Carol Carlson was home one afternoon late last fall chopping vegetables when her 16-year-old son, Alex, started running up and down the basement stairs.
“His pupils were really dilated, and he was clearly not sober, but his behavior was nothing like being stoned and nothing like being drunk,” remembers Carol. “It was like ecstatic happiness, combined with punching.”
When she questioned her older son, Peter, about what was going on, he confessed that he and Alex had taken a psychedelic drug called “25I.”
“I had never heard of 25I; I just was told that it was ‘like acid,’” says Carol (the family has been given pseudonyms for this article).
When Carol’s husband, Greg, came home, Alex ran up to him, nearly knocking him over. The teen was frantic, repeatedly shouting phrases such as “Thank you!” and “Get in my belly!”
Greg knew he was in for a long night. “I realized that I was going to have to monitor him,” remembers Greg. “My wife and I knew that in the state he was in we needed to maintain a continual state of calmness and de-escalation.”
25I, which is in a family of drugs also known as “n-bomb” and “smiles,” is part of a new wave of synthetic street psychedelics that have been gaining in popularity among young, white Madisonians. Lt. Jason Freedman, a Madison police officer who is part of the Dane County Narcotics Task Force, says that in coming years these drugs may overshadow heroin as the focus of his unit.
“I think five years from now we might be having those conversations, especially if these drugs continue into our market and they start killing people or causing real distress,” he says. “We’re not seeing it a lot, but I think it’s more prevalent than people think, and I think that trend is increasing.”
Use of the drug in Madison has coincided with growing concern over use of deadly force by police officers engaging with individuals behaving irrationally. On March 6, a Madison police officer killed unarmed 19-year-old Tony Robinson, who his family says was under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Robinson had been acting erratically, running into traffic and allegedly assaulting two people, before officer Matt Kenny shot him.
The situation at the Carlson house got scary when Alex punched his mother in the back of the head. Carol, Greg and Alex all emphasize that there was no anger or aggression in this act — his mood was cheerful, although he seemed to have little control over his body. Alex thought he was “petting” his mother. However Peter, who also on the drug, perceived Alex’s behavior much differently. He angrily picked up Alex, held him against a cabinet and broke his nose.
As the blood began to flow, Greg and Carol grew frightened for their son.
“At that point, of course, is when we started thinking, ‘do we call 911?’” remembers Carol, who was worried how a police officer might react to her son’s erratic behavior.
“If any police officer were to walk into that scene and see all the blood,” agrees Greg, “they would instantly be in trigger mode, and that was just too dangerous.”
The drug Alex dosed on is known to the scientific community as “25I-NBOMe,” but is known colloquially as 25 n-bomb. Like other psychedelic compounds, 25 n-bomb binds to a serotonin receptor in the brain called 5ht2a, which is situated on cell membranes. When certain compatible chemicals bind to 5ht2a on the outside of the cell, the portion of the receptor located inside the cell changes shape, which leads to biochemical reactions — reactions that no one yet understands.
“Inside the cell, that’s where you wave your hands and say, ‘then something happens,’” says Dave Nichols, a retired Purdue chemistry professor who has been working with psychedelics since 1969. “We don’t actually know [what happens]. We [only] know the parts of the brain that are involved.”
The 5ht2a receptor is involved in regulating mood as well as processing sensory information. When psychedelic chemicals bind to these receptors, it changes the way the brain experiences sight, sound and touch. When Alex took 25I, for instance, he hallucinated that clouds and flowers were coming out of his cell phone.
25 n-bomb was never intended for human use — the compound was first discovered in Germany in 2003 by Ralf Heim, a chemist doing work for his doctorate with arteries in rabbit ears.
“He was taking molecules that were known to bind to [5ht2a] and dissecting [them] piece by piece trying to find out what part of the molecule was necessary,” says Nichols. “He wasn’t trying to make a new psychedelic or anything, he was trying to understand another type of drug that binds to a receptor, but doesn’t have any activity.”
But his chemical compounds did have activity; not only did they activate the receptors, they stayed attached much longer than most chemicals. At Purdue, Nichols took notice. His research involved trying to understand the function of the 5ht2a receptors, and he hoped studying the chemical that alters them might help him figure that out.
