19 July 2023

MAPS From the Past: The Losing War Against ‘Designer Drugs’

MAPS Bulletin: Volume XXXIII Number 2 • 2023

In 1985 America was well within the midst of its War on Drugs. Major news outlets and publications ran many sensationalized headlines about the dangers of drugs, their use, and trade. The article below was featured in the June 24th issue of Business Week. Titled “The Losing War Against ‘Designer Drugs’ the outlet discussed the cat and mouse game of designer drugs in the 1980s. As one drug became illegal, underground chemists began working on variants a few molecules apart. The article also highlights the now-debunked thinking that MDMA caused holes in the brains of research rats.

This article is special because it was the spark that would inspire MAPS. A young Rick Doblin responded with a letter to the editor to correct the misstatements and scare tactics within it. Focusing on MDMA, and using the name “Orphan Pharmaceuticals”, Rick spoke of his new organization raising $10,000,000 to “do the FDA research to justify its use as a medicine”. This would become the origin story for the MAPS organization, and the blueprint which we and others in the drug policy and research world still follow today.

Enjoy this article and the following letter to the editor, and be reminded of how far we’ve come in the last 37 years.

Business Week – June 24, 1985

They’re mind-bending, dangerous—and entirely legal. They’re called designer drugs, and these ultra potent powders are being concocted in underground labs and snapped up on the streets. Some, such as Persian White, give users a heroine-like high but pack many times the punch. Others, such as the recreational drug Ecstasy, are said to offer the euphoria of LSD but without the hallucinations.

All these drugs are the product of an ingenious scheme that keeps clandestine chemists one step ahead of the law. The underground technicians create a designer drug by subtly varying the chemical structure of an existing illicit drug. Until it is banned by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the drug is legal to make, sell, and use. When the DEA does outlaw it, the chemists simply design a new-and legal-variation. “[The law] requires the DEA to act after the fact,” says Gene R. Haislip, who heads up the agency’s effort to control such drugs. “These guys are always working in front of you.”

This catch-22 is paying off for the drug designers. To begin with, the drugs are cheap to make. They require no poppy fields in Turkey or midnight runs from Colombia—just the right lab equipment, a shoebox full of chemicals, and a highly trained pharmacologist who is capable of nothing less than redesigning the structure of complex molecules.

A few thousand dollars’ worth of raw materials is enough to cook up millions of high-priced doses. Heroin users in California are paying $40 a dose for addictive variations of the anesthetic fentanyl. Young professionals throughout the country are forking over $20 for a dose of Ecstasy, chemically known as MDMA. “This is a phenomenon unlike anything we have ever experienced before,” says Rene Topalian, an official with the Los Angeles Health Dept.

The Food & Drug Administration which regulates the drugs prescribed by physicians, lacks the clout and enforcement staff to deal with hidden drug factories. The hard-nosed DEA is fighting back, but even its arsenal is limited. Last October congress streamlined procedures so that the agency could slap a one-year ban on hazardous drugs in just 30 days. But it still cannot go after illicit chemists until the drugs are banned. “If we stumble across evidence of a clandestine laboratory,” says Halslip, “there’s no incentive to follow it up because the DEA has no authority to arrest anyone.” DEADLY CACHET. The drug-variation ploy goes back at least as far as the LSD derivatives of the mid-1960’s. But the current designer-drug game is far more sophisticated, “These synthetics are [unclear] lor-made,” says Gary L. Henderson, a pharmacologist at the University of California at Davis who coined the term “designer drug.” “You can control the degree of potency and duration. And there is clever marketing involved. The drugs have names like Mexican Brown, and there’s a mystic about them.” That cachet can be deadly. Consider the case of fentanyl, a surgical anesthetic known to doctors as Sublimaze in 1979 underground chemists in California altered the structure of Sublimaze to produce a potent analog. Pushers sold the new drug under the name China White, a street tag usually given to pure Southeast Asian heroin. Within months, two heroin users died of overdoses of the new drug.

The DEA quickly placed China White on Schedule I, the list reserved for drugs such as heroin that have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. That move meant that makers or sellers of China White were open to a 15-year prison sentence and a $125,000 dollar fine but the designers simply produced more variations—10 at last count. The fentanyl-based drugs have caused at least 91 deaths to date, and they continue to kill at the rate of six overdoses each month.

The odds of taking an overdose of fentanyl analog are great because, although the drug resembles heroine, it is as much as 3,000 times more potent. “You can hold 200 grams of this stuff in your hand,” says Robert J. Roberton, chief director of drug programs for California. “That’s the equivalent of 200 million doses when cut.” Since only two laboratories in the country can detect such small amounts of the drug in the bloodstream, it is likely many fentanyl-related deaths escape detection.

Those responsible for creating the designer derivatives of fentanyl have also so far, escaped detection. A lot of experts theorize that all of the drugs may be the work of one brilliant pharmacologist. This phantom chemist would whip up a five-year supply of a designer drug in a few months, store all of it in a closet, and quickly dole out wholesale portions to pushers. This operation would be more sophisticated than underground labs that churn out such street drugs as amphetamines. “We are talking about a state-of-the-art operation here,” says Roberton. “A world-class chemist is probably behind this.”

