Legal highs and the side effects of recreational pharmacology

The journal Nature begins this International Year of Chemistry with an essay by Purdue University chemist David Nichols, whose work on synthetic psychedelic compounds has been used by amateur and other chemists looking to develop recreational pharmaceuticals that sidestep drug control laws. Nichols is clearly distressed by the negative and sometimes fatal consequences of dance-floor ‘legal highs’ that have not undergone proper safety testing. Many of these substances have powerful and in some cases unknown effects on brain chemistry, and they can also damage the kidneys and other vital organs.

Nichols is in no way morally culpable for the problems that have resulted from the use and abuse of recreational drugs developed by chemists inspired by his work. Nichols’ drug research has enormous value in mental health medicine, and also for those suffering from degenerative neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. He should not be browbeaten into discontinuing this work, owing to the unethical actions of psychedelically or commercially motivated chemists working outside the regulated pharmaceutical industry.

One has to wonder how many of these legal high chemists are “amateurs”, as they are so often described. It is entirely conceivable that some are qualified practitioners of the chemical arts with a sideline interest in psychedelic drugs, but who cannot, owing to the nature of their work and the facilities available to them, test their compounds to a standard deemed acceptable by the medical profession and regulatory agencies. Some of these recreational drugs are based on complex molecules that are a challenge to synthesise. It requires specialist knowledge to produce such substances, and for that reason one cannot think of legal high producers in the same way as one might consider those refining heroin and cocaine in Asian and South American narcotics labs.

What is not being discussed by those set on extending the so-called war on drugs to legal highs is the imperative for their production. That is a consequence of market demand for psychedelic drugs, together with laws which prohibit the production and possession of certain ‘controlled substances’. Prohibition will never work to prevent the use and abuse of plant-based recreational drugs, and neither will extending it to synthetic legal highs. Make one particular chemical compound, or even class of compounds, illegal, and the search goes on for alternatives, the toxicity of which may be entirely different.

Would it not be better to control recreational drugs by regulating their production in the same way as medical pharmaceuticals? After all, the moral issues involved are intimately linked. It is deeply unethical for a backroom chemist to market yet another amphetamine derivative of unquantified toxicity, just as it is for a major pharmaceutical company to release an antidepressant that preliminary trials, the results of which go unpublished, show might trigger psychosis in users.

Prohibition is not the answer to the problem of drug abuse. And neither is suppressing the open publication of scientific research into psychedelic and other neurological drugs.

Long may David Nichols continue with his sterling work in pharmacology.