Science and the legal high

Nature News has an article by a psychopharmacologist whose experimental drugs appeared on the street – with fatal consequences in some cases – even though he’d only mentioned them in initial scientific studies.

The scientist is David Nichols who was working on drugs chemically related to MDMA or ‘Ecstasy’. However, the compounds he created were being reported for the first time and had never been tested in humans.

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal. It described a “laboratory-adept European entrepreneur” and his chief chemist, who were mining the scientific literature to find ideas for new designer drugs — dubbed legal highs. I was particularly disturbed to see my name in the article, and that I had “been especially valuable” to their cause. I subsequently received e-mails saying I should stop my research, and that I was an embarrassment to my university.

I have never considered my research to be dangerous, and in fact hoped one day to develop medicines to help people. I have worked for nearly four decades synthesizing and studying drugs that might improve the human condition. One type is designed to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and it works superbly in monkey models of the disease. That same research seeks drugs to improve memory and cognition in patients who have schizophrenia, one of the most devastating human conditions. The other substances I work on are psychedelic agents such as LSD and mescaline. It’s in that latter area of research that I have published papers about numerous molecules that probably have psychoactive properties in humans. It seems that many of these are now being manufactured and sold as ‘legal highs’.

The article that Nichols refers to is itself both worrying and fascinating as it charts how an out-of-work businessman decided to go into the legal high business and now scours the scientific literature for new compounds to try.

They end up as legal highs, presumably with the minimum of safety testing, and Nichols notes that some deaths have occurred as a result of people taking compounds he never intended to be given to humans.

I recommend both articles as they give an insight into the legal high business from two very different perspectives.

Link to NN ‘Legal highs: dark side of medicinal chemistry’ (via @mocost)
Link to WSJ In Quest for ‘Legal High,’ Chemists Outfox Law.

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