Utopian technology transcends supply and demand

In early 2004, I discussed the idea of "using genetic engineering to end the Drug War":

What fuels the Drug War, in my opinion, are the absurd prices people are willing to pay for otherwise worthless, commonly available substances -- simply because they are illegal in this country, and have to be imported at great risk from the Third World. (Or, like OxyContin, manufactured for pennies, then resold on the blackmarket for small fortunes.)

Anyone ever heard of a real grow-your-own campaign? While it is no more in the interest of drug cartels than it is the DEA to do such a thing, I see no reason why some anonymous visionary somewhere might not be able to graft the morphine-producing gene from Papaver somniferum into, say E. coli.

Or even common yeast! (Or the whatever-producing-gene into whatever....)

That way, the addict could brew up his own fix in a pitcher of sugar water in the kitchen, leaving a little bit of the Morph-a-Yeast at the bottom, so that he can add a little more sugar and water (nutrient agar or other medium in the case of E. coli), and have tomorrow's batch ready overnight.

I can't think of a better way to take the money out of the drug market.

No money for criminals.

An impossible situation for law enforcement.

In short, a utopia!

I have to say that when I wrote that I had no idea that the technology would be just six years away, but a couple of news item I read ealier made me wonder whether my utopian blogdream might be on the verge of becoming a reality

First I read about a student researcher who got an E. coli culture to actually manufacture morphine:

Opiates for the masses may not be far off. Scientists have figured out two of the final steps in the chain of chemical reactions that synthesize morphine in the opium poppy.
It's very technical stuff, but here's what happened:
Years of research, gift plants, a bit of luck and the "Herculean effort" of then graduate student Hagel led to the discovery, says Facchini.

The researchers began with three high-morphine varieties of opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, and a mutant plant that makes the morphine precursors thebaine and oripavine but can't make morphine itself. Hagel constructed an enormous DNA library from these plants, which the team used to determine which genes were turned on in the morphine-making poppies. She then compared this activity to that of the mutant plant that couldn't put morphine together.

After determining the genetic blueprints of the genes that differed, Hagel and Facchini checked those DNA sequences against a database to reveal the enzymes' identities. To verify the enzymes' role in making morphine, Hagel stuck one of the genes into the bacterium E.coli, put the critter in a flask with some thebaine, and left it overnight.

"When she came back the next morning, the thebaine was all gone," says Facchini. "That's when her eyes got big.... Finding it all had been turned into morphine -- that gives a grad student a great sense of power, when they can make morphine." The scientists dubbed the enzymes thebaine 6-O-demethylase and codeine O-demethylase.

Yeah, I think it would give anyone a sense of power to make bacteria do that. (It is one thing to have an idea, but quite another to see an idea -- which gene-splicing is -- physically do something.)

This inspired me to look further, and I learned that just a few months ago, some Canadian genetic engineers created morphine-producing yeast -- an achievement said to have raised "profound ethical and social issues":

Building on the discovery of two elusive genes that enable the opium poppy to make morphine and codeine, researchers inserted synthetic versions of those genes into yeast and coaxed it to produced the potent painkillers.

It is an important step in a Canadian project that aims to produce the analgesics from a cheap raw material like sugar, says the University of Calgary's Peter Facchini, who along with his research team member Jillian Hagel discovered the genes. They collaborate with Concordia University's Vincent Martin, who genetically modified yeast to produce the narcotics.

While obstacles remain, the work raises profound ethical and social issues. It could lead to a cheaper source of codeine, an over-the counter painkiller that is too expensive for many people in the developing world.

But there is also a risk it could offer an inexpensive new source of illicit, more powerful drugs like heroin, which is made from morphine.

"It is a typical dilemma of dual-use technologies," says University of Calgary communications professor Edna Einsiedel, one of several researchers looking at the implications of the federally funded experiments. Nuclear technology, for example, can produce medical isotopes, electricity, or nuclear weapons.

"While one can try to rely on regulation, there is of course no guarantee about a technology falling into the wrong hands or used for nefarious purposes," she says.

Once such yeast found its way into the hands of end users (thanks to a leak from a disgruntled or utopian-minded grad student), there would be no practical way to stop it. All that would be needed would be some sugar and some water, and the junkie would have his own inexhaustible supply. Naturally, the yeast could be expected to be shared.

The Drug War would become unwinnable, because the chain of supply would cease to exist. Directing a fight at dealers who who buy from smugglers who buy from growers in distant lands would be pointless.

The result is what I called "A lifetime supply of whatever -- whenever...." When I wrote that I had no idea that the technology I was speculating about would soon become a reality.

