Naked Scientists Podcast

Naked Scientists episode

Wed, 24th Apr 2013

Testing Legal Highs

pills (c) Tom Varco

What are legal highs, and how do scientists, doctors and law-makers keep up with new drugs entering the market? Plus, biofuels and why they cost the Earth, the cause of LED droop, a neutron star proves Einstein's theory of general relativity right, and E. coli programmed to pump out diesel.

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In this edition of Naked Scientists

Full Transcript

  • 09:24 - Proving Theories of Gravitation

    Observations of a massive neutron star in a compact stellar binary in outer space confirm general relativity theory.

  • 13:31 - Sounding Sexy

    Marilyn Monroe and Barry White had it sussed decades ahead of the science, but now revealed: how you sound reveals your body shape.

  • 40:58 - Restricted research on magic mushrooms.

    Professor David Nutt talks about the legislation blocking research into magic mushrooms as a potential treatment for depression.

  • 49:15 - Is sleepiness related to cheerfulness?

    I'm wondering about the fact that I and two of my sons are consistently able to wake up quickly, in a happy demeanor, whereas my wife and other son (a) have trouble waking up - no matter how much sleep they've had, and (b) have a somewhat less cheerful disposition. Could this...




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There is a reason why there is a lot of retaliation against Marijuana laws across the USA.  I could care less if a person tokes on some weed in the comfort of their own home, as long as they aren't diving or operating equipment intoxicated or impaired (by any drug, legal or otherwise).  And while teetotallers may be less likely to get addicted to more harmful drugs, I don't believe there is a much evidence that Marijuana is a "stepping stone" drug.

Some other drugs such as amphetamines (speed) often lead to severe mental dysfunction, and it may be appropriate to tightly regulate the use of it.

There are about 40,000 drug overdose deaths in the USA per year, about half of them being overdoses of prescription pain meds.  Is that acceptable?  Would it be better or worse with more drug availability? 

Compare that about 75,000 alcohol related deaths including cirrhosis of the liver and traffic fatalities.-

Anyway, I agree that care should be taken when trying to regulate how a person spends their free time, as long as their actions are relatively safe for themselves and society. CliffordK, Fri, 26th Apr 2013

There is perhaps a fairness test here - are some people being asked to pay for the side-effects of someone else's adventure?

If a substance induces tolerance, so that consumption must continually increase to achieve the same effect, then there is no reasonable price point - however much it is subsidised, people will want more. And any dependents will suffer.

If a substance has physical health side-effects (and this includes anything you smoke, like marijuana), then it should remain illegal.

If a substance has mental health side-effects (and this includes many pschoactive substances), then it should remain illegal.

We already have enough legalised, addictive health hazards which could not pass safety legislation today. Don't add to past mistakes...

This causes a problem for taxpayer-funded health-case system like NHS in UK, or "Obamacare" in USA.

If a substance causes a person to be unfit for work, this causes problems for a taxpayer-funded unemployment system like Europe or Australia (but not so much in USA).

evan_au, Fri, 26th Apr 2013


Would Coffee, Tobacco, and Alcohol pass your tests? CliffordK, Fri, 26th Apr 2013

With what we know now, tobacco could not be declared "safe for human consumption" by smoking. I heard that a study of cancers in bodies from archaeological sites showed a similar incidence to today's population - except for an excess of lung cancer in modern populations, which was attributed to smoking.  I haven't seen the same evidence for less-popular modes like chewing or snorting tobacco.

The dilemma we have is that now 10-20% of the population is addicted to a currently-legal substance. It is incredibly hard to make it illegal, so we rely on education and creeping legislation - first you can't smoke at work, then you can't smoke in public areas, then restrictions on advertising.

Coffee and alcohol seem to have some redeeming features in terms of alertness and heart health.

Overconsumption of alcohol has clear health risks in terms of cirrhosis of the liver, driving accidents, and tendency to be involved in violence. Dealing with these problems must use similar techniques to controlling cigarette consumption. evan_au, Fri, 26th Apr 2013

evan_au 'We already have enough legalised, addictive health hazards which could not pass safety legislation today. Don't add to past mistakes...'

Don't add to past mistakes? Like the 'war on drugs' which has guaranteed that every drug, no matter how addictive or dangerous to health is available on any street corner? I don't think you kneejerk health obsessives actually understand what role prohibition plays in abuse and availability, despite prohibition of alcohol in the US leading to organised crime, mass disobedience of the law, massive waste of police time, corruption of politicians and police, and eventual scrapping of the law.

