A few years ago, deals were done in dimly-lit side streets or on the phone via a friend of a friend. Today, you can order every conceivable pill or powder with the click of a mouse. But the online market in narcotics isn't just changing the way drugs are bought and sold; it's changing the nature of drugs themselves. Enterprising dealers are using the web to engage highly skilled foreign chemists to tweak the chemical structures of banned drugs - just enough to create a similar effect, just enough to render them legal in most parts of the world. Drugs such as mephedrone (aka meow meow) are marketed as 'not for human consumption', but everyone knows exactly how they're going to be used - what they can't know is whether their use might prove fatal. From UK dancefloors to a department of toxicology, via social networking sites and underground labs, Mike Power explores this agile, international, virtual subculture that will always be one step ahead of the law.
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Born in 1971, MIKE POWER has worked as a freelance journalist for British newspapers including the Guardian, the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday Herald, DrugScope and the Big Issue for the last 16 years, producing news, features and investigations. Between 2004 and 2009 he worked as a freelance correspondent in Latin America, specialising in conflict, human rights and drugs issues. Assignments for Reuters in Panama and later in Colombia brought him into intimate contact with the traditional drugs trade as he investigated the Colombian cocaine industry. Since 2009 he has been based in London. This is his first book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Vegetable to Chemical
She was somewhere around Pang Mapha, thirty-one miles from the Salween River, when the drugs began to take hold. In Spirit Cave in north-western Thailand in about 9000 BC, an early human from what is today Vietnam was chewing on some areca nuts, betel leaf and slaked lime, holding the bitter mix in her cheek and absorbing the stimulating alkaloids through her gums. She later spat out the residue, and that spent wad of vegetable matter was found in the mid-1960s, by American archaeologist Chester F. Gorman on an expedition to the area. It is the world’s first known use of psychoactive drugs, discovered fully 11,000 years after the event.1
To reach the fbirst documented psychedelic experience, and indeed the first example of someone sharing written information about drug effects, we must jump forward over seven thousand years. In around 2700 BC, Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung described his experience of taking cannabis: ‘Medical cannabis. Stop eating. Let go. Eat more. You will see white ghosts walking around. And eat long enough, you will know how to talk to the Gods.’2 Emperor Shen-Nung, or ‘Divine Farmer’, was a mythical hero in Chinese culture, revered even today by practitioners of traditional medicine. He is the father of Chinese pharmacology and is credited with teaching his subjects how to grow food. His pharmacopeia, quoted above, also mentioned herbal cannabis as a curative, a citation widely accepted by scholars as being the first reference to the plant’s medicinal qualities.
The adventurous emperor did not stop at cannabis. Shen-Nung ingested hundreds of other plants to establish their toxicity – or, from another perspective, their powers – and he is said once to have consumed seventy toxins in a single day. But what he did with his mind and his body was of no concern to the authorities. The innate desire of humans to ingest substances that allow us to explore our minds, or experience pleasure, or search for new knowledge and experiences wasn’t always controlled by law.
The use of plants and natural materials that affect our consciousness is documented historically in most corners of the globe. Tea, coffee and coca, tobacco and betel, guarana and khat are all natural stimulants that affect the central nervous system, and all have been used for millennia. Dozens of mushroom species, marijuana strains, cacti, seeds and barks, the latex produced by certain flower pods – whether psychedelics or sedatives or deliriants – have been used to induce altered states. From the dawn of human history, plant specialists and medicine women and men with expert knowledge of their effects have been revered figures, especially in pre-industrial societies. Their work crossed the boundaries between the modern disciplines of psychiatry, general practice, religion and magic.
Today the use of substances that change consciousness is proscribed by most nations on the earth, but around five per cent of the planet’s inhabitants continue to use drugs that are now deemed illegal. The journey that brought us to this curious point in history is surprisingly short: laws controlling the use of drugs are less than 150 years old. Most recreational drugs at one point had a legitimate purpose. The two most popular at the turn of the century, cocaine and opium, were mainly used as medicines, and the first drug laws were written in order to prevent the dangers of death or addiction arising from their misuse. The number of drugs abused in Europe and the US at the turn of the twentieth century was minimal, and all of those were plant-derived. Psychedelics were, at this time, limited to natural products: marijuana, and psilocybin-containing or ‘magic’ mushrooms, and, overseas, mescaline, as found in peyote and other cacti. The latter two drugs were used mainly in religious or ritual contexts in Central and Latin American agrarian societies; they were not often imported or traded, certainly they were not easily available. That reality was reflected in the laws of the era: most early drug legislation was not designed to prevent recreational use, which did not exist in any meaningful or threatening way.
