All posts tagged drugs

  • The Guardian story: ‘The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use’, July 2014

    A comment piece for The Guardian’s Australian culture blog, published the day after my book Talking Smack was released. The full story appears below.

    The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use

    In a new book exploring the relationship between musicians and illicit substances, some of Australia’s most successful artists say there’s more to the story than the usual chorus of condemnation

    'The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use' story on The Guardian Australia by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” is a well-worn cliche that music fans and journalists use as shorthand for “someone else’s job is more fun than mine”. We fantasise about the wild excesses and rampant hedonism experienced by the world’s top performing artists on a regular basis.

    And yet, in writing my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, I discovered there is a kernel of truth to the cliche. Some of Australia’s most successful musicians – including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Steve Kilbey, Phil Jamieson and Holly Throsby – openly admit that the use of both legal and illegal drugs has contributed to some of their creative achievements and personal insights.

    Of the 14 musicians I interviewed, all of them have had contact with illicit drugs at some point in their lives. The preference for substances varied widely, from cannabis and MDMA to methamphetamine and heroin. I discovered that the reasons individuals are drawn to the risky business of ingesting, inhaling, snorting or injecting foreign substances are complex and nuanced.

    Although stories of drug abuse, overdose and addiction have been part of the popular musical lexicon for decades, while working on Talking Smack I found an important distinction to be made: that despite the noisy negatives often associated with drugs at all levels of society, many of my interviewees had positive experiences. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for many Australians, regardless of whether or not they’re employed in the creative industries.

    Illicit drug use in Australia is often rendered as a black-and-white battleground: you’re either a drug user and thus looked down upon as a loser and a criminal, or you’re an anti-drugs totem of purity. My goal was to explore the shades of grey by talking to public figures who know what they’re talking about when it comes to a tricky topic, and where rational, expert voices are sorely lacking.

    Usually the discussion is dominated by politicians, police and sensationalist media outlets who stand together in condemnation of anyone who would dare consume a drug that isn’t alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or a prescribed medication.

    What I found during many hours of face-to-face conversations about this topic with such distinctly different musicians is that there is no simple story when it comes to drugs. Some people are early bloomers, and try substances in their teens; others, like myself, avoid the matter entirely until their mid-20s, or later. Some, like Gotye, choose to abstain completely. Drug tastes vary greatly between individuals; the chemicals that resonate with one person may repel the next.

    For some of these musicians, subjective experiences and sensations felt while under the influence had a powerful effect on songwriting. Steve Kilbey told me that The Church’s 1992 album Priest=Aura was an attempt to recreate the feeling of heroin through music, soon after he had started using the drug.

    “That was the honeymoon,” said Kilbey. “You can hear it’s working. You can hear that I achieved that thing. And then it went downhill after that. For 10 or 11 years, I still made records [on heroin]. But I struggled a bit. When the gear arrived, I’d get so stoned I couldn’t work.”

    Managing these motivations is a struggle met by many creative people, whether their task is to play an instrument, paint a canvas or scribble words. Sydney hip-hop artist Urthboy is unsure whether smoking cannabis while writing lyrics is an effective way to tap into creativity: “I’ve never really had any clear proof of that; you can’t say that’s a fact when you write really good stuff without smoking,” he said.

    “To ever suggest that weed is an essential ingredient in that process is almost to give up on your own abilities.”

    For Melbourne pop artist Bertie Blackman – who has struggled with alcoholism, depression and anxiety – abstinence is a matter of prioritising her mental health. “Recreational drugs in a safe environment are cool,” she told me. “I’m around it occasionally, and I don’t frown on it. I mean, they exist. It’s just that I make the choice now to not partake, because I know that, for me and my mental health, it’s not good.”

    That’s the bottom line for many Australians: an individual choosing whether or not to use a particular drug for an intended benefit, whether that’s buying a bottle of wine or a gram of cocaine. The illegality of the latter choice rarely comes into account. Humans are clever: where there’s a will to snort or smoke something, there’s a way.

    Almost all of my interviewees agreed that the prohibitionist “war on drugs” is failed policy that has had little to no effect on their overall consumption. As Steve Kilbey of The Church told me:

    “I think it’s becoming obvious to people that the whole [war] about drugs was a fucking lie,” Kilbey said. “It’s like fucking burning witches at the stake, or having slaves. I believe one day people will, in some enlightened time, look back at this and say, ‘You know they used to throw people in jail for five years for smoking marijuana?’ Why? What the fuck have you done except disobey some fuckwit in authority? That’s all it is. People are realising that taking drugs is a medical issue; it’s a social issue. It’s nothing to do with the law.”

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen is published by University of Queensland Press.

  • Announcing my first book, ‘Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs’, July 2014

    I’m proud to share the news that my first book will be published on 23 July 2014, via University of Queensland Press. Back cover blurb below.

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen

    'Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs' by Andrew McMillen – book coverOf all the creative industries, the most distinct link between drug use and creativity lies within music. The two elements seem to be intertwined, inseparable; that mythical phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll” has been bandied about with a wink and a grin for decades. But is it all smoke and mirrors, or does that cliché ring true for some of our best-known performers?

    In this fascinating book, journalist Andrew McMillen talks with Australian musicians about their thoughts on – and experiences with – illicit, prescription and legal drugs. Through a series of in-depth and intimate interviews, he tells the stories of those who have bitten into the forbidden fruit and avoided choking.

    This isn’t to say that stories of ruin and redemption are avoided – they’re not. These celebrated performers have walked the straight-and-narrow path of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and prescription medication, as well as the supposedly dark-and-crooked road of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine.

    By having conversations about something that’s rarely discussed in public, and much less often dealt with honestly, McMillen explores the truths and realities of a contentious topic that isn’t going away.

