(12 July, 2012: Updated with a few comments on recent US efforts to ban synthetic drugs.)
When a carpenter turns to chemistry to pay the rent, you can be certain innovation has been democratized. As told by Jeanne Whalen in The Wall Street Journal, chemo-entrepreneur David Llewellyn found it an easy transition to begin making recreational drugs when his construction business tanked. Llewellyn specializes in making "legal high" drugs for sale in Europe, always ready to move onto the next compound when authorities ban whatever he has been selling. And he intends to keep operating that way: "Everything we sell is legal. I don't want to go to jail for 14 years." This story has interesting implications for anyone interested in the future of synthetic biology, and in particular those who feel that regulating access to tools, skills, and materials will lead to a safer world. But I will get to that later.
Welcome to the real world, Neo. And to the spotlight.
Mr. Llewellyn looks to academic literature for inspiration for the next drug, and the WSJ named Purdue chemist David Nichols' papers as the source of several such drugs. The WSJ article led Nichols to pen an essay for the 6 January issue of Nature entitled "Legal highs: the dark side of medicinal chemistry". He writes: "Although some of my results have been, shall we say, abused, one cannot know where research ultimately will lead. I strive to find positive things, and when my research is used for negative ends it upsets me." The essay constitutes a bit of soul searching, with an unspoken conclusion that he is doing the best he can to try to make the world a better place. Here is NPR's version of a subsequent AP story on Professor Nichols.
Underlying the Professor's discomfort is that simple fact that science, as a method and as information, is value neutral. By this I mean that regardless of what prompted a particular line of research (which might, in fact, be motivated by particular values), the resulting information is neither good nor bad. It is just information. That said, obviously that information will be used by humans for both good and bad ends. This is about as close as I can get to a statement of fundamental human nature. Humans will do good things and they will do bad things -- just as we always have -- with "good" and "bad" of course being highly contingent definitions.
The world we live in is dirty, full of disease and despair, and some people have no problem contributing to the mess. It is very easy to sometimes forget this when working within a university. But Science (with a capital "S", please) is just another human institution, inhabiting that same dirty world. Anyone who does anything that hurts another person in today's world is likely using some bit of science or technology invented by somebody who was attempting to improve the world. Pointing a finger at Professor Nichols as the source of information used to manufacture drugs that cause harm is like pointing a finger at whomever invented the screwdriver as the source of suicide bombers, or like pointing a finger at Isaac Newton as the source of ballistic missiles. Academic publishing makes it easy to trace Professor Nichols by his research, and thus to point a finger at him, but that completely misses the point and is a distraction.
Laboratory-Adept Entrepreneurs: Just Trying to Pay the Rent
For his own part in this story, David Llewellyn is self-cast as a bit of a underdog trying to make an interesting living while keeping just this side of today's definition of "good". From Ms. Whalen's WSJ article:
Mr. Llewellyn is part of a wave of laboratory-adept European entrepreneurs who see gold in the gray zone between legal and illegal drugs. They pose a stiff challenge for European law-enforcement, which is struggling to keep up with all the new concoctions. Last year, 24 new "psychoactive substances" were identified in Europe, almost double the number reported in 2008, according to the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, or EMCDDA.
As he scurries to stay ahead of the law, authorities have put speed bumps, not roadblocks, in his path. Mr. Llewellyn says Belgian customs officials recently raided one of his storehouses and seized his chemicals, threatening to use environmental laws to shut him down. And he says he may have to move one of his production labs from the Netherlands because authorities there are planning to outlaw the use of certain lab equipment without a professional license.
...Other than that, however, Mr. Llewellyn's business is cruising along largely unimpeded. He and eight employees make drugs in a pair of "underground" labs--one in Holland and a new, $190,000 lab in Scotland.
If you are inclined to believe that it should be easy to solve problems through regulation or licensing, the very existence of Mr. Llewellyn's operation might give you pause. If the Belgian authorities threaten to shut him down with environmental laws, it isn't going to be that hard to get them to go away because so many other "legitimate" businesses somehow manage to comply with those same environmental laws even while using the same raw materials -- and the "legitimate" companies are probably managing this with much lower profit margins. Or perhaps governments could attempt to impose license restrictions on anyone using a particular material or laboratory instrument, but then of course they would be imposing those costs on all such users, "legitimate" or otherwise. Finally, you might hope to directly stop Mr. Llewellyn from making or selling his wares. And then you would fail outright, because there are so many potential compounds of interest that the regulations would have to restrict making anything that might someday be found to possibly cause harm to humans. And that would shut down the entire chemical industry, and thus the entire economy.
