Is David Nichols just a wee bit disingenuous?

I mentioned in my last post that I had been invited onto Radio 4’s Material World last week to celebrate the start of the International Year of Chemistry. But the intention was also to take a look at an opinion piece by Prof David Nichols, a medicinal chemist/pharmacologist at Purdue, recently published in Nature. In this paper, Nichols talks about his long interests in the neurotrasmitters and his concerns that he had recently become aware that “entrepreneurial organic chemists in Europe” were following his work and had started selling compounds he had been using. In the case of a molecule like MTA, the evidence for its having significant psychotropic properties was pretty weak. And the compound, he said, have never been tested in humans, let been studied for toxicity. Sure enough there were reports of several users having died as a result of its use and Nichols said that he felt in a way responsible for this.
As I discussed the issue with the programme producer, my friend Roland Pease, I said that it was all rather intersting because there was a famous book, of which I’ve owned a copy for almost 20 years, called PIHKAL – Phenylethylamines I Have Known And Loved – which is a fictionalized autobiography of the author, Alexander Shulgin, an organic chemist who was famous/notorious for not only exploring neurotransmitter analogues, but also testing them out on himself and his friends. The final third of the book is given over the experimental sections of papers for many of the molecules Shulgin has worked on, not least with MDMA aka Ecstasy. It is a remarkable book which I have only half read. Or rather, I’ve half read the autobiographical bit because I found it a bit turgid and I found myself skipping ahead. But for many people in the drug scene, it is something of a bible and must have, and unusually for a book with so much niche technical material, it remains in print 20 years on from its publication.

Roland was intrigued when I said that Nichols had made no reference to Shulgin’s book because it seemed to me that “synthetic drug makers” would take that as a starting point and it wasn’t clear to me why they should stop there and not follow things up. After all, anyone who can make MDMA is someone who can set up a reflux, make a Grignard reagent, and do a Büchner filtration or two. If so, then they probably have a chemistry degree and that means they can search the chemical literature, which they can do in pretty well any public library.

In the evening I flipped through the book, looking at the recipes and reading the odd bit here and there. The next day I got a call from Roland. “Do you realize that they’ve published together?”. Sure enough Shulgin and Nichols have six joint publications. I went back to PIHKAL and looked at the reference section and sure enough there were more than a dozen papers with Nichols as first author. And then I spotted it. Nichols wrote the foreward, finishing with wonderful, inspirational sentence: “Some day in the future, when it may again be acceptable to use chemical tools to explore the mind , this book will be a treasure house, a sort of sorcerer’s book of spells, to delight and to enchant the psychiatrist/shaman of tomorrow.”

I didn’t quite say in the programme that I thought he was being disingenuous, but there is pretty clear evidence that he has known for much longer than he claims that the molecules he works with are used by people for kicks. His response is that the sentence was really a bit of hyperbole, and that he’d got carried away in writing something nice about an old friend’s work. Maybe. But his second point was, I think,  irrelevant – that drug dealers are foisting untested materials onto a willing clientele who are taking their life into their own hands. Well, yes. “Doh!”, as Homer Simpson would say. But what’s new about that? Shulgin points out how some of the materials could be made to look legit, ending the section on MDMA with “Caveat emptor”. Damned right. In other words, in his book Shulgin is talking explicitly about these materials being available for recreational purpose and there are a series of other disclaimers saying that anything you do is at your own risk.

And this is my beef with Nichols. He is an excellent scientist, clearly – you don’t get to be Distinguished Professor of anything at a top university like Purdue being second rate. And I also think that understanding how neurotransmitters work is clearly crucial if we’re going to find out how to treat diseases like Parkinson’s. But he knows very well that his research is edgy and exciting precisely because he walks that tightrope on the boundary between the clinical and the recreational. His opinion piece strikes me as a kind of lame attempt to deflect criticism of his work.

But I think he completely misses the point. The issue is far deeper and more important than just the dangers of taking unknown and untested drugs. Why is drug making so profitable for the illegal factories and why do people want to buy this stuff? Simplistically it’s because human beings love playing with their pleasure centres in the brain. Mucking about with these is as old as humanity itself. Whether it be alcohol, coca leaves, qat, tobacco or whatever, people have been using molecules to make life go smoother since Adam met Eve. The issue is the question of how we deal with this materials and over the past year debate has raged here in the UK over how different drugs should be classified. One of the government’s chief advisers Prof David Nutt resigned over the government’s craven pandering to media pressure rather than follow evidence-based advice. In the US, of course, the prohibition of alcohol in the 20’s was a disaster that hugely magnified the problem of organized crime. The same can be said today about the fall out from the cocaine trade that is devastating Mexico and destabilizing countries across Latin America. By driving up the price of molecules the pharmacology of which is extremely well understood, what we do is open the door to people flogging completely untested and potentially far more dangerous molecules. That is the real issue that Nichols should be raising. Staring into your glass and bemoaning your sense of “responsibility” is self-indulgent nonsense.

