Drug Policy

If Only There Were Some Way to Discourage the Marketing of Dangerous Substitutes for Banned Drugs…

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Writing in Nature, Purdue University pharmacologist David Nichols regrets the role that his research on psychoactive substances has played in the market for "legal highs" that simulate the effects of banned drugs.  In particular, he believes gray-market chemists used information from papers he published on 4-methylthioamphetamine (MTA) in the 1990s to synthesize the drug, which they sold in tablets nicknamed "flatliners" as a substitute for MDMA (Ecstasy):

Some people who took them died. Now, any knowledgeable person who had carefully read our papers might have realized the danger of ingesting MTA. It not only caused the release of serotonin from neurons, but also prevented the breakdown of this neurotransmitter, potentially leading to a dangerous serotonin syndrome that can sometimes prove fatal. My laboratory had shown that rats perceived the effects of MTA as being like those of ecstasy. It seemed that that was the sole motivation for its illicit production and distribution to humans. I was stunned by this revelation, and it left me with a hollow and depressed feeling for some time. By 2002, six deaths had been associated with the use of MTA. It did not help that I knew some of these fatalities were associated with the use of multiple drugs, or had involved very large doses of MTA. I had published information that ultimately led to human death….

Thankfully, most of the other molecules we have published on could not kill, at least not at reasonable dosages. But at very high doses, or mixed with other substances, they could become part of a lethal mix.

We never test the safety of the molecules we study, because that is not a concern for us. So it really disturbs me that 'laboratory-adept European entrepreneurs' and their ilk appear to have so little regard for human safety and human life that the scant information we publish is used by them to push ahead and market a product designed for human consumption.

While Nichols blames himself (a little) and the rogue chemists who profit from his work (a lot), he does not even mention the role that drug prohibition plays in creating this sort of hazard, and neither does the A.P. story prompted by his Nature commentary. Under a saner legal regime, companies would openly and transparently compete to provide the psychoactive effects people want at the lowest possible risk. Instead we have laws that criminalize production and possession of well-known substances that can be consumed in appropriate doses with minimal risk, encouraging "laboratory-adept entrepreneurs" to seek out unfamiliar (and therefore quasi-legal) substitutes that may turn out to be substantially more dangerous.

John W. Huffman, the chemist who synthesized three of the compounds that were recently banned by the DEA because of their use in ersatz marijuana, reacted with similar dismay to the way his inventions were adapted, warning that "they are dangerous, and anyone who uses them is stupid." Speaking of fake pot, four retailers in Minnesota are challenging the DEA's emergency ban, arguing that the agency did not present enough evidence to justify the decision and failed to consider its impact on small businesses like theirs, which derive a large share of their income from "incense" sold under names such as Spice and K2. Like the head shop owner who insists his wares are for use with tobacco or "legal  herbs," the retailers say it's not even clear these products have psychoactive effects. "They say people are buying it to use it as incense, which they use for comfort," says a pharmacologist hired by the businesses. "The belief that you can get high from it is fueled by the newspapers."

Speaking of prohibition-related dishonesty, A.P. quotes University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who compares the dangers posed by the work of researchers like Nichols and Huffman to the hazards of publishing too much information about nuclear or biological weapons. He says Nichols' experience "should lead to more careful thinking about the unintended consequences of scientific advances." I'm no bioethicist, which may be why I perceive an important difference, in kind as well as degree, between helping people get high (even if they occasionally kill themselves in the process by taking huge doses or mixing drugs) and helping people blow up cities or spread deadly plagues.

Another example of prohibition's pernicious substitution effects: fake speed.

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    1. Sounds like someone figured out a way to pack a smoke bomb in a package. Big fat “meh”. In other words, stand by for hair-pulling over reaction in 3,2,1…

      1. Read the comments, there’s a bit of that in there.

      2. Parasitical Dwarf Defends government workers:
        http://robertreich.org/post/2615647030

        1. Hey, is his middle name “Third”?

          1. Quick godwin….

            1. Yeah, I deserve a Derp for that.

    2. At 12:30 p.m., the Jeffrey Building, on Francis Street in Annapolis, received a package described as the size of a book. When it was opened by a mailroom employee, it “triggered a reaction involving smoke and a sulfur-like smell.”