(Update: Wired is reporting that a ban on certain synthetic drugs signed into law by President Obama in June of 2012 has already been made obsolete -- within a few weeks -- by new compounds not covered by the law. Senator Charles Schummer called the law "the final nail in the coffin for the legal sale of bath salts." Not so much, I guess.)
Trouble for a Nose
Mr. Llewellyn describes Nopaine, a chemical derivative of Ritalin, as "every bit as good as cocaine. You can freebase it. You can snort it like crack."
Whatever one thinks of Mr. Llewellyn's product guarantees, or of his marketing copy, he might be right. Nopaine might be as "good" as cocaine. Or it might, as is the concern of Professor Nichols, cause death, liver cancer, or other long-term damage. But Mr. Llewellyn can make it to market with a synthetic compound created in his "underground lab" without having to find out whether it is good or bad.
Whether you like it or not, innovation of this sort is here to stay. It may be hard these days to buy a chemistry set for your kid that is in any way interesting, but it is demonstrably easy to incorporate and get one's mitts on enough information and raw materials to synthesize compounds new to science. And even if this becomes hard in any particular country, the general problem of widely accessible information and infrastructure is here to stay.
Many of the "legal highs" evidently come from China, as must some of the raw materials used by Mr. Llewellyn and his ilk. Ms. Whalen's earlier article "Designer Drugs Baffle Europe", from July of 2010, notes that in China "lax control of chemicals makes it easier for manufacturers to obtain the raw ingredients." Her later article suggests that China is attempting to control the manufacture and sale of some new compounds, but I am not sure I have much confidence in that effort. If it becomes too annoying (and it will never be more than annoying for those interested in making and selling drugs) to operate in China, or somewhere in Eastern Europe, they will pick up and move elsewhere. And they will still have access to international markets wherever they go. Our policy may be to fight them, to chase them away, but we will never fully prevail.
Which brings us back to definitions of "good" and "bad". "Bad" Mr. Llewellyn isn't acting alone; he has "bad" customers. Their aggregate demand supports the market. (Oh, and wait a moment -- what Mr. Llewellyn is doing is actually legal, so therefore it is "good"?) Unless governments somehow come up with a way to keep people from imbibing "bad" substances, defined as "bad" on any given day, the demand for those substances isn't going away.
Chemistry Today, Biology Tomorrow
There was a time when synthetic chemistry was not so easy. And then some time passed, and now today we can order novel psychoactive drugs over the Internet. Or make them ourselves.
Today it is hard to build a genetic circuit that does exactly what you want. Synthetic biology is in its infancy. Yet it is already possible to outfit a lab in your garage (at least in the US) that is sufficient to do all kinds of interesting things. And if you don't have room in your garage, then you can stroll down to the corner DNA hackspace. (Update: Genspace's Dan Grushkin wrote in to observe that I have unintentionally juxtaposed drug production and Genspace in an unfortunate way, which was of course not my intent at all. Note that I did this to myself, too, as one of the former examples was my own garage lab.) Access to tools doesn't make molecular biology easy, but it does give you the opportunity to learn, and perhaps to innovate.
And thus people will innovate with biological tools and information just as they have with everything else. That innovation will be "good", and it will be "bad". Regulation will not be a panacea for biological technologies, and will not necessarily make the world a safer place, just as regulation fails in the case of chemistry. As I argued last month in Garage Innovation in The Scientist, restriction of access will always produce perverse incentives when there is an "attempt to control tools and skills in the context of a market in which consumers are willing to pay prices that support use of those tools and skills".
I am reminded of my experience last year at a warm-up meeting for the 2011 Review Conference for the Biological Weapons Convention. At one point in the discussion, one delegate asserted that "garage or DIYBio is only a problem in the US. In our country it is illegal to do such things."
I wonder if this delegate knows whether or not a chemo-entrepreneur has an "underground lab" next door?