New chemical killer stalks streets of Europe

A closer look at an emerging recreational drug

New chemical killer stalks streets of Europe
5-IT, an emerging recreational drug, is already responsible for 24 deaths in Europe. [Image credit: Flickr user Alan Cleaver.]

Europe’s newest serial killer doesn’t use a gun or a knife or wear a mask. Instead, the assailant approaches victims as a friend, luring them in with promises of a good time, before attacking with a chemical compound, which, as it turns out, can be deadly.

The killer, it turns out, is not a person at all, but rather a molecule commonly referred to as “5-IT,” a heretofore little-known substance that is spreading throughout the European drug market. Although originally developed in the 1960s and made available as a “research chemical” for use in the synthesis of other products, the EU reports that there is no evidence that 5-IT is currently being used as a component for any industrial, cosmetic, agricultural or other legitimate purposes.  The molecule has only been on the market as a recreational drug for two years, but is already thought to be responsible for at least 24 deaths.  As a result, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), recommended in June that the substance be made subject to an EU-wide ban.

5-IT is short for 5-(2-Aminopropyl)indole, a chemical compound that closely resembles a number of other narcotics, which may explain its variety of psychological effects and its cause for concern.  According to an April 2013 report from the EU’s European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 5-IT is an isomer of a chemical called alpha-methyltryptamine, meaning the two chemicals contain the exact same ingredients, but the molecules are arranged in a different structure. It’s like taking two identical sets of Legos and building a castle with one set and a tower with the other.  Tryptamines are known for producing hallucinogenic effects in humans, so it’s not surprising that 5-IT is also thought to be a hallucinogen. The same report also compares 5-IT’s structure to that of a chemical called alpha-methylphenylethylamine, a type of stimulant.

The possible combination of stimulatory and psychedelic effects may explain 5-IT’s emergence on the drug market.  But assessing how dangerous 5-IT really is has been difficult.

Out of the 24 reported deaths so far, the April EU report indicates that seven of the victims had no other drugs in their system besides 5-IT, which suggests the drug has the potential to be lethal all on its own.  In the remaining cases, other substances were detected alongside 5-IT, meaning there could have been fatal interactions between 5-IT and other drugs.

Even in cases that don’t lead to death, the EU’s report lists a number of adverse effects the drug can cause. Those include faster heart rate, higher body temperature, tightened muscles, increased urination and loss of appetite.

Mostly, though, the scary thing about 5-IT is how little we know about it.  While the EU report notes that it is sold in both tablet and powder form, authorities can’t conclude much about where it is made and how it is distributed.

Even within the drug-using world, 5-IT is something of a mystery.  Erowid.org, a website that allows anonymous users to submit their experiences with various drugs, contains only one entry for 5-IT as of October 2013. The singular post refers to 5-IT interchangeably as 5-MeO-AMT, a different drug entirely, making it unclear which substance the poster actually used. A thread on the link-sharing website Reddit.com warning of the dangers of 5-IT was equally confused. It spurred a mix of user responses such as “[What] is 5-IT?”, “I’m not surprised, there were concerns about it when it first came out,” and “Perhaps a bad batch from a specific vendor?”

For now, 5-IT remains legal in many places, although it is controlled in a few countries, including Cyprus, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Germany and Norway.  With a death count at 24 and rising, however, tougher measures may be coming soon.

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