The law against marijuana has led to millions imprisoned for something which has been perfectly safely used since the birth of homo sapiens , which has many actual health benefits and could be a treatment for skin cancer , is used all over the world and which the American chemical industry deliberately villified in a racist manner to control production of hemp, a sustainable alternative to fossil-fuel plastics. Crime in Mexico has become an overwhelming problem as a result of smuggling this product into the US which has a hearty appetitie for it, while Afghanistan, which was in the sixties the major source for high quality cannabis resin now grows poppies for opium - BECAUSE IT IS MORE PROFITABLE.

Who are you to decide what is good for other adults to consume if they choose? You seem to have a problem with freedom - the freedom of others to make their own decisions. I'm oncreasingly becoming aware of 'health fascists' as I think of them, people who think they have the right to tell the rest of us what we should not consume 'FOR OUR OWN GOOD'. They ferel terribly good about themselves, just as the prohibitionists did as they paraded round outside bars where people were enjoying their leisure time.

Do you have a tambourine?

If you want to know more of the many reasons why drugs should not be 'controlled' by laws let me know and I'll elaborate. You don't sound as if you've thought much about this subject, and are probably too young to know anything about the sixties other than what history books have taught you.

Since 'legal highs' ie. new substances are being invented all the time, don't you think the police approach is on a hiding to nothing and bound to lose? Do you wonder why cannabis is still so popular everywhere despite all the legal highs being sold? None of them is as effective as the ancient herb which fueled human evolution and imagination, which was embedded in most cultures as a plant with a range of uses and which is still enjoyed by billions worldwide?

In another post I'll delve into some of the other uses of this plant, and also it's psychoactive benefits. Looks like some education is needed, but that's no surprise, ignorance reigns supreme in the land of just say no. Peter the painter, Mon, 13th May 2013

Bad food, alcohol, tobacco, candy and many other types of "harmful substances" should be banned then ye?

But why not go further? why not ban anything that's harmful to anyone?
Fast cars, airplanes, any kind of energy production that is efficient, coal, oil, nuclear etc.
sharp table edges, god lord you could poke an eye out on those.

People, including me do not share your view on the world friend, the goal of life is not to live as long as possible, it's to live, which includes sometimes doing bad and perhaps stupid things.
And it is not up to you or anyone else for that matter to tell people what they can or cannot do with their own bodies. SorryDnoodle, Fri, 17th May 2013

Has regulation gone too far? It's a sobering fact that, under the present regime, aspirin - which saves millions of lives annually - would never be approved for human use because it's "far too dangerous". chris, Fri, 17th May 2013

Peter, I think that prohibition in the US is a poor example of drug control where the substance is already legal, and with near-universal usage. In an attempt to protect the small percentage who were the victims of alcohol abuse, a blanket ban was introduced. A legal addictive substance was made illegal, effectively overnight. The more numerous social or chemical addicts became criminals overnight. Once you declare a significant fraction of the population to be criminal, it just encourages criminal behaviour.

The podcast effectively asked "How do we handle new substances, whose legal status is at best murky, with currently just a small niche of users?".

I only ask for a scientific approach to assessing new substances:-

Is it so addictive that it will lead to unreasoning behaviour where the victim will do risky things that no rational person would choose to do? I include things here like starving your children to get more drugs, robbing people in the street, sharing needles, etc. (Nobody could be considered to give informed consent to these substances without medical supervision.)

Does it have adverse health effects if consumed in sensible quantities? Does it have health benefits?

What is a sensible quantity?

Does it have adverse health effects on others? How can we limit this? This may mean banning it from certain activities like driving or flying.

Does it have economic effects on others (positive or negative)? If negative, this may mean that it becomes fair grounds for dismissal from work - and even dismissal from unemployment and health benefit schemes.

Sugar and aspirin certainly should be subject to the same considerations!

I am not against well-informed people making a considered decision on their own consumption.
But an individual does not have the authority to make decisions that adversely impact the lives of other people without the consent of those other people.
In the absence of getting informed consent from the entire population, governments must make an informed choice on behalf of the population - hopefully informed by some objective evidence.

This means that there must be provision for clinical trials (the difficulty of getting permission for trials of cannabinoids & psilocybin only blocks informed debate)

To be fair, controlled clinical trials must exclude prior and concurrent users of these substances, as this will distort the results.