    Talking Smack is a timely, thought-provoking must-read that takes you inside the highs and lows of some of our most successful and creative musicians, including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Gotye, Steve Kilbey (The Church), Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon) and Holly Throsby.

    For more about Talking Smack, view the below book trailer (designed by Brisbane studio IV Motion) and visit the standalone website at talkingsmack.com.au.

    The trailer premiered at Australian music website FasterLouder yesterday with a feature interview entitled ‘6 myths about drug taking in the Australian music community‘ published by the site’s editor-in-chief Darren Levin, who first began editing my work at Mess+Noise five years ago. This interview will tell you a little about the book’s origins and my personal interest in the topic of drug use.

    Talking Smack will be available in print and e-book format from 23 July 2014 via all good bookstores and UQP’s website. In the meantime, I encourage you to make an enquiry via Brisbane bookstore Avid Reader, who will be hosting my book launch on Thursday 21 August.

  • The Vine story: ‘What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution’, October 2013

    A story for TheVine.com.au. The full story appears below.

    What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution

    The Vine story: 'What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013

    Prior to its seizure by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early hours of Wednesday, October 3, Australian time, a website named Silk Road was the holy grail for illicit drug users of all stripes. Since mid-2011, dealers and consumers had been drawn to the site like iron filings to a magnet. Their reasons for downloading a Tor browser and copy-pasting the complex URL that housed Silk Road (SR) can be reduced to two key motivating factors: cash and product.

    For drug dealers – or, in SR-preferred parlance, ‘vendors’ – the lure of a steady supply of international buyers was enough to motivate the investigation of innovative, stealthy shipping techniques that would see their packages of powders, crystals and pills delivered to intended addresses without raising the alarms of border security. This quickly became a point of pride among the most dedicated vendors, some of whom marketed their packaging options as ‘undetectable’ and cherished buyer feedback that praised innocuous, ingenious delivery methods. Subterfuge was the name of the game.

    It helped, too, that SR offered vendors the opportunity to turn the risky, dangerous job of face-to-face dealing into the ultimate work-from-home gig. When I began poking around the site in late 2011, while researching a feature story for Australian Penthouse, I interviewed several vendors via SR’s plain-text messaging system. One told me that SR was “better and cleaner” than dealing drugs offline. “Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house,” I was told. “It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    This was the defining image of Silk Road: a mild-mannered, sober, white collar professional who casually fielded an order for a gram or two of cocaine, printed the buyer’s address and applied it onto an anonymous envelope, vacuum sealed the illicit product inside and dropped the package into a random mailbox – with the correct amount of postage stamps attached, naturally.

    That image clashed violently with that of the stereotypical drug dealer, who stands on a street corner and controls his territory and product distribution through coercion, extortion and violence. Both operate outside of the law through necessity, since the supply, traffic and use of many drugs remains illegal in all but a handful of countries, most notably Portugal.

    Where once small-time dealers were confined to a few inner-city blocks, or their regular clients within nightclubs on Saturday nights, enterprising Silk Road vendors were limited only by their own ingenuity and imagination. Both online and off, intelligence is what set apart savvy dealers from those behind bars. In February, a 32 year-old Victorian – SR username ‘shadh1’ – was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for importing and reselling drugs purchased on the site, with reckless disregard for anything resembling security, self-preservation or stealth, three of the essential values on which SR was founded.

    It is telling and troubling for long-time SR users, too, that even the man alleged to have established the site was not above careless security slip-ups; he advertised his personal Gmail address on public forums requesting an “IT pro in the Bitcoin community” to assist with the site’s early growth, according to an FBI affidavit.

    Cash aside, the motivating factor for users was always the product. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA, cannabis, methamphetamine, psilocybin; Silk Road did not synthesise any of these compounds, nor discover the natural substances. It simply revolutionalised their distribution. My interview with a newbie SR buyer for Australian Penthouse was emblematic of what the site offered buyers.

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” the 24 year-old Brisbane resident told me. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    While Silk Road’s days are numbered, and its founder seems set for a long prison sentence, the cat is certainly out of the bag. The site was a brilliant intermediary between drug dealers and users right up until it wasn’t. But to imagine that humans will suddenly cease synthesising, cultivating, pursuing, distributing and ingesting substances that alter mind and mood is at least wishful thinking; at worst, high folly.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and associated organisations can today congratulate themselves for a job well done in seizing Silk Road and its significant stockpile of assets and intelligence. It is their job to catch criminals. Although the plug has been pulled on the most open illicit drug marketplace that the world has ever seen, tomorrow is a new day.

    The seemingly infallible Silk Road has been beheaded, but two heads will appear in its place, hydra-like. Right now, its competitors will be quadruple-checking their security practices and managing server loads, while new registrations and orders pour in. The mail won’t stop. At the heart of this conversation is the fact that humans like to get high, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. This is but a stumble on a very long walk. Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Further reading: Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics’, November 2012

    A 4,000 word feature story published in the November 2012 edition of Rolling Stone Australia; my first non-music feature for the magazine. Click the below image to view a PDF version, or scroll down to read the article text.

    Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics
    By Andrew McMillen / Illustration by Amanda Upton

    A new generation of “smart drugs” that promise to enhance cognitive ability are now available, but are they the key to the human race’s next evolutionary leap or merely 21st century snake oil? Rolling Stone finds out…

    Before he swallowed the designer drug NZT, Bradley Cooper was having a shitty day. Scratch that; he was having a shitty life. Cooper was an unproductive, depressed writer with few prospects and fewer friends. His long-suffering girlfriend had recently left him. His unkempt appearance implied that his deep apathy extended to his body image. Here was a man broken by the accrued stress and malaise of living a seemingly pointless, joyless existence in modern day New York City.

