The Georgetown Drug Lab Bust: More Promising Young Lives Ruined for No Good Reason


Using your dorm as a drug lab only two months after starting at one of the most prestigious universities in America is one of the dumber things you can do (although who could blame you, what with the high cost of living in Washington, D.C.). But while the Georgetown University and University of Richmond freshmen busted for running a Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) lab out of a Georgetown dorm won't be getting elected valedictorian any time soon—least of all because they might be in jail for the next 20 years—they're a lot less stupid than the laws they're alleged to have broken.

DMT, which produces a horrifying waking nightmare of a psychedlic trip for about 30 minutes, is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. But its more intense cousin, 5-MeO-DMT, or 5 methoxy DMT, is perfectly legal in 47 American states. According to Dr. Bryan Roth, a University of North Carolina professor who has done important research on the effects of DMT in mice, 5 methoxy is commercially produced in the United States and easily obtained by academics who use it for non-clinical testing. It's also functionally similar to DMT. "We think they have essentially the same mechanism of action," said Roth of DMT and 5 methoxy's effect on the brain. "They do more or less the same thing, although I think the effect of 5 is quite a bit more intense, and for that reason it isn't really abused very much."

This likely explains why the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) only got around to even discussing a 5-MeO-DMT ban in 2009, when a report by the Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section of the DEA recommended that it be classified a Schedule I controlled substance. The report described a veritable 5-MeO-DMT epidemic, and cited "at least 5 hospital emergency room visits and a death" related to the drug's use between 1999 and 2008. But the 5 methoxy crisis wasn't urgent enough to spur the DEA to immediate action—even though the DEA decided that 5-MeO-DMT fit the criteria for Schedule I, the drug remains legal over a year later.

Normal DMT, as the Georgetown crew is rapidly learning, is not legal. But it doesn't sound all that bad either. DMT expert Rich Strassman told The Washington Post that DMT is sometimes referred to as "the businessman's trip," because "theoretically, I suppose you could smoke it at lunchtime."

Like the legal drug salvia and unlike the legal drug alcohol, DMT's effects are over after about half an hour. So the students could spend decades in prison because they were producing a drug whose identical yet more intense form is not only legal, but has only succeeded in killing a single American over the past decade, according to the above-linked DEA report (see page 2). Meanwhile, the comparatively-mild drug they are accused of producing only affects its users for about a lunch-break's worth of time. 

Today, the Post reported that the two students held in connection with the Georgetown lab were denied bail, and would likely be charged with a federal drug offense. These are two talented, enterprising young men who are unfortunately short on common sense. But according to the DEA's own contradictory policies, that's pretty much the only threat they pose to society at large. Here's hoping the criminal justice system realizes this.

Jacob Sullum discussed DMT and other drugs that are sometimes legal for religious purposes in Reason's June 2007 issue and the "Salvia Ban Wagon" in Reason's December 2009 issue.