Visualizing drug talk on

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In mainstream media, there’s not a lot to be found about recreational drugs except horror stories and arguments for prohibition. From time to time we also hear that Steve Jobs liked to drop acid when he was young, that countless Vietnam vets easily kicked heroin habit upon coming home, and, as US-fed-sponsored study found out, that psychedelic mushrooms can bring a lasting and positive personality change in more than half of those who take them.

Where to find good information? There exist internet communities, so-called harm-reduction forums, where one can spend a few hours to discover that the truth is not black and white. Surely junkies exist, and using meth daily is not a life strategy anyone could recommend, but not all drugs were created equal. There are many classes of recreational drugs, each acting on specific chemical pathways in body – uppers on dopamine, hallucinogens on serotonin, downers on GABA, etc.

Mapping drugs

I thought it would be nice to visualize these drug groups based on what users of harm-reduction forums say, so I analyzed around 1.2 million posts on and constructed a simple diagram that tells a lot. It was constructed in such a way that drugs that are frequently mentioned together, appear together. Circle radii are proportional with frequency of appearance of the same drugs in the posts. Methodology is explained at the bottom of the post.

Here’s the diagram, pan and zoom at will:

Click here to peruse a clickable, searchable version of the same diagram (give it a second to load). To download a high-resolution image (8000 x 6000), click here (black) or here (white).

The drug groups are color coded for better readability. Starting from the top:

  • light blue group: mostly antidepressives – SSRIs such as Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft and such.
  • violet group:  mainly contains benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, and Lorazepam, which are commonly abused, but there are a lot of other downers there.
  • orange group: opiates and opioids, soch as heroin, oxycontin and the like. There were so many mentions of “opiates” without referring to a specific chemical that I considered it would be a pity to leave the word out.
  • dark yellow group on the right: mostly dissociatives such as ketamine and DXM, but there’s also a subgroup on the right side. It forms a larger group, mixed with differently colored drugs, that could be called “shamanic corner”, as it mostly contains so-called entheogens and natural concoctions such as ayahuasca.
  • light orange group: mainly nootropics such as Piracetam. Some use them to enhance a psychedelic or MDMA experience, but they have a more general use as memory, intelligence and sensory enhancers.
  • red group: I don’t know what to call this, but these are “working man’s drugs”. The common drugs that we hear about in the media. Some of these drugs are not considered drugs at all, for example alcohol and tobacco, but the Bluelight discussions show that they are very common. Thinking about it, one must have something to drink while one insufflates synthetic powders, and a cigarette is also a good thing to have while waiting for something stronger to take hold.
  • green group: psychedelic drugs such as shrooms, LSD, DMT and mescaline, along with many newer variations and analogs, such as 2C-X family, the DMT analogs and the whole Tihkal inventory.
  • blue group: Ecstasy (MDMA) and newer stimulants and entactogens, such as methylone, mephedrone, etc. “Plant foods” and “bath salts” are in this category.

Mapping effects

Simply mapping out the drugs is nice, but additional step seemed in order: mapping coincidence of various effects the drugs have on users. Again, posts were analyzed, but in addition to drugs, some (not all!) common effects were extracted and mapped in a network. Result is in the diagram below. Darker dots are effects, lighter are drugs. Size is again proportional to number of mentions in all posts.

Click here to peruse a clickable, searchable version of the same diagram. To download a high-resolution image, click here (black) or here (white).

Note that above diagram does not indicate semantic relationships between drugs and their effects. For example, why is “marijuana” close to “death”? Maybe there was a lot of talk about fear of death that the marijuana experience helps to resolve, or maybe people like to describe how they are dying of laughter while smoking weed. I honestly don’t know. I suspect it’s because of close relationship between mentions (not necessarily use!) of marijuana and those of alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine, which could have a more significant relation with death or dying.
What’s really notable is heavy clustering of adverse effects around opiates, and relative absence of same around psychedelics. Based on Bluelight data, I can safely conclude that psychedelic drugs do not cause users to complain a lot, except maybe mentioning hallucinations and visuals, but, well …

Drug use over the years

My whole database contains posts from 2010 until March 2013. Here’s an analytical tool to better understand what’s going on in the recreational drug market community. Time is on horizontal axis, while the proportion of posts mentioning specific drug relative to all posts in that month is on the vertical axis.

Play around with interactive chart to discover emerging trends, or simply to behold the wax and wane of specific chemicals as they compete for users’ neurological apparatuses, while their manufacturers are temporarily evading ever stricter analog laws:

Commentary: Bluelight is a harm reduction forum, historically established for the users to be able to tell a good Ecstasy pill from the bad, so MDMA is the most mentioned drug. Use of “classic” drugs doesn’t change much, but it’s interesting to note the rise of new “research chemicals” such as NBOME family, new cathinones (3-MMC), new synthetic canabinoids (STS-135) and different amphetamines, prevalently methamphetamine. You can also see how the newly banned drugs, for example mephedrone, go out of use, and their analogs, in this case 3-MMC, replace them.

