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Serious Science: the ultimate party drug? Part 2

Wednesday, 7 November 2007 — by

The world we live in is one of immediate convenience. The pace and perception of modern life is such that a ‘quick fix’ to health & happiness is moved from our life wish list and into the ‘must have’ column. Technically, it seems the ultimate party drug is doable, but would it be ethically and morally the right thing to do?

In the first installment, I looked at some of the earlier attempts to find a fix for excessive drinking and some of the technical and ethical issues that emerged.

In this installment, I’ll be looking at the very real possibility of an over-the-counter party drug and the associated moral and ethical issues.

We now know that sobriety drugs have been tried and failed. And repurposing existing drugs didn’t work out, either. What’s needed now is some British ingenuity and know-how.

No drink, please. We’re British!

“A British scientist’s recent announcement that he had found a way to develop a drug that mimics the happy effects of alcohol — sociability and relaxation — without producing next-day headaches or ravaging the body sparked an immediate controversy.”

At least that’s the goal of David Nutt, a professor of psychopharmacology at Bristol University, who’s working to develop a drug alternative to drink.

“Nutt’s findings, which will be published in May in the Journal of Psychopharmacology,… One Web site, LiveScience.com, hailed Nutt’s proposed ‘good drunk’ drug as a collision of science fiction and real life, likening it to synthehol, a drink consumed on the television show ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’”

But the ethical questions are many. In some ways, drink is self-regulating, in that the prospect of getting into a sorry state and then waking up feeling like your head’s been used for a lame elephant dance recital does act as some kind of a deterrent.

But how much of a deterrent? Based on government figures, binge drinking among Britain’s youth is on the increase:

“Thirteen teenagers are admitted to hospital every day due to binge drinking, a rise of 11% since the mid-1990s, according to government figures released today.

Last year 4,647 under-18s were admitted to hospital with alcohol-related illnesses — including mental and behavioural disorders and alcohol poisoning – compared with 4,173 in 1996-97.”

And conversely, by producing a drug that makes people as inhibited as drink but without the side effects might encourage people to use such things as a constant supplement to whatever it is they feel they are deficient of.

“A lot of studies have shown that people who drink to get intoxicated are trying to manipulate and regulate their emotions.” says Marsha Bates, a professor of psychology at the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies.

Clearing one barrier in one location could quite conceivably cause a flood elsewhere.

Drink versus Drugs

The road to doing away with our near-dependence on alcohol as a social enabler — in much the same way that certain drugs are to certain quarters of society — is one fraught with many obstacles, some of which are legal in origin. Rather bizarrely, in the eyes of the law, drink usually beats drugs:

“Psychoactive and addictive though it is, alcohol is regulated not as a drug but as a foodstuff. Any new substance purporting to counteract alcohol or replace it, on the other hand, would be regulated as a pharmaceutical.”

Which further complicates matters, and no doubt leaves the major breweries out of reach for the foreseeable future.

It’s hardly a surprise that alcohol wins over drugs. The former is a relatively new phenomena — although some cultures would argue otherwise — while the latter is mentioned in the christian bible as well as most other antique literature, enshrining alcohol in society and culture in ways that drugs would struggle to replicate.

But could the tide be changing? Could our perception of drugs be shifting enough to position the idea of a recreational ‘safe’ social drug in a more popular, favourable light? Away from the shadow of Speed, Ecstasy or Cocaine:

“Prozac changed the nature of depression treatment 20 years ago by allowing patients to see their family doctors for help, … An effective drug with few side effects could do the same for alcoholism treatment.”

Personally, I don’t think this will happen in the current climate. Drug use is seen as a weakness and connected deeply to crime and vice. Even on the back of the successes of drugs like Prozac, drug abuse casts a very dark, long shadow.

Indeed, introducing what amounts to a lifestyle drug into society would cause confusion and no doubt create unrest amongst campaigners who’re fighting for a reclassification of soft drugs like Marijuana, for example.

But the issue of the ultimate party drug is much more nuanced than even mere political intrigue.

In much the same way that the discovery of the so-called “fat gene” may well pave the way for an anti-fat pill, a party pill would probably only further reinforce the idea that the penalty for the misuse of our bodies is simply the price of a prescription drug bought at a pharmacy.

A future social party drug?

But what of the idea itself? If we step away from the social idiosyncrasies of drug (ab)use for a moment, does the idea of a legalized party drug make sense?

In some ways, I think it does. I think the number of benefits outweigh any of the physical possible side effects of using such a drug. The sheer number of problems associated with drink — such as ill health, accidental death, drink-related violence, addiction, drunk driving — vastly offset the usual side effects to drugs.

“Even with government backing, drug companies will be cautious. ‘The pharmaceutical industry does not position itself to be going into the recreational market,'” says Ian Ragan, a pharmaceutical company researcher turned consultant.

Given the success of Prozac, it’s clear there’s a market for fixer drugs, despite what view the pharmaceutical might take, either collectively or individually. If there’s money to made, someone will break ranks.

What remains by way of inhibitors to the mass production and latterly the sale of a drug that actively removes the inhibitions of people are the ethical issues, which would no doubt find there way into the Houses or Parliament, or the Senate for discussion.

Despite the benefits of such a drug being produced, I feel that it’s just one more easy way to avoid social responsibilities for too many people. Such things are short-term fixes to long-term social ills.

Eliminating drink-related crime and ill health might leave us drunk with success; but ‘the morning after the night before’ we legalize the ultimate party drug might leave us with portions of society transformed into reckless hedonists, which is a sobering thought indeed…

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