The Business of Drugs Season 1, Episode 2 recap: Synthetics

Netflix’s The Business of Drugs 102:  Synthetics

Former CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox continues examining the world of substances deemed “illicit” in The Business of Drugs. This time she examines the world of synthetics, first introducing us to the legacy of Alexander Shulgin, the “godfather of psychedelics.” Shulgin is known for introducing MDMA, or “ecstasy,” which is the most popular synthetic drug of all time, which was first developed primarily for its therapeutic potential.

Ann Shulgin, Alexander’s wife and “accomplice” in his endeavors, mentions the drug’s potential for “true self-acceptance.” In fact, some believe MDMA is valuable for treating PTSD. The Business of Drugs breaks down drug use as aspects of a chemical process and suggests that Ronald Reagan (and others, obviously), started cracking down on it for political reasons. The big question is: Is the drug war another hyper-politicized extension of anti-science?

The Business of Drugs: Hard drugs, harder questions

As “The Business of Drugs” visually goes through the “Schedules” of 1-5, one can’t help but notice a few glaring points. For starters, marijuana is listed as Schedule 1, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Of course, medical marijuana is more commonly accepted at this point in history, and making marijuana illegal just drove it underground and encouraged potentially dangerous copycat drugs. As Fox notes, synthetic cannabis is a perfect example of the drug war’s consequences.

If that’s not enough, even the word “marijuana” is considered a bit of a xenophobic term, as a historical attempt to link the substance uniquely to Hispanics. Actually, anti-pot crusader Harry Anslinger stated: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use.”)

(Note:  Anslinger is not mentioned in the episode, but his beliefs seem instructive regarding why regular “marijuana” is still considered dangerous. despite its noticeable lack of history of overdose cases.)


We also meet psychedelic chemist Hamilton Morris, who tells us about “thrill-seekers” and risk-takers as a product of the prohibitionist market. Along the way, we also meet drug users like Nicole, who says that her use of a new drug helps her achieve “ego death.”

Rodrigo Canales, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale, paints it all in business terms: There will always be new psychedelic technology and innovators. Indeed, so-called “underground chemists” can always tweak formulas to keep them technically legal, as they become somewhat of a different substance with similar (if not more dramatic) effects.

The Business of Drugs then heads to Brooklyn, NY, to talk to JT the spice dealer. Spice is sprayed on dried herbs. Unlike conventional pot, overdoses are possible due to increased toxicity. In fact, we are shown a so-called “K2 Zombies” news clip featuring addicts of the substance in the street. Fox says: “That’s not a zombie outbreak, that’s a client base.”

Predictive drug manufacturing

We then meet David Kokel and Roy Gerona at UCSF. In his toxicology lab, Gerona shows us that he is testing drugs on zebrafish. He actually provides the unique skill of developing “prophetic cannabinoids.” Basically, he is predicting what underground drug labs might create next. Their lab had already made the so-called “K2 Zombie drug,” giving people a chance to save lives and offer treatment.

Oddly enough, what Gerona’s doing isn’t entirely different from what the Shulgins did with their books, “PIHKAL” and “TIHKAL.” Whereas the Shulgins were swarmed by the DEA in 1994, the UCSF lab is apparently allowed to continue. Either way, prohibited drugs continue to be available, both on the “dark web” and even through international mail. On that note, we briefly meet a “Molly” dealer named X, who says he can make more than 300% profit on a deal.

MDMA as a treatment for PTSD?

While drugs remain a controversial subject, so does PTSD. On that note, “The Business of Drugs” introduces us to a war veteran named Jonathan M. Lubecky. He mentions that, upon returning home, he felt suicidal. When he went to the hospital, they gave him 6 Xanax and told him to give all his guns to his neighbor. Insufficient care led to his suicide attempt.

In his own account, he had pulled the trigger but the ammunition malfunctioned. Not long after the incident, someone surreptitiously encouraged him to try MDMA for therapy. Lubecky compares it to “doing therapy while being hugged by everyone who loves you on the planet in a bathtub full of puppies licking your face.” Fox says it eliminates PTSD in 2 out of 3 veterans.

What are your thoughts on The Business of Drugs? Let us know in the comments!

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