Scientists Try to Take the Fun Out of Drugs


A study reported this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that an experimental "cocaine vaccine" was mostly ineffective at reducing consumption of the drug. Less than two-fifths of the subjects injected with the vaccine, which is supposed to stimulate production of antibodies that bind to cocaine molecules and prevent them from reaching the brain, had enough of an immune system response to significantly reduce their cocaine use (as measured by urine tests). Even among those subjects, only half cut back on cocaine by 50 percent or more. "We need improved vaccines and boosters," the authors conclude. The lead investigator, Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist Thomas Kosten, is nevertheless excited:

This is the first study that has ever been done with an illicit drug to show that a vaccine can be effective in humans. This is establishing the principle for all drugs of abuse, whether it's nicotine or heroin or methamphetamines. We've made vaccine for all of those things in animals, and we can put them in humans.

Vaccine boosters think the real money lies in an effective anti-nicotine treatment, which they believe would attract "inveterate smokers" who have repeatedly tried to quit with other methods. But as The New York Times notes (in the headline, no less), such a vaccine "does not keep users from wanting the drug." If all goes well, their cravings are not diminished in the slightest; they just can no longer satisfy them. And that's assuming the vaccine is fully effective (as opposed to maybe 10 percent effective, like the one in the study); if not, it could actually increase consumption by neutralizing a percentage of each dose. A partially effective nicotine vaccine could be hazardous to smokers' health if it encouraged them to smoke more so as to achieve the effect to which they're accustomed. In any case, it's not clear how appealing the idea of biochemically taking the fun out of smoking will be; the success of such a product hinges on consumers looking for a way to frustrate themselves.

Still, if it helped smokers (or other drug users) follow through on their own desire to quit, an effective anti-drug vaccine would be a welcome development. But I worry about the potential for nonconsensual use of such products, in light of the fact that so much "drug treatment" is imposed on people by the criminal justice system and the likelihood that mandatory vaccination of children to prevent them from ever being tempted by psychoactive chemicals would appeal to politicians who believe a drug-free America is just around the corner. The very concept of the anti-drug "vaccine," which portrays the drugs people voluntarily take because they enjoy them as pathogens invading their bodies, neatly fits with the general medicalization of addiction, which treats choices as diseases and therefore can easily be used to justify a forcible "cure."  

Back in 2004, I contemplated anti-drug vaccines in Seed. More on the subject here and here.

NEXT: Transfer Machine

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  1. mandatory vaccination of children

    This is the first thing that popped into my head as soon as I saw this post. Measles, mumps…and cocaine.

    1. And anyone opposing this (eventual) measure is just an anti-vaccination nutjob, right?

  2. those truly are evil scientists

    1. There’s no ‘i” in “team”.

      However, there is in first, winner and champion.

      1. There’s no ‘i” in “team”.

        But there is an “m” and an “e”.

  3. If all goes well, their cravings are not diminished in the slightest; they just can no longer satisfy them.

    Well that sounds stupid as fuck. So what’s the fucking point? It sounds dangerous. So if I am getting withdraw symptoms and try to relieve those with cocaine, using cocaine won’t help? So what if some idiot (ya know like those idiots that think voting counts or means something) uses more cocaine to try to staunch the shakes?

    1. Yeah, sound like drug porn. That’s all we need.

  4. This is establishing the principle for all drugs of abuse, whether it’s nicotine or heroin or methamphetamines.

    Heroin is just a form of morphine, an opiate. Would this perhaps block the action of all opiates, thus rendering the person unable to ever achieve pain relief if need in the future. Or is that a feature and not a bug? Something to think about.

    1. That crossed my mind as well. What’s the potential for the antibodies that the drugs help produce from interfering with the bodies own neurotransmitters?

      1. Yeah, a vaccine against THC would NEVER affect our endogenous cannabinoids. No one would suffer adverse dietary effects when their internal mechanisms driving hunger malfucntioned.

      2. I didn’t think of that, I was thinking in terms of if they are in need of morphine after surgery, etc. but yes the vaccines effect on endogenous endorphins, which play multiple and some as yet unknown roles in the brain and spinal cord, could also be an issue. The human brain also generates actual morphine itself, obviously for some reason and this would affect that as well.

        1. The brain produces morphine? Sounds like all our brains are guilty of drug manufacture. OUTLAW BRAINS!

          Seriously though, can we find out how to stimulate that response somehow?

          1. Pain may stimulate it.

          2. Our brains also generate DMT, a schedule 1 drug. I don’t know if the individual cannabinoids the brain generates are considered sched 1 or not.

            1. Now if they just produced GHB too, we could charge everyone with being a rapist.

              Take THAT Polanski!