SIDE EFFECTS. Use of fentanyl designer drugs has so far been confined largely to California. That’s not the case with MDMA, an amphetamine-like drug that was first patented by E. Merck of Germany in 1914 and resurfaced several years ago as an analog for the illicit drug MDMA. Thousands of young professionals and students in at least 20 states are buying MDMA in dance clubs, pizza parlors, and living rooms. “It’s getting to the point where Ecstasy is just as easy to obtain as marijuana,” says Phillip E. Jordan, a DEA special agent in Dallas.

The DEA last month used its emergency powers to place MDMA on Schedule I after a study by the University of Chicago Medical Center warned that the drug could cause brain damage. The ban immediately drew backlash from psychologists and psychiatrists who insist that MDMA is a helpful therapeutic tool and who want the drug downgraded to Schedule III, which would facilitate medical research.

“No one knows exactly what MDMA does in the brain,” says Dr. George Greer, a Santa Fe (N.M.) psychiatrist who has given the drug to 75 patients. “But it seems to reduce fear response. People can think about things that normally would be too threatening emotionally.” All his subjects, Greer says, reported “more closeness and communication after taking the drug. Greer has tried Ecstasy himself and insists that has only minor side effects including jaw-clenching and fatigue. And he guesses that is has a low potential for abuse because its benefits diminish with frequent use.

Nonsense, says Lewis S. Seiden, one of the University of Chicago Researchers who conducted the MDMA trials. Seiden who is trained in pharmacology and psychology insists that MDMA belongs on Schedule I. “The claims for the drug are so vague,” he says. “They say ‘it breaks down barriers’—what the hell does that mean?” Seiden points out that Greer’s study was not “double blind,” which means it was not designed to prevent inadvertent suggestions by the researcher from affecting test results.

SERIOUS MISTAKE. Greer and three colleagues have nonetheless mounted a legal challenge to the DEA’s ban on MDMA. They are putting their case before a DEA administrative law judge in Los Angeles. Attorney Richard Cotton, who represents the therapist, says that his clients want MDMA taken off the street. “But [the drug] is not heroine, it’s not cocaine,” he adds. “To insist on shoehorning into the same regulatory apparatus is a serious mistake.”

Two major drug makers, Johnson and Johnson’s McNeil Pharmaceutical subsidiary and Hoffmann-LA Roche Inc. also wanted MDMA banned but are protesting the speed with which the FDA rushed the drug onto Schedule I. The companies are arguing that the strategy might have a chilling effect on the creation of new medicinal compounds, since it is much more difficult to conduct medical research with Schedule 1 drugs.

Regardless of the judge’s decision on MDMA, some people have already made up their minds about designer drugs. Florida, the nation’s port for legal cocaine, doesn’t yet have a big problem with derivatives. Nonetheless, the legislature last month granted the state’s attorney general powers to put potentially hazardous drugs on the controlled substances list in as little as 24 hours.

Congress may soon take broader action as well. Both houses are considering bills that would mandate study of the designer drug problem. That could lead to new legislation providing harsh penalties for those who create analogs of controlled drugs with the intention of distributing them illegally. Until then however, drug designers will have little reason to stop creating new substances that may kill. After all, they aren’t breaking any laws.

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Rick Doblin

Letter to Business Week Editor by Rick Doblin, PhD

July 1, 1985

Dear Editor,

Your June 24th issue discussed MDMA, a chemotherapeutic adjunct to psychotherapy. Also mentioned was Unimed, a publicly traded company that markets THC for the treatment of nausea in chemotherapy. As MDMA becomes a Schedule l drug, the only appropriate response by those interested in its use is to do the FDA research to justify its use as a medicine. Therefore, a venture capital stock offering is being planned to raise the $10,000,000 for research required prior to an FDA decision regarding its rescheduling. The company, tentatively named Orphan Pharmaceuticals, will raise funds for research for both patentable and unpatentable compounds for use as adjuncts to psychotherapy. It is my hope that the business community will critique and advise in the development of the company so that it can become more than a dream.

Also, there was a major misstatement of fact concerning the research cited by the DEA to suggest that MDMA causes brain damage. The U. of Chicago study injected MDA, not MDMA as the article stated, in rats. Several drugs currently approved by the FDA for daily use in children cause similar brain damage when injected in rats, and the medical community has decided that the rat brain and the human brain act significantly different to make the rat studies largely irrelevant. Also, a recently completed study by Intox Labs, Redfield Arkansas, administering MDMA orally to rats demonstrated that even a human equivalent dose of 25 grams caused no brain damage in rats.

Sincerely, Rick Doblin

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Rick Doblin

Rick Doblin, Ph.D., is the Founder and President of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He received his doctorate in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he wrote his dissertation on the regulation of the medical uses of psychedelics and marijuana and his Master’s thesis on a survey of oncologists about smoked marijuana vs. the oral THC pill in nausea control for cancer patients. His undergraduate thesis at New College of Florida was a 25-year follow-up to the classic Good Friday Experiment, which evaluated the potential of psychedelic drugs to catalyze religious experiences. He also conducted a thirty-four year follow-up study to Timothy Leary’s Concord Prison Experiment. Rick studied with Dr. Stanislav Grof and was among the first to be certified as a Holotropic Breathwork practitioner.

His professional goal is to help develop legal contexts for the beneficial uses of psychedelics and marijuana, primarily as prescription medicines but also for personal growth for otherwise healthy people, and eventually to become a legally licensed psychedelic therapist.

He founded MAPS in 1986, and currently resides in Boston with his wife and puppy, with three empty rooms from his children who have all graduated college and begun their life journeys. Learn more about Rick by listening to his Origin Story and watching his TED Talk.