Michael Skinnider, Assistant Professor and Member at the Ludwig Princeton Branch, has won the grand prize for the NOMIS & Science Young Explorer Award for his essay 'Hallucinating Hallucinogens,' excerpted below:
Early on the morning of 12 July 2016, paramedics were called to the scene of a mass casualty event in Brooklyn (1). Bystanders had reported that multiple individuals were displaying unusual behavior that they described as “zombie-like.” Investigators quickly established that all the affected individuals had smoked a packet of “herbal products” marketed as “AK-47 24 Karat Gold.”
But this was not a typical drug overdose: Most recreational drugs, after all, do not cause users to stagger mechanically through the street, moaning and staring blankly. What “herbal product” could cause such alarming symptoms?
Forensic scientists suspected the packet contained a completely new “designer drug” that had just emerged on the illicit market. Over the following weeks, a team of forensic chemists worked feverishly to establish the identity of the drug: a potent synthetic cannabinoid named AMB-FUBINACA. This compound had originally been developed by Pfizer but was later abandoned and never tested in humans. In vitro data suggested that AMB-FUBINACA was 85 times more potent than D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis—a level of potency that could account for its zombie-like effects (2).