The drugs were simple to make, and after giving them to rats he found the drugs in the 25 n-bomb family to be drastically more potent than anything he had ever seen.
“They probably have the highest affinity for the serotonin receptor of any compound that’s ever been discovered,” Nichols says. “I think it has something to do with the degree to which they stick to those receptors.”
Outside of the molecular pharmaceutical biochemist community, however, the chemical remained largely unknown until Nichols published his results in 2006.
“It was kind of obscure until we published a paper that showed these things were extremely potent, and I think that’s where the street chemists picked up on it,” says Nichols. “They were essentially mining the literature.”
Consumption of 25 n-bomb became illegal in fall 2013, reflecting its growing recreational use. No literature exists on its effects on the human body.
“Synthetic drugs like these have no consistent manufacturing and packaging processes,” reads a 2013 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency press release, which also notes that the drug has been implicated in 19 deaths. “[They] may contain drastically differing dosage amounts, a mix of several drugs, and unknown adulterants. Users are playing Russian roulette when they abuse them.”
Teenager Alex Carlson describes its effects as quite frightening.
“I took two 1,500 microgram tabs, a total of three milligrams, and completely lost my ego and went into a severe time loop,” Alex says. “I had no control of myself; I thought I could astral-project, I was trying to teleport, I thought I lived in a world where my actions were completely inconsequential, like I lived in kind of a matrix-like world where I could do whatever, like a dreamland.”
In addition to these effects, 25 n-bomb has caused several overdoses since its arrival on the street. Nobody in either the scientific or the medical community knows why.
“Most psychedelics are not that dangerous,” says Nichols. “LSD has never killed anybody, psychedelics have a reputation of being nontoxic. It’s only these n-bomb compounds that have ended up being lethal, and no one really understands what’s going on there.”
Taking this drug is “definitely not a good idea,” Nichols warns. “Even people who have experience with street drugs have [had] serious adverse effects and even death after taking this.”
Since the late ’90s, Lt. Freedman has been part of a police unit that investigates drug dealers and drug activity. “We see everything here,” he says. “It’s just a question of when we see it, how much we see it, how often we see it.”
During the last few years the task force has focused on tackling heroin dealers, but Freedman has registered the uptick in synthetic drug use.
“Based on everything I’ve seen, that will be our next major issue in terms of health and safety,” he says.
Freedman says that most of these drugs are mailed here from China. “If you try to ship 40 pounds of marijuana, that’s going to raise some flags. If you ship 100 hits of a synthetic or LSD, it weighs as much as a sheet of paper, and it’s much easier to get that through the mail than a bulk of cocaine or marijuana,” says Freedman. “The ones that I’m concerned about are the ones where no one knows what the ingredient list is, except for the people who are making it.”
Tabs of hallucinogens like LSD or 25 n-bomb are less than one square centimeter and come on blotter paper or coated onto candy. Research chemicals like 25 n-bomb, on which you can overdose, are frequently sold as LSD, on which you cannot.
Alex Carlson, who got the drug from friends, says: “You never really know precisely what you’re getting, and that’s a danger with liquid drugs.”
Over the last few years, the Narcotics Task Force has busted 10 to 20 synthetic dealers. Dealers are generally white, college-aged, and male, he says. At the moment, the police are better at catching dealers of heroin than psychedelics.
“It’s an iceberg,” says Freedman, using the example of MDMA, also known as ecstasy. “For every heroin dealer we catch there are 10 we don’t, and we’re looking for them. So for every MDMA intercept that happens, my experience says there are dozens and dozens, maybe scores, maybe hundreds, that we don’t.”
“They’re only popular because everyone wants LSD,” says Alex, referring to his high school peers. “Everyone who has ever wanted to find LSD has taken them.”
Alex estimates that up to 30% of Madison high school students have taken 25 n-bomb or another research chemical. Freedman thinks that’s an exaggeration and the number is closer to 5%.
“If we’re talking just what they think is actual acid, or an acid analog, I would think it would be in single-digit percentages,” says Freedman. “As jaded and cynical as I am, I’d be surprised if 30% of high school kids are trying acid.”
Freedman says Madison needs to be vigilant about hard drugs.
