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I could be trite and say only that they are psychoactive substances used for research by scientists and they also known as "designer drugs" but that doesn’t really tell you anything.
On an abstract level, ‘chemicals’ or ‘chemical substances’ are defined as any kind of matter that is consistently made up of one type of atom or molecule – something that is (within certain tolerances) purely only one type of material.
Researchers undertake extensive, systematic testing and experimentation to learn new facts and develop more accurate theories. Because research chemicals are chemically pure, they are useful to researchers. They always behave the same way when exposed to other chemicals or substances, so they can be used to test or manipulate those substances in predictable ways.
Therefore, research chemists use research chemicals to better understand chemistry, and how to combine chemicals in new ways, producing new substances, or producing known substances in new ways. Without research chemists, we wouldn’t have anything much more advanced than wood and stone tools, and you certainly wouldn’t be reading this article.
On a more practical level, ‘research chemicals’ or "designer drugs" are different from other kinds of chemicals in a few important ways. They are defined as research chemicals because they are intended to be used only for research, never as additives, supplements, medicines or drugs for humans or even animals. However, use on plants is not automatically ruled out.
There are several classes of research chemicals, including pharmacological and agricultural research chemicals.
Pharmacological Research Chemicals
These are chemicals which are useful in studying, testing or inventing new drugs and pharmaceuticals. Pharmacological research chemicals are not themselves pharmaceuticals, but many can be useful in producing pharmaceuticals.
Many pharmaceutical research chemicals are also useful for toxicology, especially for testing blood and tissue samples for exposure to different drugs and chemicals.
Agricultural Research Chemicals
Also called ‘agrochemicals’, these are used to develop, test or produce fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals farmers and ranchers use in their work. As these products are made for eventual distribution to end users, often in more or less unregulated circumstances, the agrochemical industry tends to use code names or brand names to make it more difficult for other chemists to duplicate their work.
Research Chemicals in the Law
In a legal context, ‘research chemicals’ are once again defined by the way they are used. They are any chemical used in chemistry, medicine, agriculture or veterinary science. They are not medicines, drugs or treatments, but can be used to develop or produce these substances by skilled chemists.
Because this is an important legal distinction, most countries require manufacturers to label research chemicals clearly. Making sure these labels are clear and consistent helps governments, ports and trade authorities identify those chemicals which are not ‘controlled substances’, and allow them to pass into commerce normally. As so many research chemicals can be described as ‘a fine white powder’, it is clearly in both the manufacturer’s and the government’s interest that police and regulatory resources are not wasted on false alarms and testing.
Now, let’s take one research chemical as an example, and learn more about it - MDMA
MDMA is known by many names, including 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, Methylone, Molly and many others. Its IUPAC designation is (RS)-1-(Benzo[d][1,3]dioxol-5-yl)-N-methylpropan-2-amine.
Whether you call it Methylone, Molly, X or Ecstasy, the material has an interesting history. It has many uses as a research chemical, both in chemical testing and as a precursor for many other useful substances. It is perhaps best known, though, as one of the first ‘designer drugs’.
Designer drugs are really a way of misusing research chemicals. They are substances which were never intended for human consumption that, nonetheless, have powerful effects on humans who consume them. Most act on the same chemical receptors (part of the human neural system) that natural drugs do, but are chemically different enough that they are, at least for a time, not illegal. For example, MDMA is structurally very similar to an older drug called Bk-MDMA, and has similar effects. Both agonise certain chemical receptors and inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, a naturally occurring brain chemical linked to pleasure and mood.
For a time, consumption of MDMA was not technically illegal in many countries. It did not take long for some people to take advantage of this fact, and though there are no uncriticised studies of the actual toxicity of MDMA, poor production quality of what had become an unlicensed and unregulated drug had many serious health effects.
Of course, governments soon acknowledged the danger of chemicals like methylone/molly, and made them officially controlled substances as well. MDMA is now itself illegal in most countries because if its history of abuse.