What Makes a Molecule Illegal?


Last week I read an article in the Daily Telegraph with interest – it’s seems a homeopathy conference in Germany descended into chaos when attendees took remedies that contained hallucinating properties. The police are investigating whether the attendees knowingly took the drug which had been banned in Germany in 2014. The molecule in question is a member of the amphetamine family – and this got me thinking – how does a molecule be considered legal or illegal ? Molecule of the Month has an excellent article about methyl amphetamine and the story of the British skier Alain Baxter. In 2002, he was the first British skier to obtain an Olympic medal for alpine skiing but was stripped of his bronze medal after failing a drug test due to L-methamphetamine. It had been present in his decongestant, and has no stimulant activity but was on the Olympic banned substance list. However its optical isomer, D-methamphetamine, is the illegal stimulant commonly known as speed. In this case the only difference in these molecules is their stereochemistry – connectivity, molecular formula, physical and chemical properties are all the same.

Another interesting molecule is cathinone which has a structure very similar to amphetamine with the only difference being a carbonyl group. It is found in khat leaves and is considered a cultural norm in South East Asia where up to 20 million people take it each day.


However, elsewhere in the world it is a controlled substance and the appearance of 4-methylmethcathinone in the UK as a legal high under the name ‘Meow meow’ made headline news with reports of a cluster of deaths. At present the UK are in the process of bringing in the psychoactive substances Bill which will ban all ‘legal highs’ . In a very interesting article in the Guardian the point was raised that the bill will mean the researchers and pharmaceutical companies will have huge obstacles if they wish to study the therapeutic effects of these molecules. It uses ketamine, a drug that has therapeutic properties but is a controlled substance due to its recreational use, as an example. The recreational mood altering effects have been investigated and it has been found that ketamine may be a fast acting antidepressant.

Of course banning molecules is nothing new, with probably the most famous case being prohibition where the ban of alcohol in the USA lasted from 1920 to 1933. This new law will state that if a molecule alters your brain function it will be banned but substances such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food and medical products will be excluded from the scope of the Bill. This seems like a sweeping statement but it is an attempt to stop the chemical modification being carried out by distributors of legal highs. The problem at present is if a molecule is identified as being problematic, for example 4-methylmethcathinone, the data that needs to be collected before it can be banned is so time consuming that newly modified versions can be created and marketed to fill the hole left once the original drug is banned. The discovery of 4-methylethcathinone on the market illustrates this problem. This molecule is an analogue of methylcathinone, with a slight modification of an ethyl group on the amine, but with similar psychological and behavioural effects. The hope is that this Bill will address the cat and mouse game being played but it looks like there will be major debate before it is passed.




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