The DIY Drug Prize

The federal government should offer prize money for the creation of a safer, better high.


"Dream with me for a moment," psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel wrote in his 1989 magnum opus, Intoxication. "What would be wrong if we had perfectly safe intoxicants?" In Siegel's estimation, the desire to alter one's consciousness is a "fourth drive," a "natural part of our biology" that influences human behavior as much as hunger, thirst, and sex.

And if we can't suppress our desire to get high any more effectively than we can suppress our desire for breakfast, the University of California, Los Angeles, researcher reasoned, we should be trying to develop the safest intoxicants possible. A "perfumed mist that is as enjoyable as marijuana or tobacco but as harmless as clean air" is one variant Siegel imagined. A mood enhancer that is "more appealing than cocaine and less harmful than caffeine" is another.

Pipe dream? Certainly innovation has never been a part of the federal government's drug policy mandate. In 1986, in response to "designer drugs" intended to mimic the effects of heroin and other illegal drugs, Congress passed legislation making it illegal to produce substances that are "substantially similar," or chemical "analogues," to Schedule I and Schedule II drugs. Two years ago, in response to the growing popularity of widely available "legal highs" like Spice and K2, Congress got more specific, categorizing 26 synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones as Schedule I substances. (Cathinone is an amphetamine-like alkaloid that is found in the Khat shrub.)

Even in times of low innovation, federal efforts to discourage the use of intoxicants have been an unmitigated disaster, costing billions, imprisoning millions, and doing little to diminish humanity's fundamental desire to alter its consciousness. And now that clandestine chemists are introducing new products nearly as fast as the craft-brewing industry-the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) says it identified 158 "new synthetic substances" in 2012 alone-the government's traditional suppress-and-control mind-set is beginning to look increasingly ineffective, wasteful, obsolete, and misguided.

Greg Beato
Terry Colon

But what if the federal government embraced Dr. Siegel's utopian vision? Imagine if, instead of trying to thwart the entrepreneurs behind products like "Bomb Marley Jungle Juice" and "AK-47 Cherry Popper," the ONDCP tried to actively incentivize them, by offering a billion-dollar prize to the first manufacturer who successfully produces the kind of safely domesticated mood enhancer that Dr. Siegel envisioned 25 years ago. Under the current regulatory environment, manufacturers are only rewarded for creating substances that are different enough from existing Schedule I drugs to claim, at least temporarily, shelf space in head shops, gas stations, and cyberspace. A billion-dollar prize for a safer intoxicant would give them a tangible reason to aim much higher.

Twenty-five years ago, in its first official policy paper, the newly created ONDCP described America's appetite for drugs as "a crisis of national character." In using such rhetoric, the agency simultaneously amplified the scope of the problem while narrowing the range of potential solutions. America's appetite for drugs was not just a medical issue. It was a moral one, and thus one that resisted mere utilitarian fixes like safer drugs or saner laws.

To solve "a crisis of national character" requires even more than better behavior. It requires better desires, a nation-wide commitment to psychoactive abstinence, and zero tolerance for illicit intoxicants of any kind. As President Bill Clinton put it in 1995 when signing legislation designed to preserve five-year mandatory minimum sentences for selling five grams of crack cocaine, "We have to send a constant message to our children that drugs are illegal, drugs are dangerous, drugs may cost you your life, and the penalties for drug dealing are severe."

Not only is this constant message expensive to broadcast-the ONDCP and the 49 other federal agencies whose efforts it coordinates spend a collective $25 billion a year on drug control now-it also stifles scientific progress. In theory, Big Pharma is well-equipped to pursue the holy grail of safer intoxicants; companies like Pfizer and Eli Lilly have substantial resources they could invest in the extensive research, product testing, and quality control processes a breakthrough product might require. But while many of these companies have developed synthetic cannabinoids and similar substances for potential medical uses, they've expressed little interest, at least publicly, in the recreational possibilities. Indeed, even Siegel suggested that his dream intoxicants would have to be marketed as "medicines, treatments for the human condition."

By limiting the long-term upside of any viable pleasure drug with its zero-tolerance mindset, the federal government has helped create an environment where expedience and opacity rule the day. Manufacturers simply design substances that are technically not illegal, label them as "not intended for human consumption," and present little or no additional information about their ingredients, dosage levels, or potential effects.