-tweaked after thinking about it at the gym.... evan_au, Fri, 17th May 2013

The problem with this kind of well-meaning blanket approach is that it fails to take account of the social and economic contexts of the different people involved. Problem drug use and drug harm is a small percentage of overall drug use. That's not to say we can ignore it, but there's increasing evidence that harm management, reduction, and education strategies are more effective and far cheaper in socioeconomic and human cost than criminalisation. For example, even heroin addicts can lead well-controlled, 'normal' lives with appropriate support - costing far less than incarceration, which is relatively ineffective either as deterrent or rehabilitation.

It seems to me that if people want to get high in various ways, they will, regardless of legality. I think it would be better for the state to redirect the vast sums it spends on its current approach to help those people do so safely and with minimum effect on others. I suspect that it is vested interests rather than popular opinion that is the major blockage to political action. dlorde, Fri, 17th May 2013

The lung cancer increase is not due to smoking. It is due to the nuclear fallout from the testing they did in the 40's and 50's. I have known far more non smokers who died from lung cancer than smokers. Smoking causes emphysema, not cancer. The cancer rates are solely due to the large amount of plutonium scattered about every square inch of this nation. If you get it on you, no matter where you get it, you will get cancer and most probably die. You can't see it or detect it, but it is there and will ALWAYS be there. Forever.

Asia has the highest per capita smoking rate and the lowest lung cancer rate. They did not explode 450 atom bombs above ground in an area that would spread the fallout over the entire country like we did.

I know I got off topic, but people really need to understand just what our government did to us back then. There is no cleaning it up and ignoring it doesn't do anything but allow the people who did it to slowly die of old age without ever being held accountable. They blamed the cancers on tobacco and thought no one would figure it out.

Smoking, eating, or even touching any plant matter on the continental united states of America is a death sentence. Yet we think nothing of it. OokieWonderslug, Mon, 3rd Jun 2013

Smoking causes cancer; full stop. It also causes a host of other diseases, including heart disease. But most smokers don't live long enough to get lung cancer because they die of a heart attack or a stroke first. chris, Mon, 3rd Jun 2013

A statistic quoted on the "Addiction" episode of Naked Neuroscience is that about 20% of humans (and laboratory rats) will become addicted to a given substance.

That is not a particularly small percentage.

What is not clear from this story is if addictiveness is:

A characteristic of a given human, ie the same 20% of humans (or rats) would become addicted to almost any addictive substance in the environment

A characteristic of a given substance, ie a different 20% of humans (or rats) would become addicted to a different addictive substance in the environment

In the latter case, by the time there are 10 addictive substances freely available in the community, effectively 90% of the population will be susceptible to something - it is just a matter of time before they run across the one with their name on it... Especially worrying if it has adverse side-effects (physical, mental, social or economic).

This might make a difference to diagnosis, treatment and control:

If it is a characteristic of a given human, then it is important to identify the susceptible 20% of the population with an "addictive personality" or "addictiveness genes", and provide additional "addiction prevention" education to them, plus their friends and family.

If it is a characteristic of a given substance, then it is important to identify the 20% of the population who are susceptible to that substance, and provide additional "addiction prevention" education to them, plus their friends and family.

Especially in the latter case, discouraging sale of unsafe new addictive substances seems wise.

In either case, discouraging advertising of unsafe existing addictive substances seems wise.

I've seen the creation of "smoking areas" and "WiFi hotspots" in gambling establishments and drinking establishments; there must be a fraction of the population who are co-addicted to some combination of nicotine, internet, alcohol, and gambling. Perhaps by looking at the ratio of patrons, we could estimate the degree to which the addictions were independent or correlated in humans?

evan_au, Sun, 23rd Jun 2013

A statistic quoted on the "Addiction" episode of Naked Neuroscience is that about 20% of humans (and laboratory rats) will become addicted to a given substance.

That is not a particularly small percentage.

My comment concerned problem drug use and drug harm as a percentage of overall drug use. That is not the same as addiction percentage in the whole population (though the problems and harm will generally be in a percentage of the addicted).

Also, your quote mentions 'a given substance'; it is not clear that this refers exclusively to drugs. dlorde, Mon, 24th Jun 2013

The researcher interviewed on Naked Neuroscience was investigating the cocaine addictions of mice and men.

However, she did comment that lab rats seem to become addicted to pretty much the same range of addictive drugs as humans, and in roughly the same proportions - around 20%.

She did point out one exception - LSD; apparently rats don't share the human aesthetic appreciation of psychedelics.
See podcast, starting at 13:30 evan_au, Mon, 24th Jun 2013

An interesting graphic where an attempt has been made to quantify addictiveness and risk of harm for various drugs:

They don't attempt to quantify health benefits, which could see some drugs used under medical supervision. evan_au, Fri, 19th Jul 2013

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