Heads up: Sweet Onion A.V. Club drug article

Dig this fine article on fictional drugs.


Caffeine - Drink coffee to breathe easier

Caffeine is a methylxanthine stimulant found in coffee that makes morning lectures somewhat more tolerable. Methylxanthines are methylated derivatives of xanthine. Animals produce xanthine as an intermediate in the breakdown of purines (e.g. guanine or adenine, the purine bases found in DNA and RNA) to uric acid, the stuff that causes gout and is excreted in urine. Other methylxanthines include theophylline (found in tea) and theobromine (found in cocoa, and thus in chocolate).

At the biochemical level, caffeine inhibits an enzyme called phosphodiesterase (the same target of Viagra!) and blocks the action of adenosine. These actions wake you up (and produce nervousness and insomnia at high doses), get your heart pumping (increase heart rate and increase the force of heart contraction), cause vasodilatation (except in the brain), and make you have to pee (by increasing how much urine your kidney makes).

Caffeine is used to diagnose people who have a genetic predisposition to malignant hyperthermia, a condition invoked by general anaesthesia that causes your muscles to intensely contract, producing tonnes of heat such that you run an exceptionally high fever and the enzymes in your body begin to stop working and you die very quickly. Incidentally, this terrifying condition is also a side effect of ecstasy (MDMA) use and can be treated with a drug called dantrolene.

Back in the day, caffeine was used to treat asthma, since it causes bronchodilation (relaxes the smooth muscle of the airways, causing them to expand) and so can help to reverse the constriction that occurs during an asthma attack.

- Kalant H, Grant D, and Mitchell J. Principles of Medical Pharmacology 7th ed. Toronto: Saunders Canada, 2006.


Drugs, drugs, everywhere: Throat lozenges edition

Hey everyone. My wonderful and ever patient girlfriend is fighting a nasty cold right now, and has taken to using throat lozenges made by Strepsils to make her sore throat less sore. I got my hands on the lozenge box and discovered that they contain not one, but two active ingredients. Hokey doodle! Each lozenge of Strepsils extra Black Cherry contains 2.4 mg of hexylresorcinol and 4 mg of menthol.

Menthol is a cyclic terpene alcohol that makes plants belonging to the genera Mentha (the mints) smell and taste the wonderful way that they do. It is able to produce a cooling sensation by stimulating a receptor found in skin and mucous membranes called TRPM8 that usually responds to cool temperatures (i.e. 8-28 degrees Celsius). At concentrations of 1% of less, menthol depresses skin sensory receptors, resulting a local anaesthetic effect. At concentrations between 1.25 and 16%, it actually stimulates sensory receptors, countering the effects of any irritants. In either case, topical pain relief (including relief from a sore throat) is achieved. At concentrations above 30%, menthol actually can induce cold pain. Menthol also somehow kills bacteria and fungi, making it a reasonably good antiseptic.

Hexylresorcinol (also called 4-hexylresorcinol) has a long history of use as a drug and ingredient in cosmetics. It works as an antiseptic, and can therefore be found in soaps, skin cleaners, and throat lozenges. Back in the day, before the development of more selective agents, hexylresorcinol was widely used as an antihelmintic. Meaning you could potentially use throat lozenges to get rid of parasitic worms if they were growing inside of you. Awesome. Hexylresorcinol can also be used to prevent shrimp black spot (melanosis), an unappealing surface discoloration of shrimp caused by the enzymatic production of pigmented compounds, as well as the browning and decay of fresh-cut mangoes and apples. It accomplishes these tasks by inhibiting enzymes called polyphenol oxidases.

Strepsils is probably named for Streptococcus, a genus of bacteria that includes a number of species capable of causing sore throats. They've been making it since 1958, so I guess it must do something. That said, if you've got friggin' Strep throat, you want prescription antibiotics and not some OTC throat lozenges. Trust me on this one.

Incidentally, the fine folks at Wikipedia have informed me that cough drops are not the same things as throat lozenges. You see, cough drops are designed to reduce coughing, while throat lozenges are designed to sooth a sore throat.

- Frankos VH, Schmitt DF, Haws LC, McEvily AJ, Iyengar R, Miller SA, Munro IC, Clydesdale FM, Forbes AL, Sauer RM. Generally recognized as safe (GRAS) evaluation of 4-hexylresorcinol for use as a processing aid for prevention of melanosis in shrimp. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1991 Oct;14(2):202-12.
- Patel T, Ishiuji Y, Yosipovitch G. Menthol: a refreshing look at this ancient compound. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007 Nov;57(5):873-8. Epub 2007 May 10. Review.


Book Review: Interim Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs

Way back in the spring of 1969, amid Apollo launches and Lennon/Ono bed-ins, the Canadian government appointed a commission to look into the recreational use of drugs by its citizens. The Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, also known as the Le Dain Commission as it was chaired by Gerald Le Dain, was completed in 1972. FYI, Mr. Le Dain was a lawyer and World War II vet who after the completion of the commission went on to become a judge and eventually work his way up to sitting on the Supreme Court of Canada for four years. Fancy.

An interim report, consisting of 557 pages + appendices, was released in 1970. I found a copy in a used bookstore this afternoon, amidst a thousand terrible guides to herbal medicine. It is set in what appears to be Courier typeface, with wonderfully extravagant leading and tracking. Based on a quick skim through, the report appears to be comprehensive, readable, insightful, and perhaps most importantly, impartial.

Barbiturates, alcohol, minor tranquilizers (e.g. benzodiazepines such as Valium), amphetamines, LSD, cannabis, opiate narcotics, and volatile solvents (inhalants) are all reviewed in terms of their medical uses, pharmacokinetics, psychological and physiological effects, potential for dependence, and interactions with other recreational drugs. A brief but informative history of the medical and recreational use of the drugs is given at the beginning of their individual sections.

A chapter on the frequency and patterns of recreational drug use in Canada reveals the following wonderful tidbits:

  • Regina, Saskatchewan was a hotbed of marijuana and LSD use among high school and university students in the late 1960s in comparison to the rest of Canada
  • LSD use increased rapidly in Canada during periods when marijuana was in short supply
  • Between 1951 and 1965, the estimated number of Canadian alcoholics increased by over 60%, while the rate of convictions for drunkenness remained virtually stable
  • Street samples of marijuana from the time were frequently found to be alfalfa, marjoram, or parsley
  • Nail polish remover and plastic glue were the most popular solvents to get high off of in 1969
The interim report also contains a chapter on Canadian drug policy at the time, which is followed up with a series of interim recommendations on the appropriate social response (research, education, law, treatment and supportive services, prescribing controls) to recreational drug use. Solid stuff, to be sure.

Incidentally, as part of the commission, hearings were held during which testimony was heard from a bunch of people, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The final report of the commission recommended that marijuana be legalized and controlled in a manner similar to alcohol in terms of possession, production, and distribution. This made it big with the stoner crowd, but it ended up being largely ignored by the government.

To close, here is an amusing excerpt from a discussion of the illicit drug market in a bygone age lacking the massive Canadian suburban hydroponic grow-ops we have today:
One pound of marijuana, for example, is worth $10 in Mexico, about $50 in parts of California, and $100 by the time it reaches distributors in Canada. If this same pound of marijuana is divided into ounces, these ounces (or 'lids') are likely worth $10 in California, $15 apiece in New York, and $20 to $25 to their owner in Canada. Further subdivisions into 'nickel' ($5) or 'dime' ($10) lots (generally called 'bags') are worth exactly that - and no more.
You can order a copy of the interim report through AbeBooks.