Better living through chemistry

Chemistry & Industry, 5 January 1998

The chemistry of mind-altering drugs: history, pharmacology and cultural context
Daniel M Perrine
Washington: American Chemical Society
Ppx+480, $39.95, ISBN 0 8412 3253 9

One of the many badges popular in the late 1960s reproduced a well-known motto of E I DuPont: 'Better things for better living through chemistry'. Although the actual chemicals the hippies referred to were quite different from those intended by the old industrialist, their basic philosophy was the same. All human problems, whether material or internal, could be solved by the appliance of science.

Mind-altering, or psychoactive, drugs are many and varied in both effect and social standing. But whether legal and freely available, legal but at least nominally controlled by prescription, or damned as having little or no medicinal use and subject to tight legal control, they are generally used for the same fundamental purpose - to provide a quick-fix solution to problems physical, spiritual or emotional. In a technological society, what is there to object to in that?

The defining factor in judging which psychoactive drugs are made illegal is their tendency or potential for abuse. It would perhaps be cynical to say that the drugs which are prohibited are the ones that people actually want to take, but the scheduling or classification of psychoactive substances can barely withstand rational scrutiny. It is a well-worn argument that the three most commonly used drugs, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, are only legal by historical precedent and current economics. Nicotine is the most addictive drug known, more so than smoked methamphetamine or crack cocaine, while caffeine is the only known drug that causes laboratory rats to attack each other or mutilate themselves.

Marijuana, the most commonly used illegal drug, compares favourably with alcohol in terms of health, and would certainly have fewer disruptive social effects. However, its association with perceived 'undesirables' means that it is generally forbidden even for medical use, despite proven results against nausea, glaucoma and spasticity. In the US, marijuana is a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use, although its active ingredient, Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is available as the Schedule II Marinol. Meanwhile, the use of marijuana in the UK at least is so common, indeed almost ubiquitous, that its decriminalisation seems only a matter of time.

Aldous Huxley's Brave new world postulated the ultimate technological society, where all personal problems could be solved by a dose of 'Soma', a visionary chemical to produce 'sane men, obedient men, stable in their contentment'. Legal, socially-accepted marijuana could be one step towards that world, for better or for worse, but any further steps would have to be led by the pharmaceutical industry.

The industry has certainly been responsible for the synthesis and initial promotion of many of the 'recreational' psychoactives. Heroin was marketed by Bayer in the 1890s as a 'heroic' non-addictive alternative to morphine; amphetamine was popularised by Smith Kline and French in the 1920s; LSD was famously isolated by Albert Hofmann of Sandoz; MDMA, or ecstasy, was patented by Merck in 1912; PCP and ketamine, both of which can have deeply grim consequences when used recklessly, were developed by Parke-Davis as anaesthetics. Of course, these companies are no more to blame for abuse of these substances than Gottlieb Daimler is to blame for every road death, although in the increasingly litigious US they might be advised to start preparing their damages funds now.

But if a perfect Soma-like drug, delivering instant harmless bliss in tablet form, were developed, would and should the pharmaceutical industry get involved? If the drug was medically harmless, it would be hard to justify banning it on grounds of potential for abuse. And, in a free market, the profits could be staggering.

Dave Nicholls, professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University, has said that most pharmaceutical companies would be quite willing to market LSD-like psychedelic drugs, if only they were sure of a market of at least $300M/a. Professor Marshall Marinker, a leading healthcare consultant, recently looked forward to pharmaceutical companies developing 'safe and highly targeted psychotropics', noting that 'these may be not only therapeutic, but recreational.'

But what of the human effect of the widespread use of mind-altering substances, approved and controlled by the highest social powers? As the logical extension of the quest for a technological solution to every human problem, it would certainly not be the end of society as we now it. Whether or not a total dependence on quick-fix technological solutions to deeper human problems would be a good thing or not is a matter for politics or philosophy rather than science.

Anyone involved in the continuing debate about the use and effects of mind-altering drugs, whatever position they may take, would do well to read Perrine's excellent book. It belongs to the currently unfashionable genre of descriptive chemistry, grouping its subjects into six loose categories: opium and the opiates; depressants; stimulants; antipsychotics and antidepressants; psychedelics; and dissociatives and cannabinoids. The molecular structure and pharmacological action of each drug is described, and this is supplemented by a wealth of historical, anthropological and literary material, putting the chemistry firmly in a human context. Indeed, I would be very surprised if there is any other serious chemistry textbook with quite so many references to the works of the late William S Burroughs.

This cornucopia of often arcane information, combined with a lucid writing style, makes the book a delight to read. This would be the perfect book to interest the intelligent but reluctant student in many areas of organic chemistry. The first chapter introduces concepts of neurology and pharmacology, and there is a lengthy appendix detailing the basics of organic structure. Synthesis methods are given for many of the drugs, but not in enough detail to allow the average student to start his own production line.

My only criticism would be of the small bias towards patterns of drug abuse in the US. While there are full details of the dextromethorphan-slurping 'Robo weekends' popular in US college circles, for example, there is nothing on the abuse of the short-acting benzodiazepine temazepam in mainly Scottish heroin users - a phenomenon that has led some observers to dub temazepam 'the cure for being Glaswegian'. Such quibbles aside, I would unreservedly recommend this book to anyone interested in psychoactive substances, whether researcher, legislator, student or user. And please note that none of those categories are necessarily exclusive.