Source: Erwin Haas, M.D.

Fivethirtyeight is a gaggle of glib youngish statisticians, who claim to do statistics and scientific analysis better. They produce podcasts and articles which, Surprise! Surprise!, end up supporting adolescent leftish agendas. Their article on how Mitch McConnell accidentally created an unregulated THC market caught my eye. I’ll spare you the annoyance of reading this triviality; Mitch wanted to legalize the growing of hemp by Kentucky farmers and the bill included a provision that CBD and other chemical components of hemp could not be regulated. But some of these components were being converted into psychoactive compounds that acted like marijuana and were actually being sold!  Horrors!

Fivethirtyeight does not wonder how or where this conversion takes place. Had they, they would have uncovered a huge story about the kitchen-table chemical industry well known at the fringes of society where this libertarian lurks (but does not indulge). As an infectious diseases physician, I often dealt with drugged and shady patients partaking in one portion of this underground market.

It starts with kids who graduate from college with degrees in ordinary, plain vanilla chemistry, the sort that use Bunsen burners and retorts. There are too many of them (and too few chemical engineering graduates, the folks who make lots of money using tons of feedstock and miles of pipes). Only about one-third get real jobs as chemists. Many of the rest sit around in mom’s basement until they need money for student loans. They go upstairs and use mom’s kitchen utensils to produce a whole host of compounds — hormones like testosterone and weight-loss drugs, mind-altering stuff like speed, cannabinoids, opiates, MDMA, and cocaine, explosives like black ball powder and guncotton, abortifacients, date rape drugs, etc. “Cooking meth” kind of fits in only distantly with this industry. 

For some years I worked at an unnamed Army hospital where the pathologist and hospitalists worked out the manufacture and marketing of the contraband, medically problematic substances in this black market. I understand this “illegal drug market” and will restrict myself to these.

The customers are generally young, connected, part of the hip crowd, and mainly worried about random drug tests. They are not addicts who need a daily fix of the fentanyl, heroin, or cocaine that the DEA claims come from China, Afghanistan, and Columbia. These are marketed by complex criminal gangs. 
These kitchen-table “chemists” get their feedstocks from Lowes, CVS, and the cleaning supply aisle of the local supermarket. The formulae come from the internet, articles in obscure medical journals, and Beilstein, the latter being the standard text on making organic chemicals. These guys understand the need to synthesize binding sites on the molecules (think “spike” protein of COVID-19) and the “reactive moieties” on their product. Their merchandise is never pure and the batches vary greatly in quality. They are seldom able to reproduce the original drug and really don’t want to. What comes out of mom’s sauce pan may or may not be pharmacologically active but courageously, these chemists try their creations on themselves, adjust methods, guess at a dose, crudely load the slop in homemade packets and arrange for their product to be retailed by the night clerks at any of dozens of  convenience stores, head shops and the like. There is a bewildering number of labels on these products, but “bath salts” was used for what was sold as marijuana substitute at my Army post. The labels always included “not for human consumption,” in order to circumvent application of the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act.  The product is ordinarily not easily identified. You have to know the formula or have a pure specimen of the original slop to be able to legally determine what the chemical might be.  Gas chromatography on biologic specimens is confused by all of the normal stuff that’s there, and so customers and the minimum-wage store clerks on the midnight shift can legitimately claim that it won’t cause a positive “piss test” for let’s say marijuana; at worst it may show “cannabinoids.” 

One night we had seven soldiers from one unit in the emergency room, confused, belligerent, trembling, hallucinating, and none would admit to taking anything. The potions that “they didn’t take” could not be identified and they were never charged. 

Another young woman collapsed from a fever of 109 while doing her annual physical fitness test. She had used plain tablets found in her bathroom to lose weight. Tragically no one survives that kind of fever and she eventually died. 

A good friend and colleague is an endocrinologist who found over fifty chemical variants of the testosterone molecule that were developed and tested to try to get rid of unwanted side effects in articles published in medical journals sixty or seventy years ago. The IOC names about sixty banned “androgenic steroids,” but the chemical variants on these hormones are infinite. The biologic effects should be the measure. He compares locker room pictures of professional athletes in the 1930s with contemporaneous ones. Current ones are bulked up with big shoulders and coarse faces — and they all have negative urine tests. My friend laughs

Libertarians do not support the War on Drugs. The misadventure has completely failed and probably caused more problems than it purported to solve. Some minor positives of the kitchen-table drug industry include the fact that it’s nice to see young college chemistry graduates start businesses and that at least the money is not going to drug cartels on our southern borders or to chemical engineers in China. The major problems with the kitchen table industry is its furtive nature, lack of standards, and the bizarre and occasional toxic effects. It undermines our standards of probity. But this black-market industry with its occasional problems would not exist absent the War on Drugs. 

So there you have it; the kitchen-table chemical industry is added as yet another weighty issue that Democrats and their Republican followers will bungle in their drive to improve the human condition, whatever that means.