About Andrea Sella

My name is Andrea Sella. I teach and do research in chemistry at UCL in central London in the UK. I also spend a lot time doing public science, and worrying about how to keep my family's energy consumption down.
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12 Responses to Is David Nichols just a wee bit disingenuous?

  1. gyges says:

    …and that means they can search the chemical literature, which they can do in pretty well any public library.

    This statement is simply not true. Not in the UK at any rate. Try doing a literature search without access to your university account and access to Chem abs and you’ll see what I mean.

  2. Andrea Sella says:

    I take your point – my local public library, of coure, won’t get you anywhere. But one can get membership to university libraries either as a guest , or as an alumnus. You can also join the British Library or order material through your local. And as to searching, Google Scholar is increasingly complementary to a proper chemical search – you may not be able to do structure searches, but if you have a name then it’s pretty simple to follow their work.
    My point remains that people following work in the open literature is something of a red herring and the more important issue is how we frame drugs legislation.

  3. @freecasey knows full well, from personal communication, that Dr Dave, as he is know to the entheogenic clandestine chemist community, gives more than a nod and a wink to the potential for personal transformation catalyseable by these drugs. Dave is positively inspired by them and so he should be! Thankfully someone from the ‘authorised’ research community has spotted his doublespeak AND then connected his concern to the prohibition of certain mindstates. Why he did not make the connection publically himself puzzles me, especially as he knows from Shulgin’s run in with the DEA that there lies the root of his concern.

  4. gyges says:

    My point remains that people following work in the open literature is something of a red herring and the more important issue is how we frame drugs legislation.

    Thanks for acknowledging my point. And, of course, I agree with what you’re saying. Access to the literature describing chemical research, especially lack thereof, is one of my bones of contention.

    Oldenburg must be turning in his grave …

    Returning to your point, here’s a link to A Drug War Carol for the amusement of yourself and your readers.

  5. Mafficker says:

    It is exceptionally easy in this digital age to obtain free access to any journal collection at any higher ed institution. And the bound journal archives are generally free to copy. No obstacle!

  6. Pingback: David Nichols with chemist blogger Andrea Sella on BBC4 IYC programme | Terra Sigillata

  7. gyges says:

    I said, “Try doing a literature search without access to your university account and access to Chem abs

    Mafficker said, “It is exceptionally easy in this digital age to obtain free access to any journal collection at any higher ed institution.

    So, we agree. Without a state subsidy it is exceptionally difficult to obtain access to any journal collection.

    To illustrate the point, the vast majority of people on the planet who are wired to the internet cannot get this paper. They can only get the abstract.

    The paper may be really useful, it may be utter rubbish.

    It gets worse … someone may read the paper and report back that it is an excellent paper but that doesn’t answer the question at the back of my mind as to whether or not it could be applied to the particular problem that I have. This, of course, defeats the point of publishing; or rather, the point of what publishing should be about.

    Why did we let this happen? Then again, if physicists aren’t considered to be smart, where does that leave us humble chemists?

  8. Pingback: Terra Sig in the news (Hi, Mom!) | Terra Sigillata

  9. Nimrod says:

    Hmmm. Not sure I agree with you. Your point seems to be that if David Nichols knows that his substances are used and cause deaths then he isn’t concerned because he works in an area of interest to drug users and wrote a foreword in Shulgins book. Neither point makes him indifferent to deaths caused by the compounds he researched.

    • Andrea Sella says:

      I’m not saying he’s indifferent at all. Far from it. All I’m saying is that he expresses surprise and amazement at the fact that unscrupulous individuals are selling the completely untested compounds he makes. It strikes me as rather disingenuous. But the wider point is that there is a reason why this happens – it has to do with drugs policy and how we classify drugs. These decisions are driven by ideology and spin, rather than evidence and coherent consideration of the wider impacts. What is going on in Uruguay (where cannabis is being legalized within a tight regulatory framework) at the moment is fascinating. It will be interesting to see whether the experiment is allowed to continue or whether pressure for ideologically-driven countries will force the government to abandon the project.

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