Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Drugs Policy - Ecstasy

Though drugs policy is certainly a contentious issue, it is something worth commenting on. Walking through Sydney the other day, I happened across a poster regarding the production of ecstasy, and the nasty chemicals that are involved in its production.

This gave me pause. Certainly, harm minimisation and decreasing the incidence of recreational drug use (especially in teens) is ostensibly a worthy cause. However, this poster concerned me, not due to its portrayal of a clandestine laboratory, but the text associated with it:

"Made using drain cleaner, battery acid or even hair bleach. Then popped in your mouth"

Granted, a number of people would not necessarily understand the implications of this poster if it said:

"Made using sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid or even hydrogen peroxide. 
Then popped in your mouth"

That being said, I feel that this poster is disingenuous, if only because it attempts to provoke fear, in particular, fear of chemicals. As mentioned in an earlier post, chemophobia is a tricky issue in modern society, where awareness of the health implications of exposure to toxic compounds is increasing. This awareness, however, has become associated with an irrational fear or distrust of, dare I say it, chemicals!

So, back to the poster. A wide range of synthetic routes are available for the production of MDMA from its precursors. The poster in question appears to reference a specific synthetic route, starting with isomerisation of safrole to isosafrole. Indeed, this method does involve the use of sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide and a strong base, as well as various other chemicals. In this regard, the poster is accurate, in that a clandestine laboratory may indeed use this particular scheme. 

At this point, we must ask ourselves what is the purpose of including the named chemicals in the above poster? It isn't to provide a cheat sheet a person on the street can use to start up their own little clandestine laboratory in suburbia. Again, it comes back to the use of scientific and chemistry-related terms to invoke fear, so as to scare off any would-be first time users of ecstasy, because hey, it contains chemicals.

To be blunt, and not to condone the production of recreational drugs, but one would imagine that a drug manufacturer would try not to actively poison their clientele. Of course, the use of adulterants and cutting agents to increase the bulk of a drug, or to alter its psychoactive effects are nothing new, and have been reported on. It is also unfortunately true that there have been reported fatalities due to ecstasy, whether due to overdose, adulteration and/or  polydrug abuse.

Back to the underlying element of chemophobia though. The three named chemicals in the above poster are sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydroxide. Though I dare say I don't often encounter sulfuric acid in everyday life, I do come into contact with hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydroxide. Regularly, in fact. Worse still, despite the warning of the poster, I put them in my mouth! Fear not, I don't swallow them. There is hydrogen peroxide in my mouthwash, and sodium hydroxide in various toothpastes. As for sulfuric acid, it is vital for a number of chemical reactions that produce a wide range of compounds, in particular those that are involve nitration in their synthesis.

Hmm... Perhaps this will make an interesting experiment for myself, and something I can report back on. I will endeavour to look at some everyday objects I encounter, and look at the chemicals that are present in them. 

Until next time, thanks for reading,


  1. Wonderful illustrated information. I thank you about that. No doubt it will be very useful for my future projects. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject!
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