carried a sense of adventure, as I engaged a unique and fertile period of psychoactive exploration and investigation.

At the same time, however, I never lost sight of the dangers inherent to the enterprise. To address these, I identified and developed an entire series of disciplines, procedures and processes to mitigate risk. These are discussed in the introductory section of this book, and referred to throughout.


To facilitate reference, the chemicals sampled on the journey have been ordered into the following sub-sections:

Where appropriate, indications of chronological order are provided within the text of the individual experience reports.

Reminder: Section 4.8 offers definitions and explanations of many of the acronyms and idioms used throughout this book.