Refined Forms

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Morphine, cocaine, and mescaline are all examples of drugs that occur in plants but are commonly available in refined form as white powders, sold both legally and illegally. Some of them, such as mescaline, can easily be synthesized in laboratories, but even when they are, we can still call them natural drugs because the molecules already exist in nature. Others, such as cocaine and morphine, have more complex molecular structures. Chemists can make them in laboratories, but it is not cost efficient to do so. All the cocaine and morphine on the black market and in pharmacies are extracted from coca leaves and opium poppies.

Extraction and purification of some plant drugs is long and complicated, requiring sophisticated techniques and equipment. In other cases the process is so simple that unskilled people can do it in kitchens. Black-market cocaine is usually made in primitive jungle factories; of course, it is likely to contain many impurities.

An illegal cocaine laboratory in Peru. Coca leaves are first soaked in a solvent to extract the drugs they contain. (Jake Myers)

An illegal cocaine laboratory in Peru. Coca leaves are first soaked in a solvent to extract the drugs they contain. (Jake Myers)

Whether natural drugs are manufactured by chemists or extracted from plants, they may be safer than drugs nature never thought of, because they interact more smoothly with the body's own chemistry. Since their structures tend to be closer to those of endogenous drugs, the effects of the two tend to be similar. As we have noted, however, it is important to distinguish between natural drugs in the dilute forms of crude plants and refined powders with much higher toxicity and abuse potential.

Semisynthetic Drugs Mescaline crystals; 400 mil ligrams, a typical dose.

Pharmacologists often take refined natural drugs and change their (Jeremy Bigwood)

chemical structures to vary their properties. A very simple change is to combine an insoluble drug from a plant with an acid to make a water-soluble salt. In this way the "freebase" form of cocaine, which is usually smoked because it will not dissolve, is turned into cocaine hydrochloride, a water-soluble compound that can be inhaled or injected.

A slightly more complicated transformation is the addition of chemical groups to a natural drug molecule to make it stronger. At the end of the nineteenth century, German chemists created aspirin by adding an acetic acid group to a natural pain-relieving chemical found in the bark of some willow trees. North American Indians drank willow-bark teas to treat headaches and rheumatism, but aspirin is a more powerful pain reliever than willow bark. (It is also much more toxic.) A similar addition of two acetic acid groups to morphine turns it into heroin, a similar but more potent drug. That is, it takes less heroin than morphine to produce the same effect.

These transformations of natural drugs result in new substances called semisynthetic drugs. Chemists like to make semisynthetic drugs because it is easier to play with an existing molecule than to start from scratch. Sometimes their experiments just intensify the actions of the original compounds, as in the examples of aspirin and heroin, while in other cases the results are completely novel. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is an example of a semisynthetic drug with novel properties. It was made from a natural chemical in a fungus called ergot that attacks grasses and grains, but the original chemical (lysergic acid) is toxic and has little psychoactivity.

The ability of chemists to create new drugs from natural compounds raises an old argument about whether human beings should tamper with nature. We think people are meant to interact with the natural world and modify its creations. In fact, people can improve on nature. A fine example is the development of excellent varieties of fruits and vegetables from unimpressive wild species. The issue for us is whether the results of the manipulations are beneficial or harmful. Plant selection and breeding that aim to enhance flavor and nutrition are clearly worthwhile. On the other hand, the production of square, hard, tasteless tomatoes to facilitate mass packing and shipping is inspired by greed for money rather than a desire to benefit humanity.

In the same way, when chemists tinker with natural drugs they should attempt to maximize desirable qualities. Extreme potency is not necessarily desirable, because it often goes hand in hand with great toxicity. We pay a high price today for our rejection of natural medicines in favor of potent chemicals. The tendency of pharmacologists and doctors to regard more potent drugs as more modern and more scientific encourages the use of dangerous derivatives of plants when often the milder, natural originals would do as well.

Synthetic Drugs

Wholly synthetic drugs are made from scratch in the laboratory and do not occur naturally. Valium, PCP (phencyclidine), and secobarbital (Seconal! are examples. It may be that synthetic drugs are the most dangerous of all and the hardest to form good relationships with, but it is risky to make such sweeping judgments. Very recently, researchers discovered Valium receptors in the human brain, making them think that the body must produce some internal analog to that completely synthetic tranquilizer. Did the chemists who created Valium in a laboratory just hit upon that molecule by chance? Has Valium become so popular because its effect resembles that of an endogenous substance? Or might Valium receptors have developed in the brain in response to use of the drug? It is interesting to speculate on these questions, even though science may never be able to answer them.

In the following pages we describe all the psychoactive drugs that people are likely to encounter, both those that are legal and those that are not. We discuss them category by category, explaining how they work and what their benefits and dangers are. In any category, such as stimulants, some drugs may be natural — in crude or refined form — some may be semisynthetic, and some totally synthetic. We do not dwell on these differences but encour-

age the reader to keep in mind that dilute, natural forms of substances are always safer and may give users the best chance to build stable relationships with the drugs they take.

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Responses

  • miriam
    What are refined drugs?
    2 months ago

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