While these new synthetics have, like most new drugs, been sensationalized in the media as even more uniquely dangerous than previous drug scourges, it is true they lack the easy-to-track provenance of Extreme Doritos and other convenience-store fare. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has introduced legislation that would make it easier for the government to prosecute such products, but in New Zealand, officials have chosen a different route. Instead of simply trying to create laws that pre-emptively criminalize pharmacological innovation, they're establishing a new government agency, the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority, to test products at manufacturer expense before approving them for sale at licensed retail outlets. To gain approval, manufacturers must demonstrate that their products pose "no more than a low risk of harm to a consumer."

While this approach imposes financial burdens on manufacturers-application fees to initiate testing will reportedly cost $180,000, and the costs of the actual testing phases will run between $1 and $2 million per product-it will theoretically reduce the role that New Zealand's government plays in the lives of its citizens, downgrading it from moral engineer to commercial bureaucrat. Instead of trying to get people to resist their essential human nature, it will simply try to establish the relative safety of newly designed intoxicants.

America could learn from this pragmatism and ideally expand on it. In addition to offering manufacturers a clear path to market, why not expedite innovation by offering a huge reward for the creation of some miracle high that even Mr. T might yet say "yes" to.

Such an intoxicant-or even a half dozen of them-won't eradicate illegal drugs or drug abuse. But the $25 billion a year we spend on border checks, public service announcements, and other forms of drug control don't either. Reduction and safety, not eradication and dangerous black markets, should be our goal.

It wouldn't cost much to finance this moonshot effort either. Over the last five years, the federal government has turned to prizes as a low-cost way of spurring innovation. The Department of Energy, for example, has sponsored contests to build a better light bulb and develop a car that gets 100 miles per gallon. NASA has sponsored multiple million-dollar challenges to create the new technologies it desires.

As a 2012 report on prizes from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy notes, these kinds of government challenges are unusually efficient because you "pay only for success." And not only do you pay for outcomes rather than efforts, you substantially leverage the cost of your investment. In many contests, the entities who participate collectively invest far more time and money into pursuit of the prize than the total bounty offered.

To fund the safe-high prize, the ONDCP could simply earmark a sliver of its annual budget for a rolling prize fund-say $250 million a year. In other words, funding this effort would simply mean not funding other efforts that we already know are ineffective. And only upon the creation of a truly breakthrough product would a payout occur.

For the ONDCP, of course, this shift in mindset would not be easy. For 25 years, it has engaged in a quixotic battle to fix our national character. Moving forward, it would have to settle for merely striving to deliver workable solutions.

But imagine if, after swallowing this bitter pill, the government actually spurred the creation of a mood enhancer that met Siegel's utopian specs, combining the rush of cocaine with the manageability of caffeine. Think of the lives a drug like that could divert from prison. Think of the billions we would no longer have to spend on battering rams and motivational posters. In the long run, the social good a drug like that could create would be mind blowing.

NEXT: Brazil Prepares for World Cup by Seizing Homes, Chasing Vendors Away; Protesters Respond With a World Cup of Their Own

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  1. How about imagine if the government got the hell out of the way entirely.
    Why on earth would we want the government subsiding drug research? They don’t (much) subside alcohol research, and that my be why I have such a plethora of wines available across the entire price spectrum.
    Let’s imagine we get the government out of the ‘subsidize’ business — that’s a dream we can all get high on.

    1. “Not going to prison or having my profits confiscated” should be the prize entrepreneurs look for. The profits provide the rest of the incentive.

    2. I came here to say this^^. Thank you.

    3. My sentiments exactly. The article is stupid.

    4. Beato’s going for outrageousness here.

      Hey, maybe if it works, and he gets some dirty hippies on the “subsidize drugs” bandwagon, we’ll settle on “legal and unsubsidized” as the new compromise.

    5. Beato has joined the growing tradition here at Reason to take policy/tactic/argument that is flagrantly incompatible with the principles of liberty and attempts to rebrand them as libertarian. Subsidies are like totally not cool for moral and economic reasons, except like if they’re subsidizing stuff I like and stuff.

      Here in the commentariat, pointing out these inconsistencies for what they are will bring accusations of being a ‘purity tester’.

      1. Some Reason gems:
        “We as libertarians should oppose subsidies on moral and economic grounds! Except when the subsidies are for stuff that I prefer.”

        “As libertarians, we support the maximization of liberty and minimization of political coercion. Except for vaccines, because it’s totally legit that the state should compel vaccination through the politically controlled education monopoly”

        “As libertarians, we support free markets. Except for when I happen to favor artificially low interest rates and political banking practices.”

  2. “What would be wrong if we had perfectly safe intoxicants?”

    Uh, people would be getting away with crime scot-free?

  3. “a crisis of national character.”