    Moments after taking the transparent, odourless NZT pill, though, Cooper’s world changed dramatically. His visual and auditory perceptions sharpened significantly. His brain could instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts and figures. His empathy and charm were suddenly amplified to the point where he was able to bed a woman who previously loathed him. A burst of inspiration saw him cleaning his apartment for the first time in years while forgoing both food and his usual addiction to nicotine. Within a few hours, Cooper produced a hundred pages of brilliant writing, which pleased his editor like never before.

    As his interior monologue put it, “I was blind; now I see. I wasn’t high, wasn’t wired; just clear. I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it.”

    This isn’t a scene from Bradley Cooper’s actual life, of course. It’s the life of a fictional character named Eddie Morra, which Cooper portrayed in the 2011 thriller Limitless. Right now, I’m psyching myself up for a Bradley Cooper moment of my own. My version of the make-believe NZT is a little, white, very real pill named Modalert. Produced by Indian manufacturer Sun Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s generic name is modafinil and it costs around $2 per 200mg dose. In Australia, it’s only prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers who have difficulty staying awake. I’ve acquired some through an online retailer and at 5pm on a Monday, I take the drug for the first time.

    By 10pm I’m wide awake, and aware that my resting heart-rate is higher than normal. By midnight my mind is racing around like an agitated puppy: “Hey! Here I am! Play with me!” I occupy myself with the normally tedious task of transcribing interviews; when I next look at the clock, it’s 3.30am and I’m finished. I’m washing dishes to take a break from work, when I realise that my randomly chosen soundtrack has taken on an eerie parallel to real life. In the classic Nas track ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, he raps: “I never sleep / ‘Cuz sleep is the cousin of death.”

    For as long as I can remember, my answer to that age-old ‘just one wish’ hypothetical has been ‘to never fatigue’. To never need to sleep. To be able to learn, create and achieve more than any regular human being because I’m no longer confined by the boring necessity of a good night’s sleep.

    Thanks to modafinil, I’m closer to this long-held dream than ever before. And I feel incredible. Not high, not wired; just clear. The computer in my skull is crunching ones and zeroes while the rest of the world sleeps. I yawn occasionally, but my mind feels focused, at capacity, even as 5am approaches.

    It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance I’ve never experienced before; I know I should be feeling fatigued by now, but everything’s still working well. At 8.30am – roughly fifteen hours after taking the drug, which corresponds with its stated half-life – its effects wear off, and fatigue sets in. I take a three-hour nap, then pop another modafinil upon waking. I’m back on the merry-go-round of sleeplessness, and loving it.

    Giddy at the near-endless productivity possibilities that I’ve suddenly unlocked, I confess my off-label use of Modalert to a Sun Pharma spokesperson via email in a moment of clarity (or, perhaps, over-earnest honesty). The reply arrives in my inbox a short time later, and I’m briefly quietened by its ominous tone.

    “You’ve seen Limitless?” the Indian drug rep replies. “The cost is too much. Please evaluate what you are doing, even for test purposes. Neuronal circuitry is not to be messed with.”

    ++

    Modafinil is the brightest star in a galaxy of drugs and supplements called ‘nootropics’. The word was coined by a Romanian doctor in 1972; in Greek, its definition refers to ‘turning the mind’. More commonly known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals; by improving the brain’s oxygen supply; or by stimulating nerve growth.

    Smart drugs are not a new concept. Last century, both cocaine and amphetamine were considered to have enhancement potential. As researchers at the University of Queensland wrote in a 2012 paper, “…their use for this purpose was regarded in a wholly positive light. [Cocaine and amphetamine] were seen as safe and effective ‘wonder drugs’ that increased alertness and mental capabilities, thereby allowing users to cope better with the increasing demands of modern life.” These views became unpopular once both substances were found to be addictive: cocaine became a prohibited substance, though amphetamine is still widely prescribed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) under the brand name Adderall.

    The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australian drug regulation authority, does not yet recognise nootropics as a class of drug, as “the information available on nootropic products provides a very broad definition.” A TGA spokesperson tells Rolling Stone that they are unable to comment on the matter, as “the issue here is that the definition of nootropics goes from nutritional supplements all the way through to prescription medicines, so depending on what the product is and its claims, it might be considered as listable, a registered complementary medicine, or a registered prescription medicine.”

    So regulation is a murky topic, then. But nootropics aren’t illegal, either. Admittedly, taking modafinil off-label is not a smart thing to do. I am not a narcoleptic. I sleep just fine, if begrudgingly. I am a healthy 24 year-old male who exercises regularly and eats well. My recreational drug use is occasional. I’ve never been addicted to anything, and I intend to keep that clean sheet. I would like to be able to concentrate for long periods during the work week, though. I’d like to be able to instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts. In short, I’d like to be smarter. Who wouldn’t?

    In the fictional account of Limitless and its inspiration, a 2001 techno-thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn named The Dark Fields, the universally appealing idea of self-improvement through minimal effort is explored by a guy taking a designer drug to boost his brainpower to superhuman levels. In reality, nootropic enthusiasts claim significant cognitive benefits with few, if any, side effects from taking these supposedly non-addictive, non-toxic substances.

    Sounds too good to be true? You bet. With my bullshit detector cranked up to eleven, I’m wading into this contentious field with the goal of separating science from fiction. Are smart drugs the snake oil of the 21st century? Or am I about to become a better man just by taking a bunch of coloured pills?

    ++

    After Eddie Morra tires of writing while under the influence of NZT, he turns his attention to the far more lucrative stock market. When I tire of writing on modafinil, I waste away the night-time hours by shooting terrorists in Counter-Strike: Source online, trawling internet forums, and reading about nootropics.

