In 2018, more than 53 million people in the United States used an illicit drug. That’s about one in five people. The funny thing about street drugs is that there’s very little consideration for what’s inside them — even though the same users might be very mindful of how much sugar there’s in the food they buy.
German artist Sarah Schönfeld has always been fascinated by how people interact with hard drugs. As a photographer, she decided to explore this topic visually. She liquified drops of heroin, amphetamine, LSD, anti-depressants, and scores of other drugs onto photo negatives. The negative’s emulsion chemically reacted with the drugs, creating all sorts of trippy crystals that remarkably look like people feel on the respective drugs.
She is not alone. Dutch photographer Maurice Mikkers did something similar very similar with his trusty Canon 5D Mark III and a trinocular microscope. Mikkers bought his own hard drugs from the dark web — just for science because he doesn’t use them — and made microscopic photos of MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly), GHB, and DMT. He also took a jab at some popular painkillers and other prescription drugs, birth control pills, antibiotics, and even caffeine. His fascinating process is a story of its own.
From the delicate crystalline formations of methamphetamine to the powdery white crystals of cocaine, these images offer a rare glimpse into the microcosms of both addiction and therapy. Prepare to explore the hidden landscapes of these substances, which are as captivating aesthetically as they can be dangerous.
Table of contents
- 1 Amphetamine under the microscope
- 2 Speed + Magic under the microscope
- 3 MDMA under the microscope
- 4 LSD under the microscope
- 5 Ketamine under the microscope
- 6 Heroin under the microscope
- 7 GHB under the microscope
- 8 Meth under the microscope
- 9 Cocaine under the microscope
- 10 DMT under the microscope
- 11 Caffeine under the microscope
- 12 2C-B under the microscope
- 13 Adrenaline under the microscope
- 14 Valium under the microscope
Amphetamine under the microscope
Amphetamine, commonly known as “speed,” is a potent stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It is a synthetic substance with chemical similarities to adrenaline, producing heightened energy levels, increased focus, and enhanced alertness. The drug achieves its effects by increasing the release and blocking the reuptake of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, in the brain.
Speed’s stimulating properties make it a popular recreational drug, often used to induce feelings of euphoria, confidence, and intense wakefulness. However, its abuse potential and associated risks cannot be overlooked. Prolonged or excessive use of speed can lead to a range of negative consequences, including addiction, cardiovascular problems, insomnia, anxiety, and even psychosis.
Speed + Magic under the microscope
Mephedrone is a synthetic stimulant that falls under the category of cathinones, known for their amphetamine-like effects. When combined with amphetamines like speed, the combination can lead to a potent and unpredictable stimulant experience.
The mixture of speed and mephedrone can result in intensified stimulant effects, including increased energy, heightened euphoria, and enhanced sociability. Users may experience heightened alertness, a sense of confidence, and a desire for increased social interaction. The combination can produce an intense and prolonged high, amplifying the overall stimulant experience.
However, theightened stimulant activity on the cardiovascular system can lead to elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and potential strain on the heart. Users should be cautious about the potential for cardiovascular complications and take steps to ensure their safety.
MDMA under the microscope
MDMA, scientifically known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, belongs to the family of phenethylamines and alters the brain’s chemistry by increasing the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This results in a profound emotional and sensory experience, characterized by increased empathy, heightened sociability, and enhanced emotional introspection.
In recent years, a remarkable resurgence of interest has emerged surrounding MDMA, also known as “ecstasy” or “molly,” as a potential therapeutic tool in the field of mental health. Long relegated to the realms of recreational substance use and club culture, this synthetic psychoactive compound has garnered attention for its potential therapeutic benefits, particularly in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While MDMA’s journey from illicit substance to a potential therapeutic tool is still underway, its positive impact on mental health treatment has sparked a glimmer of hope among scientists, clinicians, and patients alike.
LSD under the microscope
In the realm of psychedelic substances, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) has captivated the human imagination since its accidental discovery in the 1940s. Often associated with counterculture movements and the exploration of altered states of consciousness, LSD continues to intrigue researchers and provoke discussions about its potential therapeutic applications.
LSD, chemically known as lysergic acid diethylamide, belongs to a class of compounds known as hallucinogens. When ingested, it interacts with specific receptors in the brain, primarily those related to the neurotransmitter serotonin. This interaction results in profound changes in perception, cognition, and emotions, leading to what users describe as a “trip” characterized by sensory distortions, vivid hallucinations, and altered thoughts.
While the subjective experience varies greatly among individuals, common themes emerge, including an expanded sense of self, a dissolution of boundaries between oneself and the surrounding world, and profound introspection.
Beyond the recreational use that gained notoriety in the 1960s, LSD has gained attention as a potential therapeutic tool in recent years. Controlled studies have explored its role in facilitating psychotherapy for various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and addiction. Research suggests that under carefully controlled conditions, LSD may enhance therapeutic outcomes by promoting self-reflection, emotional breakthroughs, and personal insights.
