Monday 6 February 2012

Jack3d - health threat or moral panic?

Readers of The Art of Suppression will be familiar with knee-jerk prohibitions of party pills and synthetic drugs based on anecdotal evidence. I wonder if Jack3d (pronounced 'jacked') is about to follow the same route.

The deaths of two U.S. soldiers who collapsed during physical training in the last few months have prompted a military investigation of a popular body-building supplement that was found in their systems.

The dietary supplement Dimethylamylamine, or DMAA, has been banned for sale at stores and commissaries in military bases across the country pending the results of the probe.

DMAA (1,3 dimethylamylamine) is extracted from the geranium plant and is a key ingredient in Jack3d, a dietary supplement much-used by body-builders and soldiers. It acts like mild amphetamine—or strong caffeine, if you prefer—and around 440 million servings of Jack3d have been consumed since 2007. If this stuff was truly dangerous, one would expect an epidemic of deaths to have taken place. Instead, we have two incidents, both involving soldiers who have died "after taking" it. They may have taken absurd quantities, or they may have taken something else as well, or it may all be a coincidence. Coincidence can certainly not be ruled out when a product is so widely consumed—indeed, it would be remarkable if there were not coincidences.

Nevertheless, the US army has banned it from sale on military bases. Meanwhile, in Australia...

Jack3d packed in at Queensland mines

A popular dietary supplement has been banned at a central Queensland coal mine after reports workers were using the stimulant to stay awake on the job.

Heaven forfend! And, interestingly, there is a party pills angle to all this:

It is claimed the drug has been used in the production of party drugs.

It is more than a "claim". Remember BZP? (If not, let me point you again in the direction of The Art of Suppression.) It was selling in the millions in New Zealand until it was banned in 2008. Incredibly, the ban on BZP didn't stop young people wanting to get high (who'd a thunk it?) and DMAA was one of the substitutes that filled the vacuum. This, from 2009:

New party pills leave four seriously ill

Health officials want one of the main ingredients in new-generation party pills restricted after four users became seriously ill.

Advice to the [New Zealand] Government highlights concerns about DMAA (dimethylamylamine), a derivative of geranium oil, which is a "psychoactive substance" that reportedly gives users an adrenaline rush.

DMAA is included in several new-generation party pill substances, including Sunrise and Hummer.

These flooded the market when BZP varieties were banned and were now being sold nationally in stores, including dairies, without age restrictions.

It's the same old story. DMAA was only introduced into the dietary supplement market after ephedrine was banned in the US in 2005 (as an amendment to the Patriot Act (!)—typical American log-rolling). There was never good evidence that either ephedrine or BZP were "killer drugs", although there were a handful of cases where people had died "after taking" it, which is a very different matter. There is a similar lack of evidence that DMAA is a genuine health hazard although, like any drug, it can be abused.

As for Jack3d, this is a very widely used supplement which had no reported health risks until the murky cases of the two soldiers this year. (The people who who were "left seriously ill" after taking DMAA in New Zealand had taken at least a gramme of the stuff in its pure form. A dose of Jack3d contains just 50 milligrammes.)

Genuine health risk or moral panic? We may never get the chance to find out because DMAA may soon go the way of countless other low-strength stimulants—banned on the basis of post hoc ergo propter hoc logic. If so, we can be sure that a similar substance will appear to the plug the gap almost immediately.

And so it continues.

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