  5. I’m with Troy. The first thing I thougtht of was how damn dangerous this could turn out.

    Think about it, an addict can’t get his fix no matter what. Has anyone of these scientists ever encountered a desperate addict? I’d venture to say no.

    Recipe for disaster.

  6. Cocaine is awesome.

    1. But Smoking opium is the best thing evah!

      1. I’m not a huge fan of recreational opiates. Vicoden and Red Bull is about as far as I go.

        1. Smoking it is a completely different animal.

          1. “SugarFree” makes a lot more sense now, +1

    2. I wonder if that is what my stalker was on? Not sure if Plan B from Tuesday actually worked or not.

  7. Have you ever had a cocaine vaccine…ON WEED?

  8. This was a really poorly designed experiment, and that’s putting it politely. If the scientist knew that it didn’t stop cravings a urine test of *current users* makes no sense as a metric. The only logical use would be, as people have said, is “immunization” before addiction occurs.

    The only bright spot I see is that because drug use isn’t a contagious condition the argument for force vaccination because harder to make. Can’t point to the common good as an excuse quite so easily, though I’m sure the drug warriors will try.

  9. Next up, a vaccine that removes all sensation from your genitals during sex.

    1. That’s already marketed as an external application called condoms.

  10. Why isn’t anyone working on ways to make it so that people can enjoy drugs without suffering the negative side effects? Or inventing new drugs that are fun and beneficial in some way (in addition to being fun)?

    1. I had to invent some for the future, but they can still be misused.

    2. “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly posits the existence of “drug artists” who gain rock star fame doing just that. Can’t find it available on-line though.

      Here’s a bibliography of its appearances in anthologies.

      1. Thank you. I need to check that out.

        The drugs that I “invented” are my projections of incrimental improvements, over 20+ years, in drugs that are generally available now.

        1. John Tagliafero!

          Hows things shakin’ down there on the orange line?

    3. I’d say because the ability to research the current range of drugs is severely restricted.

      But yeah, where’s the science? Are phillip morris and R.J. working on a lung cleaning treatment yet? Preventing emphysema seems as easy as getting the dust and tar out. Its not like we have to rewrite our DNA to fix it, like cancer.

      Side-effects are a feature, not a bug, in the minds of drug-warriors. That way, even if we manage to get high despite the attempts to prevent us from doing so, at least they know we’re still gonna die.

      I for one will die happy.

      *Lights up Another Camel*

    4. You could argue that Alexander Shulgin already did a lot of that in his work on phenethylamines.

  11. “Why isn’t anyone working on ways to make it so that people can enjoy drugs without suffering the negative side effects?”

    It’s called weed.

  12. Zeb – because getting high is bad, duh!

    As other have said, the unintended consequences of this can be pretty frightening. I think the intended consequences of attempting to prevent someone from modifying their own behavior are pretty damn frightening as well.

  13. Cocaine is awesome.


    1. Yea, there is like a whole song about it man.

  14. This is establishing the principle for all drugs of abuse, whether it’s nicotine or heroin or methamphetamines.

    or alcohol or caffeine or sucrose or fructose or religion or conservatism or libertarianism. Why the possibilities for curing people from their uncontrollable antisocial urges is endless.

    1. Where’s the vaccine for being a control freak?

      1. It’s been around for centuries. It’s called a bullet to the head.

        1. I’ve always refer to such folk as “having a high-velocity lead deficiency”.

  15. I’m convinced that physiological addiction to a drug is just the “gateway” to psychological addiction. This vaccine, as the article notes, doesn’t deal with psychological addiction, and thus, doesn’t really do any good.

  16. it could actually increase consumption by neutralizing a percentage of each dose.

    I’m all for it. Go Science!

  17. This is fun. But seriously, heroin addicts have methadone which keeps them from getting sick. The psychological cravings for the drug aren’t diminished completely. That’s why they still need NA or other kinds of emotional support in order to stay sober.
    With that in mind,this vaccine doesn’t sound much different than what we have now.

  18. This, like so many other perspectives on drugs, ignores the possibility that certain drugs help people feel “right” and not just “high”. Of the addicts that I’ve known, they’ve only got their their addiction under control by either carefully dosing themselves with their drug of choice (difficult with illegal drugs of varying quality and content) or switching to a prescription psychoactive that helps them feel “right”.

  19. It sounds like what they’re experimenting with is turning your immune system against your brain chemistry.

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Chemically Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome?

      1. “Chemically Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome?”

        Governmentally Administered Immune Deficiency Syndrome (GAIDS)

  20. This, of course, put this song into my head.

  21. Warty,

    Are you a fan? OGT, ’92?

