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The Story of NBOMes, Counterfeit LSD That Makes You See ‘Giant Flying Insects’

They’re like acid, but weirder and more dangerous

The year was 1974, and chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, who would introduce the world to MDMA a couple years later, had just created one of his all-time favorite psychedelics in a crowded lab on his Bay Area property: 2C-B. Unbeknownst to him, though, the 2C family of drugs would act as stepping stones for a new psychoactive discovery nearly 30 year later: NBOMes, also known as “N-Bombs,” which are analogs of Shulgin’s 2C pharmaceuticals and were unveiled in a Berlin lab by Ralf Heim, then a PhD student in chemistry.

Heim didn’t set out to synthesize drugs that would make you see huge flashing ghosts, which NBOMes can do as synthetic hallucinogens. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s evidence team, he was simply looking for “pharmacological tools to study the 5-HT2A receptor,” which belongs to the serotonin receptor family and could provide insight into the development of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression

Heim was somewhat quiet about his findings, though, and NBOMes would live in relative obscurity until several years later when Purdue University chemist David Nichols caught wind of them. “A technician in [Heim’s] lab sent me a copy of a poster he’d presented at a scientific meeting,” Nichols tells me. “He had no behavioral data, so we made several of the compounds and tested them in rats, where we observed very high potency — about comparable to LSD.” 

“We started out by giving them doses that were too large, and they all got diarrhea,” Nichols continues. But once they got the dosage right, the critters happily lapped up the NBOMes: “The rats were trained to discriminate LSD from saline, and they perceived the NBOMe compound to be like LSD.”

Though, as an unexpected side effect, his experiment “caught the attention of underground chemists,” Nichols says, adding that “lots of people” were watching what he was working on. “[NBOMes are] very easy to synthesize, and because of their high potency, a little goes a long way.” They’re also economical to make — they’ve been known to sell online for as low as $1.50 a tab — whereas synthesizing LSD is incredibly arduous, requiring a premium (and expensive) laboratory, access to strictly regulated chemicals, and of course, a profound knowledge of chemistry. This was music to the ears of eager drug dealers, who “began putting them on blotters and selling them as LSD.” (NBOMes are taken much like acid, absorbed by the lining of your mouth, but they’re known for tasting especially bitter — noticeably more so than acid.)

Naturally, that’s when people started taking NBOMes — particularly 25I-NBOMe and 25C-NBOMe, which are two popular derivatives — either intentionally or as counterfeit acid. “In 2010, the first anecdotal evidence of human use of NBOMe drugs began to emerge as people on online drug discussion boards started posting their experiences,” the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s evidence team tells me via email.

These experiences look a lot like acid trips, although many describe NBOMes as more “claustrophobic,” harder on your body and more likely to result in a bad trip. “My bedsheets have circles on them,” one online trip report reads. “Looking at them, there are detailed human faces in each circle. Each one looks hostile and is staring at me in some sort of unhappy manner. I don’t really mind though, and I glare back at them.”

The same trip report also describes hallucinating fractals, rainbows and “giant flying insects — hornets and wasps and beetles.” Then, something especially interesting happens: “I curl up like a dead bug and feel my limbs go numb. Am I dying? Doesn’t matter — the world looks cool.” (The sheer apathy of this human is amazing.)

But not all users are so nonchalant. “I was just convinced that we were going to die,” one NBOMe user who thought she was taking LSD tells ABC News in Australia. “I thought that everything was going to blow up. I had these petrol canisters in the back of my car that I had from another trip, and I was just convinced they were going to blow up, so I grabbed them both. I ran and threw them into the mountain. I was just convinced that everything was out to get us.”

Like any drug, taking NBOMes also has been known to result in worse things than freaking out and seeing big bugs. “Unfortunately, these compounds have caused a number of deaths,” Nichols says (deaths have occurred both as a direct result of NBOMe-related toxicity and bad decisions, like jumping into a stream, while under the influence of NBOMes). “No one knows why, but that would prevent them from any therapeutic use.” He adds that some users develop prolonged adverse effects, like hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder, where their hallucinations continue well after cessation of the trip. Meanwhile, zero deaths have been attributed to genuine LSD alone (although, again, there have been a few cases where someone on LSD died as a result of their stimulated thinking). 

Many who end up in a bad spot because of NBOMes do so because of psychosis-induced injuries, but there are also reports that claim these drugs can thicken your blood and narrow your blood vessels, which could prompt problems like heart attacks, renal failure and even strokes.

Therefore, especially because of how fatal NBOMes can be in higher amounts, it’s recommended that you test the waters with lower doses — if you’re familiar with LSD, consider starting with a quarter of an NBOMe tab and seeing how you feel. It’s also suggested that you test your LSD to make sure it’s not an NBOMe — that way, you don’t end up doing too much.

Likewise, because many of the more common NBOMes are illegal in the U.S. (among other countries), clandestine chemists have been known to synthesize new NBOMes and market them as “legal highs.” This can, of course, pose some problems as far as appropriate dosing and known side effects go. Essentially, you’re venturing into the unknown with some NBOMes.

And so, while NBOMes provide a unique opportunity to see some weird shit, the overall consensus is that they’re less fun and more dangerous than good ‘ol LSD.

After all, you know what they say: If it ain’t broke, don’t do a drug that’s worse and could kill you.