David Nichols with chemist blogger Andrea Sella on BBC4 IYC programme

Our beloved C&EN online editor, Rachel Pepling, pointed out to me yesterday an insightful post about David Nichols by University College London chemist, Andrea Sella, at his Solarsaddle’s Blog. You’ll recall that my previous post commented on the Nature commentary by Purdue University distinguished chemist and pharmacologist, David Nichols, as he lamented how some of his synthetic schemes for neuroactive compounds have been adopted by those in the recreational street drug industry.

In his post, “Is David Nichols just a wee bit disingenuous?,” Sella discusses how Nichols did not reveal in the commentary his professional relationship with revered “psychedelic” chemist, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. I probably don’t have to tell chemists about Shulgin – and that Shulgin’s 1991 book co-authored with his wife, Ann, entitled, PIKHAL: A Chemical Love Story, is the central holy book of drug users wishing to expand their consciousness and explore their mystic relationship with the world and themselves. (PIKHAL stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved – the Shulgins also wrote another book on tryptamines, TIKHAL.). PIKHAL is part fictionalized autobiography of the couple and part synthesis and personal bioassay descriptions of about 200 psychoactive compounds.

Andrea noted that he had been invited onto BBC Radio 4′s Material World program to kick off the International Year of Chemistry and had a discussion with producer Roland Pease about Nichols’ relationship with Shulgin:

Roland was intrigued when I said that Nichols had made no reference [in the Nature commentary] to Shulgin’s book because it seemed to me that “synthetic drug makers” would take that as a starting point and it wasn’t clear to me why they should stop there and not follow things up. After all, anyone who can make MDMA is someone who can set up a reflux, make a Grignard reagent, and do a Büchner filtration or two. If so, then they probably have a chemistry degree and that means they can search the chemical literature, which they can do in pretty well any public library.

In the evening I flipped through the book, looking at the recipes and reading the odd bit here and there. The next day I got a call from Roland. “Do you realize that they’ve published together?”. Sure enough Shulgin and Nichols have six joint publications. I went back to PIHKAL and looked at the reference section and sure enough there were more than a dozen papers with Nichols as first author. And then I spotted it. Nichols wrote the foreward, finishing with wonderful, inspirational sentence:  “Some day in the future, when it may again be acceptable to use chemical tools to explore the mind , this book will be a treasure house, a sort of sorcerer’s book of spells, to delight and to enchant the psychiatrist/shaman of tomorrow.”

Sella had a chance to directly address this issue with Nichols as he was also a guest on the same program – you can listen to the complete exchange at 8:40 through 19:20 at the BBC Material World link to this January 6th show.

Sella challenged Nichols on the air that this closing quote could be interpreted as encouragement of individuals to experiment with these compounds.  Nichols responded that he was taking a bit of poetic license in writing that closing sentence and certainly continues to contend that these chemicals are excellent biological tools, but that his approach differs from Shulgin’s self-experimentation in that his work at Purdue involves receptor binding assays and animal models.

In his blogpost yesterday, Sella wondered if Nichols was being somewhat disingenuous in supporting the work of his friend and colleague Shulgin – “there is pretty clear evidence that he has known for much longer than he claims that the molecules he works with are used by people for kicks” – but now writing in Nature that he is taken aback by the use of his work by legal highs chemists. In fact, program host Quentin Cooper directly asked if Nichols had actually written the Nature commentary to distance himself from the psychedelic community and the Shulgins’ approach to these agents. Nichols did indeed note that perhaps that was part of the reason.

Of course, the Shulgins’ PIKHAL and Nichols’ foreword were written 20 years ago and Nichols has been working on these kinds of compounds since 1969. Certainly Nichols knows that people have been using his work perhaps even longer than the cases of methylthioamphetamine overdoses he cited in the Nature commentary. So I can see where Andrea Sella was coming from in calling Nichols disingenuous.

But the main issue for all of us – the chemist, any scientist in the neuroscience and substance abuse field, and public policymakers – is a comment that Sella left with us early this morning at our previous post:

The deeper point is how we deal with the fact that human beings actively seek out pleasure. What is more, the plasticity of the brain is such that they can derive pleasure from things that are explicitly signposted as dangerous/toxic etc. Simplistically just think of how we all learn to love those bitter alkaloids.

So the issue is how to modify legislation to take account of this. And maybe we need to look again at prohibition – it didn’t work too well for alcohol in the US in the 20′s. Alcohol is widely available in many Islamic countries in spite of bans and severe penalties. Prohibition hugely increases the margins for the people who flout the laws, and that has all manner of unintended consequences – just look at Mexico.

We need deeper thought about how we minimize the risks for people and more evidence-based legislation, rather than legislation by tabloid newspaper. ‘Cos hand-wringing just isn’t going to get us anywhere.

I really enjoyed the BBC Material World discussion with Quentin Cooper, Andrea Sella, and David Nichols and I do encourage you to spend the 10 minutes to listen to their discussion held in kicking off this International Year of Chemistry. Again, you can queue it up at about 8:40 at this link.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. “…the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is not a war on pills, powder, plants and potions, it is a war on mental states – a war on consciousness itself…”

    “A government that is permitted to set punishments for drug ‘offences’ in which a person has done nothing more than grow, manufacture, distribute, or use, the psychoactive agents which have been denoted as “controlled substances,” participates in an even more pernicious form of censorship – a censorship of consciousness itself – by choosing to punish people for no other crime than choosing to experience or enable particular states of mind.”

    Richard Glen Boire, On Cognitive Liberty