    With a newfound surplus of time arises an interesting dilemma: how to spend it? I chose to alternately work, read, and play games. What if every night was like that, though? What if I had all that time? How soon would I become accustomed to operating on little, or zero, sleep? What would be the side-effects of this for my health, my relationships, my career? Would I become a kinder person? Would parts of my personality become amplified, or atrophy? Obvious productivity gains – or productivity opportunity gains – aside, would less sleep make me a better person?

    All Tuesday night, I’m keyed into a writing task with laser-like focus. By sunrise, I’ve produced an article which, at the time, feels like some of my best work yet. (When it’s published online, weeks later, I read it with fresh eyes and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I still feel the same way.) On Wednesday, I choose to take a break from the drug, but I’m still up until 4am. My sleep cycle has been totally disrupted.

    Thursday just feels like a regular day. I’m yawning more than usual, probably due to the sleep debt I’ve incurred this week. But it does feel a little… boring to be operating at this level, rather than on modafinil, where I feel like I’m connecting all of the dots all of the time. I suddenly find myself weighing up the costs and benefits of taking a pill right now. I have nothing in particular that needs to be completed for the remainder of the week, but there’s an internal argument happening: “Being awake is so much more enjoyable than sleeping. Who needs sleep, honestly?”

    I dose another 200mg, and within the hour, I again find myself making connections in music that I’d never previously noticed. The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song ‘Stop’ aligns with my current mindset: “We don’t know where to stop / I try and I try but I can’t get enough…

    I feel like an outlaw; as though I’m in on a secret to which everyone else is oblivious. I know how to subvert sleep; that knowledge is in the shape of a small white disc containing 200mg of modafinil. I feel as though taking this drug might be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I want everyone around me to take it, too, so that we can share our experiences and revel in the euphoria of the unclouded mind.

    That night, I drive to and from a rock show. I meet friends and strangers at the venue; as I talk, I feel as though I’m not making sense, and that those around me are acutely aware of this. I feel in control, but my mind is racing faster than my mouth can keep up. I buy one beer and feel a little drunk, but I don’t come close to crashing my car on the drive home. Around 2am, I note that I’ve got an impending feeling of doom going on. Like I’m riding this too far, and it’s about to start doing some serious damage. I turn in at 3.30am on Friday.

    My first nootropic odyssey whimpers to a close, after beginning with a giddy bang at 10am on Monday morning. I’ve taken three 200mg doses of modafinil during that time – 5pm Monday, 1pm Tuesday, 2.30pm Thursday – and napped for around 11 hours total. In all, I’ve been awake for 79 out of the last 90 hours.

    I arise at midday, refreshed, having effectively reset my debt with one normal sleep. I reflect on how my views toward modafinil have veered between utter devotion to, now, in the cold light of day, a realisation that it’s probably not a good idea to be taking that shit on consecutive days. I was feeling so fucking average the night before. I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to stay awake. The body and the mind aren’t made for it.

    ++

    Next, I purchase some homemade nootropics from a vendor named Tryptamine on Silk Road (SR), an anonymous online market where illicit drugs are purchased with virtual currency and sent through the international postal system. Tryptamine’s vendor profile states, “I am a biologist who develops nutritional supplements to improve your health, sleep, and cognition. I use only natural or orthomolecular ingredients, and no adverse effects have been reported from my products.”

    Tryptamine makes and sells three nootropics. I order two 24-pill bottles of MindFood (“designed to optimize brain function, protect against stress- and drug-induced neurotoxicity, prevent/alleviate hangovers, and reverse brain aging,” among other alleged effects), and ChillPill (“designed to promote relaxation, attenuate stress, calm excess brain activity, enhance mood, and promote dreaming”). The seller kindly includes a bonus five-pill sampler of ThinkDeep (“designed to stimulate brain metabolism and glucose uptake, improve memory formation/recall, expand attention span, prevent mental fatigue and enhance blood flow”), too.

    The total cost is around AUD$100. As I pay this seemingly exorbitant amount, I’m reminded of that old aphorism about fools and their money. The package lands in my mailbox via the state of New York around two weeks later. The pills are brightly coloured and strong-smelling. I try all three nootropics in isolation, one or two at a time, on different days.

    After swallowing a ThinkDeep for the first time, I realise that I just took an anonymous black and red pill created by an anonymous internet seller who claims to be a biologist. They’ve got a 100% feedback record from over 400 transactions on SR, which counts as a sort of social proof, but still: bad things could happen to me after taking this pill, and the person responsible would never be caught out. (Tryptamine denied Rolling Stone’s request to verify his/her identity, or scientific credentials. “Whatever image you have in your mind’s eye from reading this, that’s how I look,” the seller wrote.)

    “Silk Road allows me to sell my products anonymously, and provides me with hundreds of thousands of potential customers who already take pills that aren’t made by pharmaceutical companies,” Tryptamine tells me. “On the other hand, it is a bit off-putting to see my products listed beside bags of heroin.”

    As it turns out, ThinkDeep doesn’t do much for me, even on another day when I double-dose. In fact, the only significant effect I notice from these three products is when one dose of MindFood eradicates a hangover much faster than my regular methods of paracetamol and/or ibuprofen. Perhaps ThinkDeep and ChillPill are so subtle that I don’t notice their effects; perhaps they don’t work at all. Potential hangover cure aside, it’s difficult to recommend these products for cognitive enhancement purposes.

    At the other end of the nootropic spectrum, far from secretive biologists and solo recipe-tweaking, is an Austin, Texas-based company named Onnit. Their flagship product is named Alpha Brain, which is slickly marketed as a “complete balanced nootropic”. Their biggest public advocate is the comedian, podcaster and former host of Fear Factor, Joe Rogan; they also have a few World Series of Poker players hyping the product on their website. I ordered a 30-pill bottle of Alpha Brain for around $40.

