Better living through chemistry
The chemistry of mind-altering drugs: history, pharmacology and
Daniel M Perrine
Washington: American Chemical Society 1996
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
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 USD300M/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.
Tim Chapman is a journalist and writer with a purely
intellectual interest in the sociology and psychology of drug use.
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5 Jan 1998