Ketamine under the microscope
Ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, interacts with the brain’s glutamate receptors, leading to a cascade of effects that set it apart from traditional antidepressants. Unlike conventional antidepressant medications that may take weeks or even months to yield noticeable results, ketamine’s effects can often be observed within hours, making it a promising option for individuals experiencing acute depressive episodes or those who have not responded to other treatments.
Moreover, ketamine’s unique mechanism of action allows it to work through pathways distinct from traditional antidepressants, providing a glimmer of hope for those who have struggled to find relief from their mental health challenges.
However, ketamine is also a common party drug. When used recreationally, ketamine has a high potential for abuse, which can lead to addiction and serious health complications.
Despite the promising results and growing acceptance of ketamine as a therapeutic tool, questions surrounding its long-term effects and optimal dosing strategies remain. Ongoing research aims to address these concerns and deepen our understanding of ketamine’s mechanisms of action. Additionally, efforts to enhance accessibility to this treatment modality and ensure its safe and ethical use continue to be at the forefront of discussions within the scientific and medical communities.
Heroin under the microscope
Heroin, derived from morphine, is synthesized from the resin of poppy plants. Classified as a central nervous system depressant, heroin binds to specific receptors in the brain, particularly those involved in pain perception and reward systems. Upon entering the brain, it is rapidly converted back into morphine, leading to a surge of dopamine release, which creates intense feelings of euphoria and relaxation.
While the initial rush of pleasurable sensations may entice individuals to experiment with heroin, the subsequent effects can be catastrophic. The chemical makeup of heroin allows it to cross the blood-brain barrier swiftly, leading to a rapid onset of both short-term and long-term consequences. The repeated use of heroin can cause profound changes in brain chemistry, impacting decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Moreover, as tolerance develops, higher doses are required to achieve the desired effects, leading individuals down a treacherous path towards addiction.
The ramifications of heroin addiction extend far beyond individual lives, permeating communities and straining public health systems. The opioid epidemic has witnessed a staggering increase in overdose deaths and has left countless families shattered. Addressing this crisis requires a multifaceted approach, including prevention efforts, access to evidence-based treatment options, and harm reduction strategies.
GHB under the microscope
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is a compound that elicits both intrigue and concern within the scientific community due to its complex nature. On one hand, GHB holds promise as a potential therapeutic agent, particularly in the treatment of sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Its ability to enhance slow-wave sleep has garnered attention, and ongoing research aims to explore its efficacy further. Additionally, GHB has shown potential in reducing alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it an area of interest for addiction treatment.
However, the recreational use of GHB presents significant risks, with reports of sedation, euphoria, and instances of misuse as a “date rape drug.” Striking a balance between its therapeutic potential and recreational risks remains a challenge in the scientific and medical community.
Meth under the microscope
Methamphetamine, commonly known as meth, is a synthetic stimulant that has garnered significant attention due to its powerful effects on the central nervous system. As a compound with a dual nature, methamphetamine offers therapeutic potential in certain medical contexts, but its illicit use and associated risks have created a severe public health concern.
In medical settings, methamphetamine has been prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and, in some cases, obesity. It works by increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, enhancing focus and attention. However, the potential for abuse and addiction, as well as adverse side effects, necessitate careful prescribing practices and monitoring in these therapeutic applications.
Outside of medical settings, methamphetamine’s illicit use poses significant risks to individuals and communities. Its powerful stimulant properties create intense euphoria, increased energy, and heightened confidence, but these effects come at a high cost. Prolonged use of methamphetamine can lead to severe physical and mental health consequences, including addiction, psychosis, cardiovascular problems, dental decay (known as “meth mouth”), and structural brain changes.
Cocaine under the microscope
Cocaine is a potent stimulant derived from the coca plant. With its powerful effects on the central nervous system, cocaine has historical associations with medical applications, but its illicit use and associated risks have cast a shadow over its potential benefits.
In medical contexts, cocaine’s anesthetic properties have been recognized, primarily for local anesthesia in certain surgeries or medical procedures. However, due to its highly addictive nature and the availability of safer alternatives, its medical use is now extremely limited. The potential for addiction and the risks associated with cardiovascular and neurological complications necessitate extreme caution and careful consideration when exploring its therapeutic potential.
The recreational use of cocaine presents significant risks and has contributed to a substantial public health challenge. The rapid onset of euphoria and increased energy associated with cocaine use can lead to intense cravings and compulsive drug-seeking behavior. The short-term effects of cocaine include heightened alertness, elevated mood, and increased sociability. However, prolonged use can result in detrimental consequences, including addiction, cardiovascular issues, respiratory problems, neurological impairments, and psychiatric disorders such as paranoia and psychosis.
