Tuesday, 6 January 2015

David Nutt's cunning plan

Our old friend David Nutt was talking a lot of sense about 'Ecstasy deaths' in the Guardian yesterday (I apply scare quotes because, as he points out, the recent spate of deaths were actually due to the consumption of the MDMA substitute PMA).

For libertarians, Nutt is a real curate's egg—sound when talking about drugs but hysterical, illiberal and wrong when talking about alcohol. For several years, there have been rumours of Nutt combining his twin interests by developing his own legal high which he will market as an anti-alcohol drug. In 2013, he was attacked by the prissy fake charity Alcohol Concern when he appealed for investors on BBC radio. It now seems that his product will soon be unveiled:

In an unlikely marriage, the compound was created by the drug designer behind mephedrone, a now widely banned substance that has caused at least one death and been implicated in 13 others in the UK. The man, who has asked to be referred to by his pseudonym, Dr Z, initially intended his creation to be sold as a legal high. But after having discussions with Nutt and trying it on himself, he now plans to gift the patent to Nutt's charitable research group DrugScience, in the hope it will be used as a "binge mitigation agent".

How it might finally be used will depend on the results of detailed testing – including how quickly it is absorbed and how it mixes with alcohol. But it might become something you'd take at the start of a night out, or perhaps even add to each drink.

Nutt and Dr Z have called the new drug "chaperon". Its less catchy name is MEAI or 5-methoxy-2-aminoindane. Structurally, it is closely related to two drugs you can buy as a legal high in some places – MDAI and MMAI. Both were invented by David Nichols from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and have some of ecstasy's euphoric effects.

Nichols says chaperon also looks a bit like another drug, PMA, which is known to be highly toxic.

I admire Nutt's audacity, but does he really think that this drug will not be banned at the first opportunity? Along with hundreds of similar substances, the three drugs that it has been compared to—MDAI, MMAI and PMA—have all been banned, and the latter is genuinely dangerous.

As a harm reduction agent, it leaves a lot to be desired. It is well known that mixing drink with drugs significantly increases the risk of drug use and yet the whole point of this drug is that it is supposed to be mixed with drink. It also appears to be slow-acting ("more than 5 hours after the first dose, I feel intense but controlled euphoria. Now the idea of drinking alcohol seems repulsive") thus giving people more time to (a) drink and (b) take more pills because, as Nutt says of PMA, "they think they have been sold a weak lot and may take another dose to make up for this".

On the other hand, 'Chaperon' may have some positive features. According to the New Scientist reviewer, it is "a party drug without some of the side effects" and there is talk of "an antidote so you can drive home after a night out." These are nice features for a recreational drug to have, but it remains a recreational drug and Nutt cannot have failed to notice that the government would prefer people not to take recreational drugs.

Nutt's marketing strategy is to claim that Chaperon is a "binge-drinking mitigation agent" which turns people off alcohol, but the same could be said of amphetamines and many other drugs that have been banned for decades. Yes, drugs can be substitutes for drink as well as complements to drink, but Nutt's legal high is not as unique as he thinks it is and even if it were, it is very doubtful whether regulators would welcome another intoxicant on the market.

Nutt is betting the farm on the government being more concerned about binge-drinking than recreational drug use. I strongly suspect that he is wrong. He may be able to call in some favours from his former colleagues at the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but having a business partner who sounds like a James Bond villain doesn't help matters. I watched a documentary about 'Dr Z' once. He makes minor changes to the chemical structure of drugs, tests them on himself and then puts them on the market and waits for them to be banned (they are always banned). He invented mephedrone (AKA 'miaow miaow'), a substance which created the biggest moral panic of the last ten years.

Nutt and Dr Z would make quite a pairing on Dragon's Den. "Good afternoon. I'm Professor Nutt. I was sacked by the government for being too pro-drugs and this is my business partner Dr Z, the anonymous inventor of dozens of banned substances. We're looking for £100,000 to kickstart our legal high binge-drinking mitigation business."

I genuinely wish Professor Nutt well with this project. If nothing else, the inevitable banning of Chaperon will draw attention to the the absurdity of Britain's drug laws. If it is an elaborate stunt then more power to his elbow, but if he sincerely thinks that he has found a business opportunity he needs to stop getting high on his own supply.


Christopher Snowdon said...

Testing it's interaction with alcohol should only be the start. People won't just mix this with alcohol. How will it interact with cocaine, for example?

Christopher Snowdon said...

Nutt and Dr Z and a party drug with the slightly rapey name of Chaperon. Hollywood's calling.

Christopher Snowdon said...

"Nutt is betting the farm on the government being more concerned about binge-drinking than recreational drug use. I strongly suspect that he is wrong."

Yup, case and point - Ecigs. Safer method to administer nicotine - which outside of tobacco is fairly benign and does not even impair judgement. Look at governments and Public health groups reactions to them.

He's going to find his Legal High banned so fast it'll make his head spin.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Nutt has mentioned that he's seeking investment to conduct clinical trials for chaperon. If it passes the clinical trials then it is proven to be safe. If it has a stamp of approval from the medical powers that be - the government will not ban it.