The legal side of “designer drugs” is a little bit like an arms race. On one side, the government brings in new regulations to ban specific compounds or entire classes of chemicals, whilst on the other side clandestine chemists tweak their existing molecular structures to circumvent the current laws. One drug caught up in this rat-race of structural versus legal changes is 2C-I, otherwise known as “Smiles,” and it has been implicated in two deaths in North Dakota and that of “Sons of Anarchy” actor Johnny Lewis. The established formula was made illegal in 2012’s more broadly defined drug laws, but new varieties led the state of Michigan to move for a fast-track ban of the substance’s various derivatives in December.
What is 2C-I?
A drug in the phenethylamine class, MDMA (ecstasy) is the most famous derivative of the 2C-I group. The class of drugs can simply be described as amphetamines – like methamphetamine – and at the core they produce similar effects, including increased heart rate, sweating, and high blood pressure. However, the alterations made to the molecule add a psychedelic element to the drug’s effects, resulting in hallucinations, giddiness, euphoria, and increased empathy. The effects have been described as a mixture of MDMA and LSD.
The drug comes in the form of a white crystalline powder, but can also be bought as a liquid. It is taken in numerous ways, but the most common is to mix the powder with a substance, such as chocolate, to consume. The specific formula, including the strength of the drug can vary wildly, and the underground chemists who produce the drug don’t have quality control systems to ensure their safety. As with anything made on the black market, one of the most dangerous aspects of 2C-I is the numerous other substances the batch could be “cut” with. This is thought to have been the cause of two recent deaths in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The Legal Issues
What would technically be called 2C-I was made a Schedule I Controlled Substance as part of the changes in July 2012. The new legislation doesn’t focus on specific substances, instead outlawing entire classes of chemicals to prevent designer drug manufacturers from making minor changes to the existing formulas for illegal drugs. Unfortunately, the chemists have managed to find a way around the existing legislation by further changing the structure of the drug so it no longer qualifies. The changes needed to remedy this aren’t drastic, but it does present an issue in that laws still can’t keep up with the production of new and potentially harmful chemicals.
Michigan’s move to ban the entire class of chemicals effectively applies the new federal approach to the specific class of chemicals. It attempts to close off an option for the illicit chemists, meaning they will have to more radically overhaul their formula to produce a substance not classified as illegal. However, history has shown that designer drug producers will always find an approach that enables them to avoid the current laws. The speed with which they can do this means that the market is flooded with poorly understood substances that haven’t been specifically studied by scientists.
The Dangers of Smiles
Aside from the risks associated with their illicit method of production, there are some consistent risks with 2C-I and similar chemicals. Although traditional hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin don’t carry significant physical health risks, the fact that they are chemically related to amphetamines means that any derivatives of 2C-I do. The main risk of amphetamine-related substances is to the user’s heart, with the resulting arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) potentially resulting in cardiac arrest and death. Doctors have also reported users suffering from other consequences such as kidney failure, depression of the nervous system, respiratory failure, and seizures.
The hallucinogenic side to the drug brings another group of risks along with it. Although substances like LSD don’t have dangerous physical consequences, a “bad trip” could result in extreme fear, panic, and horrifying visions. These negative experiences have been documented on 2C-I, with one user describing the experience as akin to a “roller-coaster ride through hell.” Even in “positive” circumstances in which the trip doesn’t turn “bad,” the disconnection with reality it produces brings potential risks in numerous everyday situations. For example, crossing a road seems easy enough, but when the asphalt appears to be snake-infested quicksand or something equally unnerving, cars aren’t likely to be the user’s top priority.
The biggest danger brought on by the transient legality of substances such as smiles and its derivatives is that they may appear to be “safe” in the eyes of some users. In reality, the fact that the chemicals are in their infancy and are made by unregulated chemists all around the world means they carry the same inherent risks as many illegal substances. North Dakota is proof: one day, an 18 year old was found dead, face-down in the street as a result, and the next day a 17 year old started banging his head into the ground, foaming at the mouth and shaking as if he was possessed. He died a couple of hours later.