What a Difference a Century Makes

"Cocaine will make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and free victims of alcohol and opium from their bondage."

—Park Davis, pharmaceutical advertisement*

The original formula for Coca-Cola was invented by chemist John S. Pemberton, whose goal was to create the perfect medicinal drink. He had heard about extracts of the coca plant and knew of the purported stimulant and aphrodisiac effects. His first concoction was Pemberton's French Wine Cola, launched in 1885. It sold particularly well in Atlanta, Georgia. He continued striving to make a "temperance drink" based on coca extracts and the kola nut but without the bitter taste typical of alkaloids such as cocaine and caffeine. Pemberton found that the addition of sugar and corn syrup helped, along with some citric acid to counter any oversweetening. The name Coca-Cola came from the drink's two key ingredients. Pemberton sold the company when he became ill with cancer, but work continued on the formula, although public sentiment was turning against cocaine given the potential for addiction by the turn of the century. Cocaine was out of the formula by 1929.

* Quoted in "Drug Enforcement Administration: Historical Interviews, James McGivency, Tape no. 1 62." Available online. URL: http://www. deamuseum.org/transcripts/jamesmcgiveney_1 1042003.pdf. Downloaded January 2, 2008.

Dr. John S. Pemberton, who invented Coca-Cola (© Topham/ The Image Works)
Coca-Cola ad, 1914, from an American magazine (The Granger Collection)

(alkaline) drug that has a distinctive bitter taste. Illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are also basic.

One group of basic drugs, the alkaloids, is particularly important. The alkaloids are, or were at one time, obtained from seed plants. An older term for these substances is vegetable base. Caffeine is an alkaloid, as are cocaine and heroin. Within the alkaloid family caffeine is a xan-thine alkaloid, a class that also includes theophylline, an ingredient in tea and chocolate. Cocaine is a tropane alkaloid, a class characterized by a bridge in their molecular structure. Heroin is an opiate alkaloid, a class of drugs that are found in or made from the opium poppy.

Another way forensic chemists classify drugs is by how they are obtained. Drugs that come directly from plants are referred to as natural drugs or natural products. Marijuana and cocaine are natural products because they can be extracted directly from plants. If a drug is made by a chemical reaction with a plant extract, that drug is called semi-synthetic. Heroin is a semi-synthetic because it is made by a reaction of a chemical (acetic anhydride) with the compound morphine, which is contained in the opium extract. The morphine is, like cocaine, a natural product, but it takes additional chemical treatment to convert it to heroin. Synthetic drugs are made from scratch in the laboratory. Methamphetamine and many prescription drugs are synthetic. Finally, hormones and steroids are considered drugs and are obtained or synthesized from animals, humans, or genetically engineered bacteria. An example is the drug insulin, used to control diabetes.

This classification of natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic is becoming more difficult to use as techniques and capabilities of synthetic chemists advance. Compounds that were once obtained only from plant matter, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, can now be synthesized and is used in the drug Marinol mentioned previously. However, there are several other classification methods that are still useful.

Forensic chemists, physicians, and other health care professionals often categorize drugs based on the type of effect they have when taken, as in the following categories.

• Analgesics: These are drugs that relieve pain, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and morphine. Aspirin and related drugs are called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a group of drugs that stop pain by reducing fever and inflammation. Morphine and other opiates reduce pain by attaching to specific sites scattered throughout the central nervous system (CNS). By doing so they block transmission of nerve impulses that relay the sensation of pain to the brain. Aspirin reduces pain by inhibiting the processes that cause it, while morphine intercepts the pain signal after it is produced. The side effects of morphine lead it to be classified also as a narcotic. The different mechanisms explain why morphine is addictive and aspirin is not and also why morphine has a high potential for abuse and aspirin a low potential.

• Depressants: These drugs depress functions of the CNS resulting in slowed heartbeat, reduction of anxiety, and, in some cases, promotion of sleep. Barbiturates, tranquilizers, alcohol (ethanol), and sleep aids are depressants.

• Hallucinogens: These are drugs that alter the perception of time and reality. Movement, thought, perceptions, vision, and hearing are also affected. LSD, mescaline, and marijuana are examples.

• Narcotics: These are drugs that have analgesic effects, depress the CNS, and tend to promote sleep. Opiate alkaloids (drugs derived from the opium plant) are the best known narcotics, and this group includes morphine, codeine, heroin, hydromor-phone, oxycodone, and methadone.

• Stimulants: These are drugs that stimulate functions of the CNS, induce alertness, and prevent sleep. Cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine are stimulants. At high doses many stimulants are hallucinogenic.

Classification by general effect is useful not only to forensic chemists but also to health care professionals and the general public.

Another system used in forensic chemistry groups drugs based on how they are used and abused. Their structures are often similar, as are the physiological effects. Most of these substances will be discussed individually later. Four such classes are the following:

• Predator drugs: Also known as date rape drugs, these are substances that are used to incapacitate a person (typically a woman) for sexual purposes. Current date rape drugs, aside from alcohol, are ketamine, Rohypnol, and gamma hydroxybu-tyrate (GHB) and related compounds. When a predator drug is mixed in a drink, the effects can range from disorientation to unconsciousness and loss of short-term memory.

• Club drugs: Drugs used recreationally at parties and clubs frequented by young people get this designation; many of these drugs are also predator drugs. Examples include ketamine, Rohypnol, and Ecstasy (MDMA), a stimulant and mild hallucinogen related to amphetamine. Other hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are sometimes included in this group, as are PCP (phencyclidine) and methamphetamine. One apparent reason for their popularity is the misconception that the club drugs are less dangerous than drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

• Human performance drugs: This group includes substances that improve or impair performance, most notably anabolic steroids and alcohol. The former consists of dozens of drugs, mostly prescription drugs, based on the male hormone testosterone. These are abused by athletes as young as high school age in attempts to increase their muscle mass and decrease recovery time after strenuous training and competition.

• Inhalants: Substances that are inhaled, most of which are not drugs at all, include paint thinners, nitrous oxide, gasoline, cleaners, nail polishes, and so on. Essentially any substance that has a volatile component can be used as an inhalant, and in general these substances have depressant effects similar to those of alcohol.

The above terms are convenient for grouping types of drugs according to their illicit uses. These descriptions are also fluid because a drug can sometimes belong to more than one category of abuse. Rohypnol, for example, finds illicit use as both a date rape drug and a club drug. The basis for the final system of classifying a drug is more rigid: its legal status in the United States.

86 drugs, poisons, and chemistry

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