And if they can do this with morphine, they can do it with any naturally occurring substance.

I'm tempted to say "FASTER, PLEASE" but that's not my line.

Plus, I doubt the DEA would agree. To them (as well as the criminal cartels they pursue) a major industry could be facing a dire threat from disruptive technology.

posted by Eric on 08.02.10 at 03:16 PM


Of course there is the problem of keeping the culture pure.

But yeast and sugar? It sounds like bootlegging. Alcohol.

M. Simon   ·  August 2, 2010 4:58 PM

So, if I understand your post correctly, you would also encourage reasearchers to do the same with such plants as Erythroxylum coca, so that one could grow their own supply of cocaine, also a powerful natural analgesic?
I agree that this might very well "solve" the "War on Drugs," but, oh my, the unintended consequences!!

cas   ·  August 2, 2010 5:14 PM

MS, opium in alcohol is laudanum (said to be one of Ben Franklin's favorite nostrums).

Cas yes, ALL illegal drugs.

Such a mess would create de facto legalization, which would put the drug cartels out of business and allow people to get on with their lives -- whether ruined or not. Drug addiction would most likely accelerate initially, but then so would the process of addicts learning how far they were willing to tolerate such a life. I suspect more would get into treatment voluntarily than do now. But because of a nearly free supply, they wouldn't be as much of a menace to society.

I also think drugs would lose much of their glamor.

Eric Scheie   ·  August 2, 2010 6:47 PM

There's a long history of people growing their own opium, from opium tea gardens in the English Fens, to an American grandmother who grew a 1/4 acre plot so she could avoid buying patent medicines.

Franklin took laudanum for about 20 years (during the time he was negotiating with France and helping draft the Constitution). He had severe kidney stones. My theory is that before the invention of modern denistry and establishment of sanitary water systems, almost everyone took opium almost every day. When I was a kid, paragoric was an almost universal baby remedy -- good for baby's colic or teething pains or just to give Momma a good night's rest.

Would yeast-grown morphine be any cheaper than a legal version -- heroin sold for the same price as aspirin.

Growing cultures or yeast is not that simple, as anyone who has tried home brewing or sourdough baking can attest.

But the idea is intriguing -- as much for the nightmares it will give the DEA as for any opioids that are produced

Buford Terrell   ·  August 2, 2010 9:43 PM

The cat is out of the bag. All naturally occurring drugs can/will be made by yeast/bacteria.

While sterile technique is required to maintain the purity of any yeast/bacteria culture, it is simple and easy to learn (Pace Buford). But it does require discipline, which most people lack. The equipment needed is similar to what is used in canning and brewing/fermenting. The space, electric power and water needed are minimal, and unlike marijuana growing undetectable.

All-in-all, a heroin lab would be infinitely simpler than a meth lab, and very much safer to the makers and their neighbors. All the motives for cutting/adulterating the product remain, plus the possibility of contaminated cultures due to carelessness.

It is not clear what happens to the drug trade. Legalization in Europe did not end illegal drugs. The importers are finished. But, all the money that used to go south or east will stay home. The economic benefits for the distributers remain, and there will be a very strong motive for distributers to muscle in on the makers. One possible outcome is a very violent illegal drug trade among makers and distributers. Viz., the marijuana fields in the National Parks.

Cheaper drugs, more widely available means more addicts. Severely addicted people have no economic function, and they will still resort to crime to maintain their habits. They are simply too addled to make their own.

However, considering how the drug war has corrupted the police, DEA, ICE, FBI and CIA, society as a whole will benefit.

bob sykes   ·  August 3, 2010 8:37 AM

The more I think about this, the more I understand what the professor meant when he said "that gives a grad student a great sense of power, when they can make morphine."

Power to end the drug war.

That is real power.

Eric Scheie   ·  August 3, 2010 9:52 AM

I should have remarked on this the first time I saw it:

a major industry could be facing a dire threat from disruptive technology.

LULZ material for sure.

M. Simon   ·  August 3, 2010 1:19 PM

Way late to the game, I must have missed this post.

I took a winery tour in upstate NY (Finger lakes region) with my parents in the 70s.

They said they stayed in business during Prohibition by affixing labels on their grape juice bottles saying,
"Do not add (x amount) of yeast, (y amount) of sugar and store in a cool dry place for (z)days or you will have wine"

Veeshir   ·  August 11, 2010 11:56 AM

Veeshir, I think you have a point. Perhaps the yeast should come with a warning to junkies never to brew their own morphine lest they have an unlimited ability to obtain a fix!

Eric Scheie   ·  August 12, 2010 5:24 PM

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