A couple of months ago this column discussed a drug being touted as the next ecstasy in the UK, 2C-I. Dr Alexander Shulgin, who discovered 2C-I, was the US pharmacologist who first popularised MDMA.

He synthesised over 200 other drugs, all of which he tested on himself. Unlike ecstasy, methamphetamine or other synthetic recreational drugs, the new compounds are not made in illicit factories or backroom kitchen laboratories.

Instead, research chemicals, as they are known, are synthesised by commercial labs, which openly sell their products on the internet.

Late last month there was a new twist to this story when UK police arrested and prosecuted more than 22 British customers of websites selling research chemicals online after a trail of electronic evidence from busted websites in the US led police to addresses across the UK.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has apparently shut down many of the sites and arrested the owners after two deaths were linked to the use of chemicals bought online.

Customer records and credit-card details extracted from seized computers were passed on to the national crime squad in the UK and several arrests were made.

Backyard chemists are continuously working underground to synthesise new drugs to slip through the gaps in international drugs legislation.

The research chemicals have managed to slip under the radar for some time but in March 2004 a young American died after an accidental overdose of powdered 2-CT-21 he ordered online.

Police investigating his death traced his purchases to a Las Vegas research chemicals website, one of several professional operations importing such chemicals from labs in China and India. As a result many of these websites were shut down in a US-wide sting known as Operation Web Tryp.

So-called research chemicals are not officially listed as controlled substances under US drugs laws. However, the website operators were prosecuted under a law that prohibits the possession and supply of chemicals substantially similar to controlled drugs.

All the operators face likely life sentences. Several have been charged additionally with causing death or serious injury. Because the recommended dosages can vary by as little as a thousandth of a gram, a slight miscalculation can trigger an extremely unpleasant experience that the user is not prepared for.

Thanks to the psychedelic intensity of these drugs, few of the chemicals have made it as street drugs. They are usually used by psychonauts, drug hobbyists, usually young men, who experiment alone or in small groups.

While research chemicals are still available from websites in China, India and Japan, the illicit online drugs trade has gone underground as law enforcers have become more skilled at tracking the hi-tech drug trade.

Be aware that if you are buying these substances online there is the possibility of your purchase being tracked.

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