Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Chemical Solution to a Chemical Problem?

April 27th, 2010 · 5 Comments

We’re in the midst of whipping through Nick Reding’s Methland, which is a fantastic feat of reporting. It takes an intrepid writer, indeed, to spend such a vast amount of time in small-town Iowa, connecting with tweakers and those who loathe them.

While Methland has earned major plaudits for its human touch, we’ve been more struck by some of the backstory it offers, particularly in regards to policy decisions that accidentally aided the drug lords. Reding delves into the Big Pharma lobbying that kept pseudoephedrine cheap and legal, despite the resistance of a single DEA bureaucrat. And he also notes that pseudoephedrine could easily have been excised from cold medicines several years ago, which would have put the kibosh on the most common means of meth production. A snippet from Reding’s explainer:

Mirror imaging is a process whereby a chemical’s molecular structure is reversed, moving, for example, electrons from the bottom of a certain ring to the top, and vice versa. Pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and methamphetamine are already near mirror images of one another. To make meth from ephedrine, it is necessary to remove a single oxygen atom from the outer electron ring. Thus ephedrine and methamphetamine not only look the same under a mass spectrometer, but both dilate the alveoli in the lungs and shrink blood vessels in the nose—hence ephedrine’s use as a decongestant—while raising blood pressure and releasing adrenaline. The key difference is that meth, unlike ephedrine, prompts wide-scale releases of the neurotransmitters dopamine and epinephrine.

What the 1997 tests at the University of North Texas showed was that, at least in lab animals, mirror-imaging pseudoephedrine was equally as effective as regular pseudoephedrine as a decongestant. Unlike regular pseudo, however, the mirror-image version didn’t cause any side effects to the central nervous system, such as high blood pressure or a racing heart: the common “buzz” that one associates with cold medicine. Better yet, mirror-image pseudoephedrine could only be synthesized into mirror-image methamphetamine, which had no stimulant effects and could not then be made into regular meth.

Reding states that this experimentation ended in 2000, when the tests’ sponsor, drug maker Warner-Lambert,was acquired by Pfizer. The implication is that Pfizer didn’t want to spend the money to develop a pseudoephedrine alternative, seeing as how the old stuff worked fine. Meth addiction? Not the company’s problem, and even a business opportunity—a meth Smurfer‘s money is just as good as an ordinary citizen, after all.

Our question then is why no federal money has been used to further this research. Yes, we understand that there’s something fundamentally weird about using public dollars to bolster corporate R&D. But this strikes us as a worthwhile investment, given the economic consequences of our ongoing “war” on meth. The tab quoted here, via the RAND Corporation, is $23 billion per year. How much would it cost to further the mirror-imaging studies to develop a truly effective pseudo replacement? Even if we accept the pharmaceutical industry’s outlandish claims regarding drug-development costs, moving the cold-medicine sector past the Pseudo Era would cost only a fraction of the amount that meth consumption currently drains from the American economy every twelve months.

This innovation would also help pave the way for meaningful shifts in policy—either decriminalization or quasi-legalization. At present, meth vastly complicates that proposition because it’s relatively easy to produce domestically in small quantities. That means it would be virtually impossible to regulate should we someday opt for a regime akin to the Portuguese model. Also, to be honest, we wouldn’t mind one bit if meth were simply innovated out of existence—just because we favor drug-policy reform doesn’t mean we have to accept that all drugs are created equal.

We realize that our humble proposal is nothing more than a pipe dream—the federal government doesn’t have the means to run or supervise research along these lines. And so when it comes to dealing with meth, we’re stuck with enforcement. Good luck with that cat herding, drug warriors.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Brian Moore

    “Reding delves into the Big Pharma lobbying that kept pseudoephedrine cheap and legal, despite the resistance of a single DEA bureaucrat. And he also notes that pseudoephedrine could easily have been excised from cold medicines several years ago, which would have put the kibosh on the most common means of meth production. ”

    When we did eventually ban and put it behind locked doors, all it did was shift meth production to industrial producers — and introduced us to the insanity of grandmothers being arrested for purchasing too much, and having to produce ID for cold medicine.

