Thursday 21 January 2016

Bleeding bonkers

The Gardai were called to a house-party in Cork City during the early hours of Tuesday 19th Jan because part of it had spilled out onto the street in the form of a blood-soaked naked man who was attempting to eat the pavement. Inside there was more blood and more people off their heads. The discarded packaging and interviews with coherent people in the house seemed to indicate that 2-CB was the immediate cause of the paranoia and hallucinations.  It's not clear where the blood came from but there is no reason to suspect "gastrointestinal effects and kidney problems" which were quickly flagged as possible side-effects of this class of drugs.  Even the designated chemist on Newstalk-FM radio this morning had difficulty with "2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine" so everyone settled on 2-CB in the subsequent discussion.

The Health Service Executive HSE, and the Gardai, promptly issued a warning to young people to "just say No" to illegal drugs and floated the idea that, whatever the adverse effects of phenethylamines in general and 2-CB in particular, any "2-CB" you buy on the interweb is unlikely to be made in an FDA-approved laboratory; you might get poleaxed by the congeners/by-products that haven't been completely purified out after manufacture of the active principle. By-products might even 'stretch' the product a bit so you can get more pills from each run?  I think it's important that people a) know what they are talking about [that's the science] b) appreciate how their statements will be taken up by the intended audience [that's the common sense - empathy - politics - psychology].  We had an interesting discussion at the Wexford Science Cafe the evening after the Cork story broke in the national press. Because one of our number works for the Environmental Protection Agency, we were talking about an EPA report on emissions from a waste-processing plant in Port Laoise that broke in the Spring of last year. We were actually talking about the coverage of the EPA report which was tendentious to the point of being wrong: there is no story if the EPA goes in, tests the air, and pronounces it within EU safety guidelines. It's 'better news' if you can get an unqualified person, preferably an elected representative, to castigate the report as a 'whitewash'. It's certainly better for the election prospects of said representative.

BUT my point was that we-the-scientists have a duty to do the science diligently and reproducibly but also to convey the results in a way that is easily understandable by intelligent people who are not science-trained. The latter might be called Pinker-pinter skills. Where it is politically important, the bar has to be set lower: understandable by the publicans, bookies and auctioneers who stand for election without ever having been to college (and more power to them for doing so!). Writing research grant applications nowadays typically requires another task: the writing of a lay-summary - 300 words explaining the purpose of the project in words that a public representative or a tax-payer can understand.  Partly because of "The Curse of Knowledge" this is damned difficult to do well.

What are you going to do if you're young-and-foolish and bored and have some spare cash andif a bunch of alien suits tell you not to do something?  As I rounded off the story of CD28 in Northwick Park two years ago, such a statement might even alert drug-free youths that there's a more exciting world out there (or in there, because the excitement is all in your head)  . . . and have them take Mum's credit card off to Slovakia to order up some of that 2-CB.  The comments under The Independent article are informative about the effects of 2-CB and related compounds, written by people who clearly have experience in the field . . . which none of the HSE talking-suits have.

Mais revenons nous à nos drogues. If you want 2-CB on the street you may find it easier to ask for Nexus, Bromo, Eros or Spectrum.  The key element is  β-phenylethylamine (β-PEA) which is a perfectly natural minority neurotransmitter found in the central nervous system of many mammals including us, but also in chocolate and some other foods that have been subjected to microbial fermentation. Because it's a natural product, there are natural enzyme systems for breaking it down and limiting its a) effect-time b) toxicity. It also makes it rather difficult for drug enforcement agencies to ban the possession of β-PEA. Mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine) [R above] is another chemically related natural product; in this case derived from the peyote Lophophora williamsii cactus. Mescaline has a long history of being used by people to mess with their brains. Aldous Huxley's book the Doors of Pewrception, which I read as part of my very expensive education, brought the idea of tripping on mescaline to a wider appreciation in the West.  He wasn't the first or the last celebrity to brag about the experience.

What's going on?  According to my Human Physiology course, neurotransmitters and hormones travel a short (NT) or longer (hormones) distance to interact with a particular protein 'receptor' embedded in the cell-membrane of particular cells. This causes things to happen inside that cell. The very same natural NT may have either an excitatory or inhibitory effect on different cells - there are more receptors than there are NTs and hormones so the latter all have to multi-task. The dosage will be very finely tuned.  Drug companies seek to interfere with this natural system either with agonists (enhancing the effect of the NT) or antagonists (knocking the NT or its receptor on the head).  Drugs delivered in lumps in mg [huge!] quantities are neecessarily a very blunt instrument as we saw with the artificial delivery of Factor VIII to haemophiliacs. Mescaline is presumably peyote's way of encouraging herbivores to piss off and eat something else. Only people have considered that a little of what you fancy here does you good.

Many of the marketable β-PEA derivatives were first dreamed up and synthesised by Alexander and Ann Shulgin in the 1990s. Alexander was converted to the benefits after a session with mescaline and devoted many years to chemical experimentation in the field. They wrote a text-book for do-it-yourself psycho-active chemistry called PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story: it's an acronym, stupid - Phenethylamines i Have Known And Loved.  Because Shulgin is a giving sort of guy, he put all the protocols up on the interweb: here's how to make 2-CB at home.  It reads like real chemistry "A solution of 100 g of 2,5-dimethoxybenzaldehyde in 220 g nitromethane was treated with 10 g anhydrous ammonium acetate, and heated on a steam bath for 2.5 h with occasional swirling. etc etc."

What to do? The debate hinges on whether we should make psychoactive drugs illegal. That will shift the manufacture to a shed next to a brothel in Bratislava or Bangalore and the supply to a really edgy group of hard chaws.  Or is it safer to bring experimenting with your mind under government control? That way, the possibility of disastrous break-down in quality control is minimised and the government makes a tidy income from the trade like they do with alcohol and tobacco. I think I'd rather the money went to the government than to a bunch of violent and unstable hoods. But it's not going to happen.

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