      The employee sustained minor burns to his fingers, but refused further medical treatment, State Police said in a statement.

      The building was evacuated for about two hours.

      At about 12:45 p.m., a similar incident occurred in the mailroom of the Maryland Department of Transportation headquarters, State Police said. “When an employee opened the package, a similar reaction to the Jeffrey building incident occurred.”

      The Jeffrey Building in Annapolis houses the state Homeland Security office, the Secretary of State and Veterans Affairs offices and some divisions of the governor’s office, according to state property managers.

      Gay Muhammad on a pogo stick. Large companies run packages through an x-ray machine before they open them (and just what the hell is a mailroom employee doing opening packages? Their job is to deliver them).

      Can the Maryland State Office of Homeland Security be that fucking stupid???

      1. “Can the Maryland State Office of Homeland Security be that fucking stupid???”

        Is this a libertarian purity test? My decoder ring is in my other spats.

  1. s. I was stunned by this revelation, and it left me with a hollow and depressed feeling for some time. By 2002, six deaths had been associated with the use of MTA. It did not help that I knew some of these fatalities were associated with the use of multiple drugs, or had involved very large doses of MTA. I had published information that ultimately led to human death….

    Jesus on the F-Train, that is not a conscience on display but straight up ego, and a rudimentary one at that. Any enterprising chemical industrial engineer would have come up with the same information, and it is not like meth and crack which have caused far more deaths than the rather exotic MTA call for even the slightest bit of a chemist knowledge base.

    1. You need a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry for meth, even if it’s only on the intellectual level of baking a cake. (e.g., “mix this with that, then do this…”)

      For chemicals like LSD and psychedelic amphetamines (MDA, MDMA, TMA-2, etc.), it’s more on the order of “at least a year of college-level organic chemistry”.

      1. at least a year of college-level organic chemistry

        Which I have! Oh shit, the cops are right outside, aren’t they.

        1. Yeah, but that’s because I told them you ordered 30 gallons of acetic anhydride.

      2. I was so proud when I could understand Uncle Fester’s books.

        1. I took a look through one once, and was amazed people would go through all that to make LSD.

      3. Maybe my wording ‘slightest bit’ was a bit too definitive. I was reflecting on the mental capacity of a meth ‘chemist’ of my acquaintance when I wrote it.

      4. For chemicals like LSD and psychedelic amphetamines (MDA, MDMA, TMA-2, etc.), it’s more on the order of “at least a year of college-level organic chemistry”.

        So that’s it! The college chem. profs are killing all those druggies!

  2. “The belief that you can get high from it is fueled by the newspapers.”

    Umm, for the record, you can get high off JWH-018 blends. Really high. The high sucks, but it’s there without a doubt.

  3. I’m no bioethicist, which may be why I perceive an important difference, in kind as well as degree, between helping people get high (even if they occasionally kill themselves in the process by taking huge doses or mixing drugs) and helping people blow up cities or spread deadly plagues.

    “Bioethicist.” Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

  4. I’m no bioethicist, which may be why I perceive an important difference, in kind as well as degree, between helping people get high (even if they occasionally kill themselves in the process by taking huge doses or mixing drugs) and helping people blow up cities or spread deadly plagues.

    I teach people to shoot. I suppose I rate somewhere in between.

  5. Please stop mentioning research chemicals! Some of us still like them!

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  7. Consider also that the drug war has eliminated any credibility of drug warriors, so their allegation that a particular designer drug is dangerous is dismissed as a lie, even if true.

    Kids know they are being lied to about pot, so they think it is okay to huff gasoline.

  8. nice sharing and i like it

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