    Each green pill includes small amounts of eleven impressive-sounding substances, from vitamin B6 and vinpocetine, to L-theanine and oat straw. The serving size on the label suggests two pills at a time; as I discover, taking one does nothing. With two Alpha Brain pills circulating in my system, though, I feel an overall mood elevation and a heightened ability to concentrate on tasks at hand: reading, writing, researching. These effects last for between four to six hours.

    Alpha Brain worked for me, but it also feels like a triumph of marketing, too. As there are no clear estimates about the financial side of the nootropics industry, I ask Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus whether it’s a lucrative field. “Absolutely,” he replies, though he won’t comment on Onnit’s annual turnover. “It’s something that everybody can benefit from. Whenever you tap into something [like that], there’s ample opportunity to make good money.” Marcus says that Alpha Brain has been purchased by around 45,000 customers across the world since launching last year. The company currently employs 13 full-time staff.

    He acknowledges that nutritional supplement manufacturers are met with their fair share of critics. “The pharmaceutical industry has done a good job of telling people that synthetic drugs are the only things that have an effect on the body. There are plenty who’ve never tried our products who’ll swear that they’re snake oil,” Marcus laughs. “We encounter that, and we just do our best to show as much research behind all the ingredients that we have.” He mentions that Onnit are intending to commission a double-blind clinical study on the effects of Alpha Brain, which he believes “will go a long way to silence the critics.”

    ++

    Perhaps nootropics aren’t a mainstream concept yet because the people most enthusiastic about their potential benefits are all scientists, marketers out to make a buck, ‘body hackers’, and other weirdoes. There are few ‘normals’ taking these drugs and supplements on a daily basis, so it all looks too strange and confronting for outsiders to try. As a society, we’re taught by our peers and the media that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    There’s also the possibility that nootropics will never become mainstream because their effectiveness is difficult to qualitatively measure, or alternatively, they don’t work at all. In this regard, Australian researchers are world-class sceptics of cognitive enhancement. When I visit the University Of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research (UQCCR) in Brisbane, I’m greeted by Professor Wayne Hall, who was first published on this topic in 2004. His essay, which appeared in a European biology journal, was entitled “Feeling ‘better than well’: Can our experiences with psychoactive drugs help us to meet the challenges of neuroenhancement methods?”

    Hall has studied addiction and drug use for over 20 years. “There’s been a fair amount of enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement [in scientific circles], but it hasn’t looked critically at the evidence on how common this behaviour is,” he says. The professor and his peers argue for “taking a step back, and not getting too excited or encourage unwittingly lots of people to experiment with stimulant drugs for the wrong sorts of reasons”.

    “If you look at the lab studies that have been done on whether these drugs [work], the effects – insofar as there are some – are fairly modest and short-lived,” Hall says. “To be jumping from that, to saying it’s good idea for people to be using these drugs regularly to enhance their cognitive performance, is a bit of a long bow.”

    Dr Bradley Partridge is another UQCCR academic who specialises in investigating “the use of pharmaceuticals by healthy people to enhance their cognition”. I bring along my bottles of Alpha Brain and Tryptamine’s homemade nootropics for him to cast a critical eye over. “I have never used any of these things,” Partridge says. He peers at the labels with bemusement. “And I’ve never heard of most of these ingredients.”

    He places the bottles back on the table. “The thing is, a lot of these supplements are touted as being ‘all natural’, and for some people, that implies that they’re perhaps safe. But it’s very hard to evaluate exactly what’s in it. Aside from safety, where’s the evidence that they actually work for their stated purpose?”

    “There’s no scientific literature on some of this stuff; for others, the results are very mixed. Also, there might be a really strong placebo effect.” He holds up the Alpha Brain bottle, which mentions ‘enhancing mental performance’ in its marketing copy. “You take this and you do an exam; maybe simply taking something makes you feel like you ought to be doing better, and maybe you convince yourself that you’re getting some effect.”

    Hall and Partridge co-authored a study which analysed media reports on “smart drugs”. They found that 95 per cent of media reports mentioned some benefit of taking a drug like Adderall, Ritalin or modafinil, while only 58 per cent mentioned side effects. “I tend to be very cautious about this stuff,” Partridge says. “I don’t like to see this getting portrayed as a widespread phenomenon, as a fantastic thing, that it works, that there are no side effects. That runs the risk of encouraging people who hadn’t thought about it to take it up, which could cause problems for people.”

    I offer to leave some of my nootropics with Dr Partridge for him to conduct his own research; he laughs, and politely declines.

    ++

    Underscoring this entire discussion is the threat of one-upmanship. If I’m taking these drugs and they markedly improve my performance, am I nothing but a filthy nootropic cheater? To address this question, I spoke with Dave Asprey, who has used modafinil constantly for eight years and describes himself on Twitter as a “New York Times-published Silicon Valley entrepreneur/executive/angel who hacked his own biology to gain an unfair advantage in business and life.”

    Asprey has a prescription for the drug, after a brain scan showed a lack of blood flow at the front of his brain – a common symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADD), he says. “Modafinil is actually used commonly as a treatment for ADD,” he tells me. “It’s an off-label use, but it’s accepted; it’s even reimbursable by some insurance companies.”

    Asprey takes modafinil most workdays, upon waking. “It’s not like it’s a great secret out there, it’s just that people don’t talk about it because there’s some feel as though it’s ‘cheating’,” he says. “My perspective is different: if you eat healthy food, then you’re also ‘cheating’, because that impacts brain function. Surprisingly, the only people who’ve ever given me shit about taking modafinil are like, ‘but how do you know it’s not hurting you?’ I’m a bio-hacker; I’ve done all sorts of strange things to my body and mind in the interests of anti-aging, health and performance. I look at my body as part of my support system.’”