DMT under the microscope
Dimethyltryptamine, commonly known as DMT, is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound that has gained significant attention within the scientific community for its profound effects on consciousness. DMT is found in various plants, as well as in trace amounts in the human brain, and is known for inducing intense, short-lived psychedelic experiences often described as “breakthrough” or “spiritual” in nature.
When consumed, either through inhalation or injection, DMT rapidly crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds to serotonin receptors, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor. This interaction leads to a cascade of altered states of consciousness, including vivid visual hallucinations, changes in perception of time and space, and profound introspective experiences. Many individuals report encountering entities or otherworldly beings during DMT trips, leading to speculation about its potential role in exploring the nature of consciousness and the mystical aspects of human experience.
While the mechanisms behind DMT’s effects are still not fully understood, scientific research suggests that it may play a role in modulating the brain’s default mode network (DMN), a network of brain regions involved in self-referential thinking and introspection. By temporarily disrupting the DMN, DMT may allow for the exploration of alternate states of consciousness, unlocking aspects of the mind that are typically inaccessible in ordinary waking life.
Caffeine under the microscope
Caffeine, a naturally occurring compound found in various plants, has become an integral part of daily life for millions around the world. Renowned for its ability to boost alertness and combat fatigue, caffeine’s dual nature as a stimulant warrants a closer examination of its effects and potential health implications.
As a central nervous system stimulant, caffeine acts by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, which helps prevent drowsiness and promotes wakefulness. Its effects can be felt within minutes of consumption, leading to increased focus, improved cognitive performance, and enhanced physical endurance. With its widespread availability in beverages such as coffee, tea, and energy drinks, caffeine has become a staple for many individuals seeking a daily energy boost.
While moderate caffeine consumption is generally considered safe for most healthy adults, it is essential to acknowledge that excessive intake or sensitivity to caffeine can lead to adverse effects. Some individuals may experience jitteriness, increased heart rate, digestive discomfort, or difficulty sleeping. Additionally, regular and excessive consumption of caffeine can contribute to dependency and tolerance, which may result in withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.
2C-B under the microscope
2C-B, a psychedelic phenethylamine compound, has emerged as a subject of interest among researchers exploring the effects and potential therapeutic applications of hallucinogens. Known for its unique combination of psychedelic and empathogenic qualities, 2C-B has gained popularity in recreational settings and is now being examined for its potential therapeutic benefits.
When ingested, 2C-B interacts primarily with serotonin receptors in the brain, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor, triggering altered states of consciousness and sensory perception. Users often report experiencing vivid visual hallucinations, enhanced sensory awareness, and heightened emotional empathy. The empathogenic effects of 2C-B are considered distinct from other psychedelics, as they promote a sense of emotional openness, empathy, and enhanced social interaction, making it potentially valuable for therapeutic applications such as couples therapy or trauma processing.
Adrenaline under the microscope
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, stands as a remarkable hormone that plays a central role in the body’s response to stress and emergency situations. With its potent effects on multiple physiological systems, adrenaline holds a dual nature as a vital survival mechanism and a potential contributor to various health implications.
Produced and released by the adrenal glands, adrenaline acts as a neurotransmitter and hormone, activating the body’s “fight-or-flight” response when confronted with a perceived threat or intense stress. This hormone rapidly triggers a cascade of physiological changes, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and enhanced glucose release into the bloodstream. These responses prepare the body for immediate action, boosting energy levels, sharpening focus, and improving physical performance.
While adrenaline is essential for survival in acute stress situations, chronic activation or excessive release of this hormone can have implications for overall health. Prolonged exposure to stress and heightened adrenaline levels may contribute to conditions such as chronic anxiety, cardiovascular issues, and metabolic imbalances. Additionally, individuals with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease or hypertension, may need to manage their adrenaline responses carefully.
Valium under the microscope
Valium, also known by its generic name diazepam, belongs to the class of medications called benzodiazepines. Revered for its calming and sedative effects, Valium has become a commonly prescribed drug for various medical conditions. However, its dual nature as a potent anxiolytic and its potential for abuse and dependence necessitate a closer examination of its effects and associated risks.
Valium acts by enhancing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity, resulting in sedation, relaxation, and reduced anxiety. It is primarily prescribed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders, muscle spasms, and seizures. Valium’s ability to induce calmness and promote sleep has made it a valuable tool in certain medical settings, such as preoperative anxiety reduction or the management of acute alcohol withdrawal.
While Valium can be highly effective in providing short-term relief, its long-term use poses potential risks. Benzodiazepines, including Valium, have a high potential for dependence and addiction. Prolonged use can lead to tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the desired effect, and withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation. Additionally, Valium can impair cognitive function and motor coordination, making activities such as driving hazardous, particularly when combined with other substances that depress the central nervous system.
Editor’s note: not all of these images are taken using a microscope. Some of them are zoomed-in photos of samples using a DSLR camera lens without additional enhancement.