WSJ Feature on “The Other Chemistry”

Jeanne Whalen, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in London, had an article yesterday on the European aspects of a phenomenon we've been discussing here at Terra Sig since the beginning of the year: the adoption of academic chemistry to produce legal intoxicants that are just on this side of the law. Whalen spends the first half of her article talking with David Llewellyn, a middle-aged Scotsman in Belgium who works with a chemistry colleague to scour the literature for synthetic schemes and basic pharmacology to manufacture "legal highs." I've spoken before about Clemson University chemistry professor emeritus, John W. Huffman, and his cannabimimetic naphthoylindoles synthesized in the 1990s that are now creating a buzz, as it were, in the US in the form of herbal incense and synthetic marijuana products. In Whalen's article, Llewellyn is quoted as finding the work of Purdue University pharmacologist, Dr. David E. Nichols, as a particularly fruitful information source. Nichols, the Robert C. and Charlotte P. Anderson Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology in the College of Pharmacy is not particularly pleased:
"The drugs we make often end up on the black market, and it's very troubling to me," he says. Particularly worrying is that the drugs are rarely tested in humans before hitting the street. Random people sometimes write to him to ask for help in making certain chemicals, he says. He doesn't reply out of caution. "When people use this stuff chronically, on a weekly basis—suppose it produces liver cancer?" he asks. Also of concern are effects on the kidneys and bone marrow. Most of the designer drugs haven't been tested in humans at all, let alone in large clinical trials. Dr. Nichols says he himself only ever carried out animal tests of the compounds that others are now copying and selling.
Whalen also speaks with St. George's University of London toxicologist, Dr. John Ramsey, about his efforts to keep up a database from identification of street drugs as they appear. It's a fascinating article on an issue that chemists and law enforcement have been dealing with for decades. Source: Jeanne Whalen (with Kersten Zhang), In Quest for 'Legal High,' Chemists Outfox Law, Wall Street Journal, 30 October 2010. Hat-tip: Aaron Rowe via Twitter.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. It’s funny how law enforcement operates under the assumption that these things definitely should be illegal, and only aren’t because of the shortcomings of the law.

    If it’s an issue of safety, perhaps they should invest some of that effort into assessing the safety of novel psychoactive compounds first, before banning them.

    Unfortunately, we all know that it’s not just (or really at all) about safety.

    • Synchronium wrote “If it’s an issue of safety, perhaps they should invest some of that effort into assessing the safety of novel psychoactive compounds first, before banning them.”

      It is the vendor who should be assuring the safety of the product.

      Otherwise, I mostly agree with the gist of your comment. Except, in the mind of law enforcement it really is about safety, with the (possibly unwarranted) sweeping assumption that all recreational, “psychoactive” drugs are unsafe.

      All drugs have side effects; ranging from the annoying to the deadly. Dogmatic notions from either law enforcement or proponents are not helpful.


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