    Asprey says that he considers modafinil to be on the healthier spectrum of drugs. He’s also a fan of aniracetam, a fat soluble version of piracetam, which itself was the first-ever nootropic discovered in 1964. “It’s longer lasting [than piracetam],” Asprey says. “I recommend it as a basic biohack. I’ve been using it for a very long time.”

    Though Asprey has never met anyone who bluntly considers nootropics to be bullshit, he hears another argument reasonably often – and he has a clever rebuttal ready. “People say, ‘[nootropics] are evil, because if you take them, then everyone else will have to take them!’ I don’t think that’s a very fair argument, because from that perspective, fire is evil. Back when there were two cavemen, and one had a fire, the other said, ‘you can’t use fire, that’s unfair!’ Well, we know who evolved.”

    ++

    Whether or not I’m qualitatively smarter after experimenting with nootropics for this story is difficult to measure. I feel slightly wiser, and more aware of the limitations of both mind and body after that week of bingeing on modafinil. I certainly appreciate the restorative value of sleep better than ever before, after staying awake for the best part of a full work-week. I found that Alpha Brain is useful for focusing for a few hours, but considering that a two-week supply costs $40, it seems a touch on the expensive side.

    I did order a few dozen additional pills of modafinil, but I intend to use these only when emergency deadlines necessitate long hours. (I’ve read it’s good for combating the effects of jet lag, though, so perhaps I’ll try it on my next international flight.) Ultimately, the nootropic I found most useful – and intend to continue using regularly – is aniracetam, which Dave Asprey told me about. Its mind-sharpening effects are subtler than Alpha Brain, but it’s much cheaper – around $40 for a month’s supply if purchased online – and its effects taper off much more pleasantly than Alpha Brain’s comparatively sudden drop-off in concentration and energy levels.

    Late one night while researching this story, modafinil coursing through my body, I watched Limitless for the second time. It’s not a brilliant film, but it’s entertaining and thought-provoking enough to make the viewer consider seeking out smart pills of their own. It’s easy to see why the nootropic industry’s shadier sellers have attempted to draw parallels between their products and the fictional substance of NZT. After viewing the film, I contacted Alan Glynn, the author behind the 2001 techno-thriller The Dark Fields, which Limitless was based on, via email.

    “The original idea of NZT – called MDT-48 in my book – came from the idea of human perfectibility, of ‘the three wishes’, of the chance to re-invent yourself, of the shortcut to health and happiness,” Glynn tells me. “This is why the diet and self-help industries are so huge. Hold out a promise like that and people will respond. The fact that most of these products and therapies don’t work, or are bogus, doesn’t seem to matter. The real magic here, the real dark art, is marketing. I think that if nootropics ever go mainstream, they’ll be fodder for the marketing industry.”

    I send Glynn a link to the Alpha Brain website and mention that I’ve been taking it while researching this story. “Look, I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone else and when I look at that website, I’m going like, ‘Woah, gimme some of THAT!’” he replies. “And I’m actually seriously considering ordering some. So, from a marketing point of view, I’d say it’s a total success. It’s shiny, professional-looking and stuffed full of ‘the science bit’.”

    “But it’s the massaging of the science bit that is the marketer’s real dark art. The truth is, I couldn’t argue with someone who can talk about ‘GPC choline’ and ‘neurotransmitter precursors’. My instinct is that it’s all bullshit… On the other hand. I don’t know. Have you taken Alpha Brain? Does it work?”

    I reply in the affirmative, and describe my findings in some detail. Alan Glynn, author of the book that inspired the movie that inspired me to write this story in the first place, writes me back immediately: “That’s interesting indeed. I’ve ordered some Alpha Brain, and I’ve just got an email to say it’s been dispatched. I’ll report back to you – in the interests of science, of course.”

    Note: At no point should any of the products mentioned in this article be ingested without first consulting a health professional. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ritalin as an amphetamine; it belongs to the methylphenidate class of stimulants.

    To read more on nootropics, I recommend that you continue your research at Smarter Nootropics. Good luck!

  • Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012

    A story for the January 2012 edition of Australian Penthouse, reproduced below in its entirety. Click the main image for a closer look (which will open a PDF in a new window), or read the article text underneath. You can click any of the below images and screenshots for a larger version, too..

    The High Road
    by Andrew McMillen

    Silk Road is an online marketplace like no other. Totally anonymous, the website uses sophisticated encryption software and a digital currency to facilitate the worldwide sale of prohibited items, particularly illicit drugs. Australian Penthouse investigates.

    “Imagine how exciting it is when you get something in the mail; even the shittiest thing, like a free sample. But in this case, you’re getting drugs that you really want to take, and get high on. It’s a compounded experience of excitement; an exponential high.”

    A 24-year old man who lives in an inner-city suburb of Brisbane is describing what he felt upon opening his mailbox one day in 2011 and discovering a package containing one gram of cocaine. It was addressed to a person who does not exist. He does not know the source of the substance beyond its country of origin. This was not the first time he had purchased drugs online; his first order was for one gram of MDMA powder. That package was sent to a house that he knew was unoccupied; it took around nine days to arrive from Canada. He checked the vacant mailbox daily. “I’m still waiting for some undies off of eBay from Hong Kong,” he says. “[The MDMA] arrived way quicker than that.”

    Why the alternate address in the first instance? “Because having something illicit sent in the mail seems fairly thick,” he replies. “It seems so simple; too good to be true. I wanted to put some form of buffer between myself and the order I made, as a ‘test run’.

    “One day it was in there and it hadn’t been intercepted. I didn’t get immediately arrested when I took it out of the mailbox. Since I didn’t use my real name, it didn’t seem possible to get traced back to me. It still hasn’t been.”

    These orders were made using a website called Silk Road. It can only be accessed after installing anonymity-enabling software called Tor. All purchases are made using Bitcoin, a currency which only exists online and whose public transaction history can be untraceable if handled correctly.

