Dec 11th 2003
From The Economist print edition
Why it's so difficult to launch a new illegal drug
small white pill appeared in nightclubs and at music festivals. It looked like Ecstasy, but as the £10 price tag hinted, it was something else: 2C-I, a newer and more potent hallucinogen. Psychonauts (early adopters, in square-speak) quickly seized on the drug, and others are expected to follow. In October, the National Criminal Intelligence Service alerted police forces to a rising threat. Perhaps more significantly, Mixmag, a clubbers' magazine, pronounced 2C-I “a national mash-up waiting to happen”.
The timing is certainly fortuitous. Boredom and rising tolerance have done for Ecstasy, the 1990s club drug of choice, what stern warnings could not do. Last week, a Home Office survey found that only 2.6% of 16 to 24-year-olds had used it in the past month; a year ago, 3.6% had.
Worse, from the dealers' point of view, prices of Ecstasy tablets have fallen from more than £20 in the late 1980s to £4 or less today. Profit margins have shrunk to as little as a pound a pill, which hardly justifies the opprobrium and long prison sentences that go with the trade. Mat Southwell, of the Dance Drugs Alliance, a hedonists' advocacy group, says that many dealers now see Ecstasy as a means of keeping customers, nothing more. Some have begun to push cocaine, although that is a paraphernalia-filled business unsuited to the club market. Dealers would prefer something that is both easy to take and profitable, which is where the new pills come in.
In some ways, the drug market would seem to favour new entrants like 2C-I. Manufacturing know-how is widely available, thanks in part to a Californian chemist, Alexander Shulgin, who puts new recipes into the public domain, together with tasting notes (“my conversations were incredibly clear and insightful,” he says of his 2C-I experiment). Fierce competition among producers, importers and dealers means that products can be brought to market cheaply. And there are armies of early adopters to spread the word.
The problem, as with all illicit products, is quality control. When Ecstasy first appeared, it was branded with symbols which inspired some trust. But factories soon began putting the same symbols on amphetamines and caffeine tablets. Pill-poppers have responded to this problem partly by putting faith in dealers (not always a reliable source of information), and partly by lowering expectations. James Fitchett, a Nottingham marketing expert, says that teenage Ecstasy users will sooner concoct personal explanations for bad experiences than blame a beloved product.
All of which explains why new drugs are slow to catch on, and slow to be discarded. The successful ones are valued not so much for their chemical properties, but for their associations with new ways of going out. For a new product to succeed, it will need amenable venues, distinctive fashions, and new music—preferably stuff that outsiders find intolerable.