Methodology and tools

First, all the Bluelight forums were crawled and contents, dates and other metadata of all posts put into a SOLR index. That took approximately two days of not too aggressive load on their server (thanks Bluelight for not banning my IP).
To make first two network diagrams, undirected graphs were constructed with JGraphT library so that all extracted entities – drugs and effects – in every post were connected as nodes. Mentions of all extracted entities were counted to make the dots size show frequencies, not network degrees. That yielded complete graphs to be visualized with Gephi. Gephi files were exported to a TileMill-friendly format to render map tiles. Tiles are displayed on the site using Leaflet.
To make the interactive chart, SOLR was used to produce time series. Data was then packed into suitable format for the Flot library to be able to display.
To extract entities, two dictionaries were used – one for drugs, one for effects. You can download them here: drugs / effects.
If anyone is interested in the SOLR core, I can put it on Dropbox. Send me a note, my email is on the About page.

What is not here, but could be

  • analysis of effects that specific drugs have over time
  • a chart of effects only
  • some different visualization that could help to establish relationships between specific drugs and effects they have. For example, it’s been known for some time that mephedrone and various dragonflies have vasoconstrictive effects. Maybe some other relationship could be inferred that way.
  • first map should be clickable to search on Wikipedia, I’ll add that as soon as I figure out the Wax lib.

I may revisit this theme in the future.

Some pics:

Drug talk visualizations

  1. really good work! thanks!

  2. Wow! Great work.

    Hallucinogens are well represented.

  3. This page and your effort in aggregating filtering sorting and especially your graphic visualization/presentation of all of this is beyond awesome. I was quite active on BL at a time, and even served as a moderator. So to me, to see something so…slick and presented in a way that makes total sense to me, well, I just have to say thank you and I’m really glad I saw this.


    1. Thanks, I appreciate that!

  4. I flipped through your drug dictionary. In general, very thorough! But as long as you are grouping ecstasy with MDMA, you may as well combine psilocin, psilocybin, and mushrooms into one category. Not strictly the same thing of course, but it would give a better indication of overall shrooms discussions. Same goes for peyote and mescaline. By the way, the dictionary misspells psilocybin. Properly spelled references will not get counted–perhaps that is why the bubble is so surprisingly small.

    The dictionary could also include a few more modernizations and slang terms, such as pharmahuasca and candyflipping. Also “2C-I-NBOMe” should point to 25i-NBOME, and “2C-C-NBOMe” should point to 25C-NBOME (they are chemically identical). And “percocet” is counted as oxycodone, yet “Vicodin” is considered separately from hydrocodone. Oxycontin doesn’t appear at all. Neither does “tryptamine.” “Phenethylamines” is misspelled so that correctly spelled references will not get counted, and “yeyo” is much more commonly spelled “yayo”. But I doubt any of these would substantially change the resulting graphs.

    Lastly, the dictionary considers “harmala” a synonym for “Syrian rue”– if anything it should be the other way around, since Syrian rue belongs to the family of harmala alkaloids. Perhaps grouping all the harmalas together–notably harmine, harmaline, Syrian rue, and THH (which, by the way, ought to be listed as a synonym for tetrahydroharmine)–would prove more informative. I’m surprised none of them show up near DMT in the network graph already, since they are often used to render it orally effective.

    These are all nitpicks intended to improve an already marvelous job. Thanks for this! Sorry for the obscenely long comment!

    1. Yes, that’s all true. The dic is big and I compiled it from various sources, plus I had to add some variations to catch misspellings. A file that big can quickly get over your head, especially when it comes to proofing.
      I agree with your proposals for grouping, and yes, I missed oxycontin in the results, but it didn’t occur to me that I forgot to add it in the dic.
      I could amend it, but I don’t really feel like running analysis again. I guess the graphs wouldn’t change much as you say.
      Thanks for congratulations! I hope you can use this in some way.

  5. Great work! Here I am searching for infographics related to drug use, and it turns out you just published this set of visualizations yesterday!

    Could you elaborate on the vertical axis of the historical graph? What does a prevalence of .025 indicate, for instance?

    Another confusing aspect (due to the nature of the source data) is the use of both drug classes and specific drugs in the network graphs. It would be clearer if LSD and mushrooms, etc, appeared within the “hallucinogens” bubble rather than separate from it. Interesting, it appears that people talk about benzos, opiates, and hallucinogens as groups very often, whereas stimulants, dissociatives, and sedatives are usually mentioned by specific compound.

    1. I agree the numbers on vertical axis are somewhat confusing. They represent proportion of posts that contain specific drug relative to all posts in a month. So if a drug hits 0.05 on January 2011, it means that that drug was mentioned in 5% of all posts in same month.
      About second question – yes it’s true, I didn’t map only specific chemicals, but also mentions of classes. In many posts, they talk about classes of drugs without specifying the chemical. I thought that would be nice to show, but the price is that the network diagram is somewhat confusing.
      Thanks for pointing it out.

      1. Okay, that makes sense. Maybe label the axis “Percent of posts containing the term”, and multiply the values by 100. That would be pretty clear.

  6. My guess would be that marihuana and death are mentioned together as in NO death ever registered because of marihuana.

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