    My interviewee randomly discovered online mentions of Silk Road in May 2011, and pursued the intriguing concept all the way through to installing Tor and trading Australian dollars for Bitcoin; a process he calls “semi-prohibitive” owing to the persistence and tech-knowledge required to check all the boxes before users can place an order. In four transactions, my interviewee has ordered three grams of MDMA and three grams of cocaine at a cost of “close to AUD$700”.

    So what motivated him to take a chance on buying illicit substances online from a complete stranger?

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” he says. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    Visiting Silk Road for the first time, I feel a little like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. After downloading the correct Tor software bundle, I connected within five minutes. A warning appears at the bottom of the registration screen: “Be advised: This website is experimental. We do not guarantee your anonymity, protection from law enforcement in your jurisdiction, or protection from other users of this service. You and you alone are responsible for the risks associated with entering and using this website.” The site does not request any information from its users beyond a username and password; not even an email address. And then, you’re in.

    The site’s bright, clean design displays images of nine items for sale; among them, ‘red joker’ ecstasy pills, one-ounce of the ‘purple kush’ cannabis strain, a $50 Australian banknote and syringes. When I first visit the site in late August 2011, one bitcoin is worth USD$11.15; a fortnight later, the exchange rate has dropped to USD$6.18 per bitcoin.

    The nine ‘featured’ items change upon each page refresh. A column on the left categorises the goods for sale: ‘drugs’ is split into sub-categories like ‘dissociatives’ (11 items for sale), ‘psychedelics’ (123 items), ‘stimulants’ (65) and the most popular category, ‘cannabis’ (237). Other categories include ‘digital goods’, ‘money’, ‘XXX’, ‘weaponry’ and ‘forgeries’.

    At first, it’s a little overwhelming. What Silk Road [SR] offers is the online equivalent of strolling down a dim-lit alley filled with surly guys wearing heavy trenchcoats, except that you can contemplate purchasing their goods while lounging in your underwear, without fear of being stabbed.

    Each page on the site generally takes a few seconds to load, regardless of the user’s connection speed, due to an overcrowded Tor network. A page called ‘how does it work?’ describes the site as “an anonymous marketplace where you can buy and sell without revealing who you are. We protect your identity through every step of the process, from connecting to this site, to purchasing your items, to finally receiving them”. Lengthy guides for both buyers and sellers are freely available. The latter guide states that “every precaution must be taken to maintain the secrecy of the contents of your client’s package. Creatively disguise it such that a postal inspector might ignore it if it was searched or accidentally came open.”

    It concludes with a ‘final note’: “Regardless of your motivations, you are a revolutionary. Your actions are bringing satisfaction to those that have been oppressed for far too long. Take pride in what you do and stand tall.”

    There’s an active and boisterous SR forum community, which is hosted off-site and requires an additional registration; this process requests an email address, but a note states that it doesn’t have to be a legit address.

    After poking around the site and smirking at some of the items for sale – condoms, an e-book of Neil Strauss’ pick-up artist classic The Game, military training manuals – I decide to engage with a few sellers by requesting interviews using the site’s private messaging system.

    Within 10 minutes, three sellers respond enthusiastically to my request; one says, “I’ll even give you a media discount if you order.” The website’s administrator, who goes by the username Silk Road, also responds. “Sorry, we aren’t doing interviews at the moment,” he says. “Good luck.”

    Of the 27 SR sellers I approach during a two-week period on the site, seven respond thoughtfully and at length to my questions. They are mostly based in the US and Canada, though one is Australian. All seven request that I don’t mention their usernames. A few prefer to conduct the interview using PGP text encryption, which adds another element of spookiness to the situation. Most of the sellers found their way to Silk Road after the site was covered online by Wired and Gawker in June 2011.

    When I ask what they like about Silk Road, I’m met with a range of responses. “Being able to provide a safe and anonymous way for someone to purchase something that they choose to put into their body,” says one seller. “It’s nice how it turns drug dealing into an office job, with less risk and more stable demand while interacting openly with customers,” replies another. This focus on administrative duties is echoed by another seller, who says it’s “nice to have everything so organized and centralized, it really cuts down on the time spent per order which is a huge plus when you’ve got a mountain of them to work through.”

    One source remarked aloud, ‘this is the future’, upon finding the site. “The free market has provided for one of the oldest needs in human history,” they elaborate. “[SR] removes the elements of danger that exist in in-person black market arrangements, and offered anonymity for all parties involved.”

    I ask what sellers don’t like about the service. One tells me, “while the majority of users are honest and trustworthy, you always have to keep your guard up. There are plenty of scammers here on SR.” Another is frustrated by the long wait between making a sale and receiving the bitcoins in their account. “It can take a while for people to finalize transactions, so the money gets stuck in escrow until the customer remembers to finalize, or it auto-finalizes after like 20 or so days.”

    One seller is concerned about the silo-like nature of the site: “Having everything organized – vendor statistics easily accessible, reliance on a single server, etc – all makes any vendor, or even SR itself, a juicier target for LE [law enforcement].” An Australian seller replies, “I don’t like being out in the open. Even though I feel rather anonymous within SR, I could always make a simple mistake with my packaging or use of encryption that would give me away.”

    A few of my respondents reveal that they have sold drugs in the real world. One dubs the online process “much easier” than face-to-face sales. “SR buyers have no info about me whatsoever. Whereas with a face-to-face transaction, a buyer might know my name, what I look like, the car that I drive, or the city that I live in. So if they get caught, LE goes up the food chain. Here on SR, there’s nowhere for LE to go.”