    There are a lot of completely normal products that can be converted into deadly forms — some even for use against people against their will, (unlike meth) but we allow them to be sold. Like you say at the end, this is herding cats — if you ban one method, you just increase the incentives to find a new one — and in this case the “new one” was in the favor of even less scrupulous, more powerful producers.

    I think a Portuguese style drug decrim would probably hurt meth’s popularity, as you’d have alternate, less nasty forms of high. Plus, it’s hard to imagine what punishment you could enforce against meth-users that would be worse than the crime. “Go to jail!” isn’t that much of a deterrant for someone whose teeth are falling out and risks being blown up each day.

    Sure, the costs of meth use are high. But is the amount that use is reduced by its prohibition larger than the immense amount we spent enforcing that prohibition? I’d say that in some cases, the level of enforcement can even increase the harm — especially in cases such as meth and opium enforcement — by driving production (and therefore wealth) to increasingly malevolent people.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian Moore: Lot of good points here–thanks for posting.

    My concern is that even if we decrim along Portuguese lines, meth will continue to win on price b/c its import costs are either low or non-existent. I think it comes down to assessing exactly how much decrim would affect the price of cocaine (which I assume to be the ideal “replacement” drug for people who are attracted to meth). I’m not sure anyone can adequately answer that question.

    This is one of the toughest issues out there, and I waver a lot on my opinion. The main problem I see with any decrim is that it will, inevitably, cause an uptick in overdose deaths in the short-term. (I realize this hasn’t been the experience in Portugal, but I think our culture of excess is many times more pronounced.) I believe those deaths would decline swiftly, but I fear that the policy revision would not be given a chance to prove its long-term worth. Imagine what will happen the first time a pretty 17-year-old prom-queen type from the Heartland dies—her smiling face would be splashed across cable news 24/7, creating mass hysteria. (Possible NY Post headline: “FALLEN ANGEL”)

  • Jordan

    It kind of hurt my head trying to translate that quote into actual chemistry, but I’m pretty sure I understand what he meant. His metaphorical attempt to explain chirality left a lot to be desired.

    What he’s basically saying is that if we sell only one pair of diastereomers, (presumably the (1R, 2R) and (1S, 2R) pair of (-)-ephedrine and (+)-pseudoephedrine), reduction to give (R)-methamphetamine would be essentially useless as only the (S)-enantiomer is CNS active. The (R)-methamphetamine is actually safe enough to be sold as part of Vicks Vapor Inhaler, an over-the-counter medication.

    This was actually an issue back in the day when the Hell’s Angels made most of the meth in America. They were starting from achiral precursors, so they ended up with racemic mixtures that were only 50% potent. When enantio-pure ephedrine and pseudoephedrine came on the market, a simple reduction reaction can be performed to come out with an enantiomerically pure product, which is twice as potent as the racemic mixture.

    /chemistry rant

    With that said, getting rid of pseudoephedrine in decongestants was pretty dumb. Phenylethrine, the compound that replaced it, has been shown to have no clinical effect at the dosages you get in a regular pill. And higher doses are toxic. So the only relief you’re going to get is through the placebo effect. Pretty much everyone I know who lives in Oregon stocks up on real Sudafed whenever they’re out of the state, because you can’t buy it here anymore.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Thanks for the expert’s take–been waiting for it ever since I posted, actually. Having flamed out of AP Chemistry in fairly spectacular fashion many moons ago, I empathize with the challenges faced by Reding in putting the science into laymen’s terms. That said, he does seem to have oversimplified quite a bit. And in re-reading, I realize that he offers no evidence to support the notion that the experimental pseudo alternative really worked just as well as the real thing.

    Still a very good book. He really dug into the reporting, spending months and months on the ground in Iowa. His depiction of the struggles of the town’s overmatched good guys (i.e. prosecutors, doctors, etc.) is particularly poignant.

  • Brian Moore

    “Imagine what will happen the first time a pretty 17-year-old prom-queen type from the Heartland dies—her smiling face would be splashed across cable news 24/7, creating mass hysteria. ”

    Yeah, I totally agree that would happen — and the hypocrisy that doesn’t cause a similar outcry when innocent grandmothers are shot to death by drug cops. But if we, as a society, are unable to pursue good policies because of the potentially hysterical media backlash, then I feel like we’re going to be even more screwed than just drug prohibition.

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