How Research Scientists Get Free Illegal Drugs From The US Government 

How Research Scientists Get Free Illegal Drugs from the Government

On an obscure web page that looks like it's been barely updated in the last decade there's a link to download a PDF with the unassuming name of "NDSP Catalogue". Click it and you'll find pretty much every drug you can dream up: meth, cocaine, heroin, MDMA — nearly 800 compounds in all. Welcome to the scientist's stash of illegal drugs, available for free from the US government.

The catalogue, aka NIDA Drug Supply Program, provides scientists with scheduled substances for human and animal research. If you've ever seen a poster ad recruiting for marijuana research or a news coverage of how cocaine addles the brains of mice, then you've likely indirectly encountered the NDSP.

As long as people get addicted to drugs, it is necessary to study them and understand why they tickle our brain chemistry just so. And occasionally, a party drug might surprise us — like ketamine (aka Special K), which has proven startlingly effective for treating depression and bipolar disorder.

The drug supply program began over 30 years ago, just as cocaine and addiction fears started sweeping the nation. Now it runs out of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or the NIDA in the nesting doll of acronyms. NIDA consequently contracts out to labs in North Carolina and Mississippi that legally create illegal drugs — an entire network that runs parallel to the shadowy if better known underground drug trade.

Intriguing as that may be to the outsider, it's just another way of ordering research supplies for scientists. "It is really straightforward," said Ellen Unterwald, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at Temple University, when I asked her about the process. Science is built on these standardised and predictable rules. Research-grade marijuana or cocaine or methamphetamine has to be like any research-grade material: pure, consistent, and reliably labelled. The exact opposite of what's found on the street.

Drugs seized by law enforcement are not parcelled out to labs for human or animal research, but they are tested by the Drug Enforcement Agency to keep track of variants and contaminants. The DEA naturally keeps a close eye on scheduled substances destined for science labs too, issuing licenses for every step of the process from manufacture to research.

So let's start with the manufacturing step. Let's start in Oxford, Mississippi.

The US Government's Only Legal Marijuana Plot

How Research Scientists Get Free Illegal Drugs from the Government

The farm at the University of Mississippi. AP Photo/Robert Jordan

All marijuana that ends up in science research can be traced back to a 12-acre farm at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. Here, the Marijuana Research Project has operated for nearly half a century.

As the sole legal marijuana plot under US federal law, it's also become focal point for the debate over legalisation. (Cannabis is a Schedule 1 controlled substance — a classification that is supposed to be for substances with "no currently accepted medical use," which inherently contradicts even the existence of the Marijuana Research Project. But anyways.)

Scientists have criticised the limited supply of research marijuana, especially for those studying its beneficial effects. They have also criticised its limited variety. Patients walking into a medical marijuana dispensary are faced with a dizzying array of choices — of wildly varying levels of THC and cannabidiol and other chemicals. The Mississippi facility only this past year started growing three strains: one with high THC/low cannabidiol, another with low THC/high cannabidiols, and third in between.

Supplying the material for cannabis research doesn't end when the buds are harvested. The NIDA Drug Supply Program also provides rolled cigarettes and a wide array of synthetic cannabinoids. That's where North Carolina comes in.

The Lab

At the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, "bulk marijuana plant material" is rolled into "marijuana cigarettes" of at least seven different potencies ranging from 1.2 to 12.4 per cent THC. And, because this is for science, RTI even makes placebo marijuana cigarettes. Light one up and you'd get with that characteristic dank smell but no high.

But that's not all. The nonprofit RTI is a sprawling complex in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. The institute maintains the inventory for the NIDA Drug Supply Program in an undisclosed location. (RTI declined to respond to any interview requests.) The institute synthesises drugs itself, contracts to other labs to synthesise drugs, and imports substances otherwise unavailable in the US.

It is actually also possible for researchers to get scheduled substances directly from commercial manufacturers as long as they have the appropriate DEA paperwork. But the NIDA Drug Supply Program has advantage of being free, which is why many scientists take this option, especially those already funded by the National Institutes of Health, the umbrella organisation that encompasses NIDA and its drug supply program.

But if you're curious, indeed, you can find legitimate websites hawking scheduled substances to researchers. Here's Sigma-Aldrich's page for ordering cocaine ($US336/gram), with a pretty surreal "customers also viewed" box:

How Research Scientists Get Free Illegal Drugs from the Government

Easy enough, right? Looks just like ordering something from Amazon — except for the mountain of paperwork behind it.

The Bureaucracy

In the US, scientists looking to use illegal drugs apply in research apply for licenses with the Drug Enforcement Administration. That requires background checks for everyone in the lab, which could run dozens of people. They also often have to get approval with the Department of Health, state health boards, university review boards — a process that Mark Wallace, a UCSD doctor who's studied medical marijuana, told Gizmodo took him two years to get through.

Only then can one even request the drugs. For the NIDA Drug Supply Program, this is what a request entails:

How Research Scientists Get Free Illegal Drugs from the Government

Dr Hari Singh, program director for Drug Supply & Analytical Services at NIDA, says the drug supply program gets about 400 requests per year, 99 per cent of which get approved.

NIDA also gets requests for adding new drugs to the list. "Research investigators who are unable to locate other sources contact us for assistance," Singh said in a statement to Gizmodo. "We also search scientific research publications to determine the importance, use and availability of such substances before making decisions to make them available." Last year, 20 new compounds were added to the NIDA Drug Supply Program.

In its entirety, the drug supply program catalogue might be most boring compendium of drugs ever created. It's really just a long list of chemical structures, molecular formulas, and catalogue numbers. That this catalogue even exists is the weirdest and most fascinating part.

Picture: Michael Hession

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