“There’s more drug use in the United States per capita than any other country in the world, and [Madison is] reflective of that,” he says. “Hard drugs are like almost any hard crime — it doesn’t take very many people doing it to have a multiplier effect in terms of its impact on the community, other crimes, public health, or infrastructure.”
As blood began to spill from Alex’s broken nose on that fall evening, the Carlsons panicked. But they feared what might happen if police were added to the mix.
Carol explains: “We made the very difficult decision that we could not risk calling 911, even though we had no idea what we were doing, we did not know how badly his face was damaged, we couldn’t calm him down.”
Freedman says that attitude is a mistake and insists police approach such situations with caution and sensitivity.
“I’ve had hundreds of calls [like that] in my career,” Freedman says. “And most people undergoing that sort of crisis aren’t violent, and the officers don’t deal with them in a violent way.”
Still, he understands the hesitation to call police. “If you were to take a million situations like that, is there a likelihood that some of them will end up in a deadly force situation? Probably,” says Freedman, who teaches Citizen’s Academy courses on police use of force. “[But] I don’t think that’s a reasonable [fear] based on the stats, the facts. But I understand that that isn’t always sufficient for people.”
According to Freedman, all Wisconsin police officers receive training in professional communication, which includes communicating with people in crisis. Madison, he says, goes even further in the area of crisis management.
“New officers are put through scenarios with people in crisis,” Freedman says. “Whether it’s an elderly person with dementia, or it’s the vet with PTSD, or it’s the kid who’s going through severe depression or chemically induced. And they’re trained to try to negotiate, diffuse, [and] use their...communication skills to try to resolve the situation.”
In addition, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval introduced a new strategy this spring for engaging with irrational individuals, by designating officers in each district to receive special medical training for such scenarios.
“That’s sort of the direction we’re going as a department, to make this more of a specialty versus a general assignment,” Freedman says. “Although at 2 in the morning, you get who you get.”
The most important factors in determining the outcome of a police encounter, Freedman says, are the amounts of information, distance and time an officer has.
“Officers working with limited information are trained to make an assessment based on policy, the law, procedure and their own experience about the likely scenarios they’re about to face and what’s the appropriate response,” he says. “If I can keep my distance and talk to them, that’s best. But if they start attacking somebody else, or if I think that’s what’s going on, or if they attack me, now I have to change my game plan.”
“The problem is that the officer’s only one half of that equation,” he adds.
Presented with the Carlsons’ situation, Freedman says he would not show up with a firearm drawn.
“Now what happens after that, I have some control over, as an officer, and some of it I don’t,” Freedman says. “And I’m going to be constantly assessing what’s going on, and if that 16-year-old is bouncing off the walls, [I may need] to put them in handcuffs, or decentralize them” — i.e. knock them over — “or just to talk to them.”
“For police officers, taking and maintaining control is absolutely critical,” continues Freedman. “Once there’s control, those unknowns...are minimized.”
But given Alex’s excited and aggressive state, it’s possible that a responding officer would have resorted to force. Alex may easily have run into the officer, as he did his father, or punched him, as he did his mother.
“If I’m the first officer to arrive,” says Freedman, “and the first thing junior does is coldcock me, I’m not talking to him at that point, I’m going to deal with the threat as I perceive it.”
Alex doesn’t think much of his chances at self-control in his drug-addled state.
“You think it’s a game,” he says. “If a police officer had shown up, I might have had the idea to just run, like ‘let’s see if they can catch me.’”
Instead of calling the police, the Carlsons forced Alex upstairs into the shower — the restraint increased his confusion and agitation. After much flailing, kicking and screaming, Alex was put to bed, restrained between his father and older brother. Although his brother was also on the drug, he had taken less and was more in touch with reality than Alex.
They sat there for several hours until they felt it was safe to release him.
Despite the danger and distress caused by his first trip on 25I, Alex has taken the drug three more times since then. The novelty of altering his reality is alluring. Says Alex: “It was just so fascinating that my brain could produce such a powerful experience.”
He claims that decreasing the dose mitigates the risk of putting him and his family in danger. His parents are exasperated by his decision to take the drug, but feel helpless to stop him. Says Greg: “That’s just where the stupid teenager part comes in.”