Psychopharmacology

Legal Drugs That Can Kill You

Lethal drugs are often legal and easily obtainable.

Posted Jul 21, 2011

So Many Ways to Die

The saying is true: It's all available on the Net, including legal drugs that can end your life. One, phenazepam, is usually made in Russia, and is available legally without prescription throughout much of the world — because it's not on the list of controlled substances for many nations. That inclues the U.S. Recently, University of Dundee forensic pathologist Richard Maskell and his group found phenazepam in 9 people dead from overdose.

What Is Phenazepam?

A Valium-like benzodiazepine drug with a pharmaceutical half life of 60 hours, which means it lasts and lasts and lasts in your system — with half of it gone in 2.5 days, three-quarters gone in 5 days, seventh-eighths gone in 7.5 days, etc.

Why Is It Dangerous?

Benzodiazepines are most commonly used as anti-anxiety or sleeping pills, but relax muscles and give many people a "buzz." All benzodiazepines can be abused, not only causing sedation, disinhibition, and confusion, but, at high doses, death. The problem is particularly acute when adding alcohol, which is how many people committed suicide in the 1960's and 70's, and which has more recently been inadvertently fatal for some. Several celebrities have been found with a combination of benzodiazepines and alcohol at their post-mortem. People also do not realize that alcohol at midnight has two-to-three times the psychomotor effects of drinks consumed at 6 pm. That's scary because relatively low, often-forgotten doses of long-acting drugs like phenazepam ("Gosh, I took that days ago") can, in combination with late-night alcohol, lead to fatal accidents. I and many other clinicians have seen the result.

Who Can Get These Drugs Over the Internet?

Anybody. That's why former secretary of Health Education and Welfare Joseph Califano has said, "The Internet is still a pharmaceutical candy store for any teenager who wants to get drugs." That's also true for any adult.

What Other Drugs Can You Get Online?

Anything not specifically banned. That includes "research chemicals" made by both certified and non-certified labs. Popular drugs right now are cannabinoids that have similar effects to the active ingredient in marijuana, and are legal in most states. Many are sold as incense, or as "herbal" drugs. You put down your credit card and UPS brings them to your home. Fortunately, many states are now banning them, and the federal government can use the "Analog Act" to pursue new drugs that are fundamentally copies of previously banned drugs. As the New York Times has reported, the epidemic of psychosis-producing substituted cathinone "bath salts" has prompted action by many states.

However, lots of drugs beat the "Analog" restriction for years, especially when the market is relatively small. That happens with some new anabolic steroids, routinely used by athletes or body builders to get their "edge." They buy them online, like the effects, tell their friends — and a successful "product" begins its run.

Do You Always Get What You Pay For?

Oh, no. Many internet drugs are worthless, useless, and sometimes laced with other ingredients like ephedrine or steroids, that, in combination with whatever else people decide to take, can provoke lethal effects. Sometimes the effects are things no one expected. One such drug was MPTP, an adulterant of a "designer drug" hallucinogen whose users went on to a rapid and very ugly version of Parkinson's disease. The drug's effect was so specific and so toxic it led to new scientific understanding of the disease.

Why Is It So Easy to Get These Drugs?

Because they are often experimental, not listed in any scientific literature, and therefore legal. Since the authorities don't know they exist, they are free to be used.

What Can Be Done to Ban Phenazepam and "Research Chemicals"?

Some states have legislated a ban on particular classes of drugs, so that not-yet-created versions of older, toxic drugs will not themselves be legal. These more narrow versions of the Analog Act generally have more legal teeth. However, banning drugs of a chemical class not yet discovered is legally very difficult.

Is the Problem Soluble?

Only by continuous vigilance, as is the case with internet security. New drugs can and will be produced. Previously, they were difficult to distribute. Now they can rapidly go anywhere in the world through the internet and make people lots of money before medical or political authorities know anyone is using them. For many, news of their dangers comes too late.