Drug Users Are Mining the Scientific Literature for "Legal Highs"

By Jennifer Welsh | January 5, 2011 6:00 pm

When it comes to recreational drugs, many assume that most of the dangerous compounds that people get high on are illegal. But drug makers, dealers, and users know better. They are mining the scientific literature for psychoactive drugs, making them in kitchen labs, and selling them to users on the street. And though this poses a real risk for users, it’s perfectly legal.

Purdue University chemist David Nichols says he’s haunted by the knowledge that his scientific research has led to unsafe–and sometimes even deadly–drug use.

“It’s not like you took a gun and shot somebody because then you would know you’d been responsible,” he told the BBC, “but people were taking something that you had published and I was alerting them that this might be an active molecule.” [BBC News]

In an editorial in Nature, Nichols discusses how compounds he has developed are being used as street drugs, with no regards to their safety. Nichols researches compounds for Parkinson’s and schizophrenia and has worked on developing serotonin-regulating analogs of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) for use in depression. One of these analogs (called MTA) became a big hit on the streets in the late 1990s.

Without my knowledge, MTA was synthesized by others and made into tablets called, appropriately enough, ‘flatliners’. 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 really disturbs me that [these people] 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. [Nature]

Most of the compounds that Nichols works with are relatively easy for someone with a solid chemistry education to create, even on the large scale.

“It is something that someone with a PhD, if they’re really determined to do it, could probably set up in a laboratory in their kitchen…. These drugs are being made on a much larger scale than just the occasional chemist with the curiosity.” [BBC News]

It takes time for the authorities to catch on to these drugs, which can be hard to detect without knowing their composition. Eventually, when the drugs surface, countries outlaw them, but by then they have often caused damage. The drugs that Nichols develops don’t go through human safety testing (because he works on rats) and can do untold harm to users–even to those who don’t die. Nichols writes that he can imagine some real disaster scenarios:

What if a substance that seems innocuous is marketed and becomes wildly popular on the dance scene, but then millions of users develop an unusual type of kidney damage that proves irreversible and difficult to treat, or even life-threatening or fatal? That would be a disaster of immense proportions. This question, which was never part of my research focus, now haunts me. [Nature]

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Image: flickr / Nightlife of Revelry

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • http://clubneko.net/ nick

    Just as with alcohol, prohibition doesn’t work. When one drug is placed on the illegal list, it either goes up in value (MDMA) or gets replaced (MTA replacing MDMA).

    Either way, society loses, because people do them anyway, and they are dangerously unregulated, plus they enrich druglords and gangs due to high prices. While I wouldn’t advocate full legalization of any drugs (including alcohol and cigarettes), similarly I can’t endorse prohibition.

    Alcohol prohibition brought organized crime to prominence in America, and the prohibiting of other substances has given rise to similar home grown and extra-territorial criminal organizations that pour weapons and violence into our society and others.

    Of note: there was one legal way to get alcohol during the Prohibition era – a doctor’s prescription. Business boomed.

  • rabidmob

    Though it rarely happens I generally agree with Nick on this one.

    People will go to great lengths to bend the rules of reality or to bend their perception of it.

  • James

    This article didn’t give one reason why it concern anyone, or why it should be stopped.

  • Noug

    James, did you not read the article? It clearly says that people have died from these drugs, which have not been tested for safety.

  • Katharine

    Drugs are confusing sometimes.

    Not from a physiological standpoint, as I understand pretty well how several work on a basic level (I’m a neuroscience student).

    Moreso from a ‘why the f*ck does anyone want to get high’ standpoint. I drink booze for the taste sometimes, but I never get drunk, and I also use caffeine very occasionally to wake up but caffeine isn’t generally hazardous except in very large doses.

    I don’t understand why people get so intoxicated that they end up in the hospital or lose touch with reality.

  • RC Dealer/User

    That’s the problem with some people. If you are prone to experimenting with street drugs, then you need to do your homework. At least take a few minutes and check erowid before purchasing.
    I bet the deaths occurred from people over dosing. Most of dosage of the RCs on the market are based on body weight. Typically around 20mg per dose.

    The government should at least realize that people want to get high and will find a way to do so. For years the american public has picketed to get marijuana legal and despite the positives MJ has over alcohol and tobacco, MJ is still illegal.

    Vote yes to legalize marijuana and save lives!

  • Darius2025

    MJ will never be legalized as long as pulp and paper still have some push. Not to mention the billions of dolars pharma corps would lose. Not to mention the fact govn’t makes way more money by selling the ‘illegal’ stuff. Not to mention the fact that MJ has a tendancy to turn ‘sheeple’ into ACTUAL people.

  • enjoylife

    You can dance and get high! You can run and get high! You can walk and get high! You can see the sun and get high! You can eat your favorite food and get high! You can have a lovely talk with your family and get high! You can enjoy nature and get high! Why would you need sth artificial to get high when there are myriad ways to get high, to be happy, to see the world from a different point of you? I close my eyes in the night and I can dream, I do not need drugs! And when I am sad, angry or anxious, I get along with my feelings! Sometimes, I need to express my negative feelings as they are and then at the end of the tunnel when I see light I am going to appreciate and see it with a clear, drug-free mind!

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