In 1908, Britain passed its first anti-drugs legislation when the Pharmacy Act of 1868 was amended to regulate provision of opium found in medical products, with the aim of preventing poisonings or suicides. Preparations containing opium were henceforth required to be labelled as poisons, although their sale and consumption were not limited. The first American drug law was also opium-related: the government passed a ban on the smoking of opium in 1875, specifically written to target immigrant Chinese citizens in San Francisco and their supposed moral turpitude. The International Opium Convention, the world’s first international drug control treaty, was passed in the Hague in 1912.
In 1916 Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) placed both opium and cocaine under the control of the Home Office. Both drugs were being used as pain relief medicines and anaesthetics during the First World War, and were scheduled in order to protect supplies for the injured and ill. The DORA also aimed to curb the use of cocaine by soldiers in London on leave from war service.3
Britain’s Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 went further and limited the production, import, export, possession, sale or distribution of opium, cocaine or morphine to licensed persons. At this point anti-drug laws were easy enough to write and easier yet to enforce. It is a simple matter, legally and chemically speaking, to outlaw a drug contained in a plant, even if such moves are felt by some to be philosophically hard to justify. But this situation was not to last, because drug-making was soon to become inextricably linked with the laboratory.
Opium, magic mushrooms, mescaline-containing cacti, marijuana and, to a lesser degree, cocaine, are all essentially natural drugs. They are extracted or concentrated from plant sources and, with the exception of cocaine, there is no laboratory work involved in their manufacture. The active ingredient of cocaine is extracted from coca leaves, and the extract is concentrated and then combined with an acid that makes the drug rapidly absorbable by the body, but it undergoes no significant molecular change. The other drugs listed above are simply gathered and eaten or smoked. Drugs such as these grow easily only in certain geographical and climatic conditions, and their processing tends to take place in the countries of production.
Synthetic drugs, by contrast, are made in laboratories, and for every one of them it is possible to produce a variation on the parent structure; this makes it difficult to write all-encompassing laws banning them because a slightly new structure is always possible. Organic chemists, who work with carbon-based compounds, can reproduce nearly any natural compound, including any of the active ingredients in those traditional, plant-based drugs.
In the early nineteenth century, scientists did not believe it was possible to synthetically produce certain chemicals derived from living organisms. That was proven to be untrue by German chemist Friedrich Wöhler in 1828 when he produced urea, a constituent of human urine, in the lab. ‘This investigation has yielded an unanticipated result that reaction of cyanic acid with ammonia gives urea, a noteworthy result in as much as it provides an example of the artificial production of an organic, indeed a so-called animal, substance from inorganic substances,’ he wrote in The Annals of Physics, heralding the birth of organic chemistry.4
All synthetic organic chemical structures are now built in the laboratory in the same way that a builder constructs a house. Basic chemical building blocks – elements – are bonded together in the lab by reacting them with other agents in controlled chemical and physical environments, using heat, acidity and a lack or surfeit of air and water, or any of a hundred other conditions and methods, to produce compounds. From the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the present, pharmaceutical chemists have used the same principles to modify existing drugs and medicines in an attempt to produce variants that are more effective, more potent, or have fewer side effects, and also to produce drugs that are unpatented and therefore possible to commercialize and sell at a profit. Chemist Charles Romley Alder Wright first synthesized diacetylmorphine – known today as diamorphine, or heroin – in 1874 in St Mary’s Hospital, London, in a search for a new drug to help wean morphine addicts off the drug. He boiled together a reagent called acetic anhydride with morphine for several hours. This reaction added a new group of chemicals, known as a functional group, to the main morphine skeleton.
There are many functional groups in organic chemistry, and each of them has a different effect on the way the body processes and experiences a drug. In the case of morphine, the addition of two structures made up of two carbons, three hydrogens and an oxygen molecule, known as an acetyl group, made the new drug more fat-soluble, and therefore more of the active ingredient was able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier protects the central nervous system from foreign substances that may injure it, and maintains a constant environment for the brain. Large molecules do not pass easily through it, and the entry of highly electrically charged molecules is similarly slowed. Molecules that are not fat-soluble cannot enter the brain at all. Potency is proportional to efficacy and affinity – a measure of how well a drug binds to a given brain receptor, and its ability to effect a response within the brain and body. By adding this functional group, Alder Wright produced a new drug with completely different effects: heroin, which enters the brain more rapidly and which produces a more euphoric effect than its parent molecule, morphine. It is also even more addictive.