    Have you tried MJK’s wine yet?
    I can’t find it around here…

  22. Frankly I blame the people who consider drug use (“abuse”) to be a “disease” – it’s not. It shouldn’t be considered a crime either, and if we’re forced to have a crime-disease dichotomy then I guess I vote for disease, but it’s a classic false choice.

    It will only be a few years before the government forces such vaccines on people. They’ll do it by saying to a defendant charged with a drug crime “you can spend the next 20 years to life in prison, or you can take the vaccine and accept one year of probation.” Like that’s an actual choice.

    How evil. But as long as people are saying “it’s a diseeeeeeeeeeeeeease!” then they have no right to bitch about mandatory anti-drug vaccines.

    1. To quote the late, great Mitch Hedburg, “Alcoholism is the only disease you can get yelled at for having. ‘Mitch, you’re an alcoholic!”Mitch, you have lupus!’ One of those doesn’t sound right.”

      1. People with lupus are just irresponsible and lazy.

        /snark off

        R.I.P. Mitch

  23. “NeonCat”

    For some reason that reminds me of Sam Kinnison’s bit on sending food to the starving people in Africa:

    These people don’t need us to send food. What they need is U-Hauls.


  24. I don’t have a problem with treating drug addiction as a disease. There are some people that have a problem with drugs, and they need help.

    But of course drug use doesn’t equal addiction. And the vast majority of users are just fine on their own.


    Let the people who want to use, use. And the people that have a problem get help.

    1. I don’t have a problem with treating drug addiction as a disease.

      Drug addiction is not a disease.

      There are some people that have a problem with drugs, and they need help.

      Only if they want it.

  25. Kool,

    From the first EP.

  26. I was addicted to Oxycontin for several years. Oxycontin is oxycodone – the same narcotic that appears (along with acetaminophen) in Percoset. I was one of the people you read about who pulverized the pill to defeat its time-release mechanism. I would snort the powder for an almost instant effect.

    About six months ago, I decided that things had gotten out of control and I sought treatment in the form of a drug called Suboxone. Suboxone treatment for opiate addiction is relatively new. It is an opiate and functions much as methadone does, but unlike methadone, it is largely [but not completely] un-abusable. It also comes in a tablet form that one self-administers from home, removing daily trips to a methadone clinic from the equation.

    I can state emphatically that from 20 minutes after I melted the first Suboxone under my tongue (it is taken sublingually) I haven’t had even a fleeting moment of craving Oxycontin/oxycodone. This stuff really works!

    Now, people will point out that I am, in fact, by design, addicted to Suboxone now – that I have simply substituted one addiction for another. This is true. It is, however, an addiction that is safe, under control and inexpensive. The key is that with a sustained daily dose of Suboxone, one does not get “high,” nor can one get high by increasing the dose. Truly remarkable stuff.

    My addiction was (and is) so PHYSICAL in nature that I can’t help but assert that addiction can be a disease. It might not be a disease for all people, nor is it necessarily a disease for all types of drugs, but for me, with opiates, it was/is indeed a disease.

    It was a disease that I created for myself. I caused it. I made the decisions that got me there. It wasn’t my genetics that did it. It wasn’t inevitable. It is a disease that, fortunately, I can treat with medication (and counseling).

    The idea of pre-emptive (childhood) vaccination against drug abuse is an interesting public health question. My own opinion is that as an adult, one might feel violated by a decision made on their behalf by parents/doctors/society/government to administer vaccine. Would we vaccinate against marijuana? What if as an adult I moved to a country where marijuana is legal? What if marijuana continues to be decriminalized in the US? Would these vaccines be “reversible”?

    As an addict, the truly terrifying aspect of this concept is the hypothetical scenario where one is already addicted and is given the vaccine – and suddenly they are left with a terrible craving that is unsatisfiable. It is akin to having an itch that one cannot scratch – except drug cravings are orders of magnitude more unpleasant than itches. The result could be tortuous – and who knows how long-lasting?

  27. I DO NOT think the government should be able to tell us what we can and cannot put in our body. It’s a “free country” isn’t it?

    lright, well I have been using drugs daily for maybe 3-4 years. All my grades at B’s and up. The reason why people think drugs are so bad is because of the others have made it off to be. Drugs aren’t bad in my opinion (other than meth, crank, and heroine.)

    The people who make them a problem don’t get their priority’s met first. The people who make it a “problem” are clueless, they feel like they need more and more. Honestly that’s where they did not play their cards right. When using heavy drugs you keep going until you feel it, and chill out. So you don’t become addicted. It’s hard not to, but you need to do that in order not to become someone you don’t want to be.

    Drugs enhance life, make you have completely different views, and add creativity. They should be legalized everywhere, and people need to try them instead of being against them. Yes they can make people into something they aren’t but that’s when there is a problem.

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