    Why can’t the people be worthy of their government?

    1. Sadly some are.

  4. “…a billion-dollar prize to the first manufacturer who successfully produces the kind of safely domesticated mood enhancer…”

    It’s called Holy Grail Kush, and God (along with Barney’s Farm Seedbank) already invented it!

    1. Whoops! Sorry, it’s actually from DNA Genetics, not Barney’s Farm. Read all about it at

      1. I always read your handle as “Death Beserker” which I think is a pretty cool handle.

      2. Yeah, weed comes pretty close to perfectly safe, especially when vaped.

  5. The federal government shouldn’t be involved in this either way, incentive or prohibition. If they are, they will fuck it up, guaranteed, but even if they wouldn’t, it’s none of their business on principle. If the feds would just get out of the way, the market would incentivize safer, more effective intoxicants.

  6. Chemical intoxicants are bad. They’re just morally bad. Like murder and rape bad. They’re just bad.

    Natural highs, on the other hand, are good. Like the high you get when you throw a flash-bang into a baby’s crib or kill a grandmother holding a remote control. Those highs are morally acceptable.

  7. perfectly safe intoxicants

    Read the article and I still don’t really know what that is. The WOD is much more about the health of the community rather than individuals. A “safe high” doesn’t prevent DUI and doesn’t prevent drug related petty theft.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m not claiming that community health justifies the WOD. Rather, just stating that a “safe intoxicant” for an individual is of marginal value relative to ending the WOD.

  8. Huey Lewis agrees.…..feature=kp

    1. I remember a lot of some people thought he was singing “I want a new truck.” I never understood how they thought that.

      *offers those people Q Tips?*

      1. I thought it was hilarious how that band won all those awards and was declared to be The Next Best Thing, and was never heard from again.

        1. One of the few performers who seemed to consistently smile in his videos. He actually looked like he was happy and enjoyed his work.

        2. True. They were short lived. I actually don’t mind them. Although I never did, do not now, and never will own any of their shit.

          Hmm….maybe that’s why they’re not around any more?

          1. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho had a good essay on Huey Lewis….

  9. Whatevs. Life is unsafe. I want pharamceuticals that alter my mood anyway. “Safe” or not. Period.

  10. The moral panic that allows for the War on Drugs was never really about the safety of the substance. I turned on Dredd on netflix the other day and the bad guys were some kind of drug manufacturer. Bad guys, guns, drugs, bad bad bad. That’s all you need to know.

  11. Too bad mashed potatoes don’t get you high.

    1. You want the feds to outlaw mashed potatoes?

  12. The Hippie Movement of the 1960s with its mind ERASING agenda has come home to roost.

    1. How exactly?

      1. Meaning that the pro-drug culture promoted by The Hippies in the 1960s (and the Beatniks before them), has taken root in a different form Such as the Libertarian Movement, which promotes drugs under the hybrid camouflage of right wing anarchism. Very clever indeed.

  13. The government should piss off. It poisons everything it touches. The market would create a safer/awesomer high if the thugs that call themselves the state, would knock off the coercion.

  14. Actually the US gov’t and most other gov’ts have never said explicitly the the development of safe intoxicants is contrary to public policy. However, it may be inferred from recent FDA attitudes re nicotine and certain teas that psychoactives will be treated regulatory-wise as “drugs”; that was not clearly the case 20+ yrs. ago. And new drugs will almost certainly start as prescription-only, and doctors will prescribe them only for “medical use”. OTOH, “medicine” has come to encompass baldness and erection “treatments”, and before that, birth control and antiperspirants, so it is possible that getting high in some form would get the OK as a medical “treatment”. And then after demonstrating their safety, such drugs or devices would eventually undergo a rx-to-OTC switch.

  15. As thought the drug war has anything whatsoever to do with people’s safety. I’m sure that’s why they sprayed paraquat on marijuana plants and put acetaminophen in pain killers and added poison to ethyl alcohol (which they still do with “denatured” alcohol solvent)-concern over people’s safety.

  16. Well, now that Rand Paul has bowed at the feet of the clerics and ministers – and openly declared that religion IS THE LITMUS TEST for any politician and the salvation of our country, I think he’s not gonna be the “free minds” warrior you guys promised.

    Maybe, just maybe, if I join a church and love Jesus, he’ll let me smoke herb? Please, Rand??
    You already want to regulate my reproduction, Rand, so why not regulate everything else. It’s not very far from the womb or the testes to the brain.

    Did you, Rand, draw a line across our chests and say “only this far, no further up”?

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