    Another seller says SR is preferable because it “takes potential violence right out of the equation, and mitigates theft; you can’t exactly take someone to court for robbing you during a black-market trade, which is why there is so much violence. I prefer SR to offline, any day of the week.” One seller candidly replies, that SR is “better and cleaner. Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house. It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    None of the seven sellers I interviewed would detail how they package the illicit substances sent through the international postal system. A couple mentioned that it’s an unwritten law among SR sellers to not disclose such methods, though I learn by reading the forums that vacuum sealing is common. The young man from Brisbane who received MDMA and cocaine in the mail didn’t want to discuss the appearance of the packages he received, either.

    All this illegal activity must be a rush, even if the process does become somewhat normalised due to the volume of orders that some sellers process. I have one final question. What does it feel like to sell illicit drugs over the internet to complete strangers?

    One replies, “honestly, it can be quite nerve racking. I have no idea if I just sent some illegal items to LE. That’s why it’s so important for a good vendor to use all precautionary tactics to keep important info away from them. Leaving no DNA or fingerprints, and sending from an area where you don’t live. It’s not unusual for a vendor to be wearing hairnets and multiple layers of gloves while packaging the material. If there is even a one-percent chance of some identifying marks on or inside that package, it will be thrown out.”

    Another says, “It’s awesome. Most of the users on Silk Road are good people, and it’s always been a pleasure providing them goods that their corrupt governments have denied them. By simply living our lives and doing what we want to do, we break the government’s iron fist. It’s pretty satisfying.”

    “It feels great,” agrees another. “I get to make a positive contribution in the lives of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to drugs, such as old folks, and people in remote locations.” The seller shares some feedback received by a buyer that they found “really touching”. The feedback reads, “I don’t want to sound all sentimental and crap but in all honesty, my friends and I have become closer and happier with ourselves and each other, thanks to you and your stuff. It’s really been a bonding experience for everyone. We aren’t really the partying type and instead like to chill and talk for hours. Thanks to you, we have shared some amazing experiences.”

    The seller tells me that “getting feedback like that makes those nights spent sweating over a hot vacuum sealer seem worthwhile!”

    For more on Silk Road, visit its Wikipedia page.

  • Big Day Out Public Relations: Is Silence The Best Response?

    A 17-year old girl died from a reported drug overdose at the Perth Big Day Out music festival earlier this month, after taking three ecstasy pills to avoid being caught by police at the gate. This was an unfortunate, but unsurprising occurrence. 

    The surprising element is how Big Day Out publicity have marginalised her behaviour by silencing their highly active online community.

    A statement published on the BDO site on 2 February 2009 reads:

    Perth drug overdose statement

    Early yesterday afternoon a 17-year-old girl was taken to hospital after a suspected drug overdose at the Perth Big Day Out. Tragically she died overnight.

    While details have yet to be confirmed, it has been reported that the teenager consumed a number of pills outside the event to avoid being detected by police sniffer dogs that were in operation, in this instance with fatal consequences. 

    Big Day Out does not condone the use of drugs at the event.  The same laws of the outside world apply inside the event. Over 3 million people have attended the Big Day Out in its 17 year history and this is the first time an incident of this nature has occurred. 

    Sniffer dogs are commonly used outside large events like the Big Day Out and are part of the police’s harm minimisation responsibility. 

    The investigation is being followed up by the Police. 

    To respect the privacy of the family, no further comments will be made.

    In contrary to that final statement, there’s also a dedication page on the BDO site, containing a message from the girl’s mother.

    While the Big Day Out brand will remain untarnished by this event – it’s arguably stronger than ever – this sad occurrence is now inextricably linked to the event’s brand in the same manner as 16-year old Jessica Michalik‘s death during the 2001 tour.

    Where Michalik’s death was the result of inadequate crowd control measures – a mistake rectified from the 2002 tour onwards – Thoms’ drug-related death requires a conversation between Big Day Out publicity and the hundreds of thousands who attend the tour across Australia and New Zealand each year.

    Critically, the online community who follow the event have been silenced: the highly active Big Day Out forum was disabled immediately after the news of Thoms’ death broke, and it remains closed almost a month later. 

    bdo_closed

    http://forum.bigdayout.com/ as of 21 February 2009

    Silence isn’t the best response here.

    In this case,  Big Day Out publicity invite criticism by refusing to allow a dialogue to occur.

    The only publicised offshoot of Thoms’ death is a Western Australian police commissioner agreeing that “amnesty bins” should be installed outside music festivals, to allow punters to deposit their drugs without fear of prosecution. And to minimise the likelihood of festival attendees overdosing in a panic before entering the venue, as in Thoms’ case.

    There’s nothing new about youth drug culture. But when an unfortunate event such as an overdose occurs, people start asking questions of the police, of the festival organisers, of each other.

    In a time of crisis or confusion, people want to connect with each other. And while an isolated festival overdose isn’t the strongest catalyst for either impulse, it’s still an occasion better met with community encouragement than marginalisation; with noise instead of silence.

    I understand that moderating public opinion becomes exponentially more difficult as a greater volume of people converge in one location. The need to consistently and accurately monitor the fine line between opinion and libel is likely at the forefront of the organisers’ swift decision to close the public forum.

    Censorship aside, an alternative forum named Small Night In has sprung up following the closure. But many questions remain unanswered:

    • Why silence an established, highly active online community following a drug-related death?
    • Why not encourage a dialogue between festival attendees and festival organisers?
    • Why not partner with an established organisation such as the Australian Drug Information Network (ADIN) and encourage participation – both online and in BDO-sponsored community forums held in capital cities – to gauge youth opinion on drug use, so as to minimise the chances of a repeat e?
    • Most importantly: why not work harder to turn a negative event into a positive by reinforcing a sense of community?

    Funnily, I was only provoked into thinking about the BDO organisers’ handling of the Thoms death after I received an email  sent to the BDO user database advertising Lily Allen’s June Australian tour.

    Promote a tour; marginalise the voices of Australian youths itching to converge and converse.

    Poor form, Big Day Out.