Drug Law

Scientist Regrets Substances that Substitute for Banned Drugs

| by Reason Foundation

By Jacob Sullum


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 AP 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, AP 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.