Changing the chemical formulae of drugs, even in a seemingly insignificant way, means their effects can be modulated, amplified, extended, decreased or in some way made different, and potency can be increased or decreased by the addition of functional groups. This is a chemical process called ‘ring substitution’, since different elements are bonded to the parent drug’s chemical rings (see here). These new drugs created using ring substitution are called analogues: they are essentially legal versions of banned drugs, deliberately invented by chemists who add or take away a few molecules from illegal drugs and then commercialize them.
The process of creating or unearthing a legal version of a banned drug started as soon as the first internationally binding drug laws were passed. A little after the ink dried on the International Opium Convention in 1912, dibenzoylmorphine and acetylpropionylmorphine – legal alternatives to newly controlled morphine and heroin – became available; they could be considered the world’s first designer drugs, or controlled substance analogues.
Drug use in the pre-psychedelic age in Europe and America remained limited to a subculture made up of junkies and the underclass, bohemians and aristocrats, with minimal penetration into the broader culture. But in the 1940s and 1950s, new hallucinogens emerged, soon followed by new stimulants; both were to have profound effects on popular culture and move drugs into the mainstream. And the involvement of the laboratory in their production made it far more of a challenge to legislate against their use.
* * *
The emergence of psychedelics into western culture was sudden, unexpected and dramatic, and has had long-lasting consequences.
On 16 April 1943, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann made a curious decision to resynthesize a compound he had made in the Sandoz laboratories in Basel five years earlier. In 1938 the chemist had been producing a series of compounds related to ergot alkaloids, some of which had been successfully used to stem blood loss in mothers giving birth. Ergot is a kind of fungus that can colonize grains such as rye, and its ingestion can lead to convulsions, delirium, madness and gangrene, since it narrows veins and cuts off blood supplies to extremities. In medieval times, attacks of ergotism were seen as divine punishment rather than the simple chemical consequence of eating contaminated bread.
In his work with these alkaloids, Hofmann was attempting to discover a drug known as an analeptic, which would stimulate the respiratory system, and so, as is common in the field, he produced many slightly different variants of the parent drug – in this case, lysergic acid – in a process known as structure-activity-relationship. ‘Thus among other compounds, I synthesized the diethylamide of lysergic acid with the intention of obtaining an analeptic. This compound might have been expected to possess analeptic properties because of its structural relationship with the well-known circulatory stimulant nikethamide,’5 wrote the chemist.
Hofmann’s first experience of the drug was not deliberate: he absorbed a microscopic amount accidentally through his fingertips. Feeling unusual, he left the lab and cycled home. The following week he described the experience:
Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to stop my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and to go home, as I was seized by a peculiar restlessness associated with a sensation of mild dizziness. On arriving home, I lay down and sank into a kind of drunkenness which was not unpleasant and which was characterized by extreme activity of imagination. As I lay in a dazed condition with my eyes closed (I experienced daylight as disagreeably bright) there surged upon me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense, kaleidoscope-like play of colors. This condition gradually passed off after about two hours.
Baffled as to how the drug could have entered his body in any dosage adequate to cause such extraordinary sensations, Hofmann repeated the experiment deliberately a few days later and again recorded the experience for others to read:
The notes in my laboratory journal read as follows:
April 19, 1943: Preparation of an 0.5% aqueous solution of d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate.
4:20 P.M.: 0.5 cc (0.25 mg LSD) ingested orally. The solution is tasteless.
4:50 P.M.: no trace of any effect.
5:00 P.M.: slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh …
At this point the laboratory notes are discontinued: The last words were written only with great difficulty. I asked my laboratory assistant to accompany me home as I believed that I should have a repetition of the disturbance of the previous Friday.
With that (rather large) quarter-milligram dose of a tasteless white powder, the psychedelic era began, as did the era of synthetic, man-made and recreational drug-taking that persists to this day. LSD is so potent – active at just a tenth of a milligram – that it enabled drug-taking on a scale never before seen. A single gram could dose 10,000 people. Cultural considerations aside, it was this potency and the subsequent potential for profit that so animated the drug culture that was to follow.
First, though, Hofmann’s creation was used by psychiatrists convinced that LSD could unlock the mysteries of human consciousness, and in particular of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. Indeed, the first descriptor for psychoactive drugs – psychotomimetic – was derived from the belief that the drugs temporarily induced psychosis. Sci...
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Descripción Granta, 2013. Paperback. Estado de conservación: Brand New. 320 pages. 9.21x6.02x0.79 inches. In Stock. Nº de ref. de la librería zk1846274591