Science of recreational drugs
It was March, and a group of scientists who’d been lecturing in Telluride decamped from their esoterica and headed out to the New Sheridan to get a drink. There, a talkative chemist named Thomas Cheatham started talking about drugs in this new and novel way — about the connections between prescription drugs, illegal drugs, natural medicines and the chemicals your Very Own Body produces every day.
Nana Naisbitt, director of the Telluride Science Research Center, was there that night and recalled how the conversation sparked an idea: Bring this Cheatham guy back to Telluride, and get him to talk about the science of drugs.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this would be perfect for Telluride,’” Naisbitt said. “‘I believe that the desire to experience an altered state is fundamental to the human condition. Alcohol is legal. Cigarettes, if I ever smoke a cigarette, I reach an altered state. There’s a buzz associated with caffeine.”
And more. Tonight, Cheatham is giving a free Pinhead Town Talk that explores the chemistry and structures behind the things people snort, smoke, drink, pop and drop, and what science and society can glean from learning about them.
It’s the Pinhead Institute’s first R-rated Town Talk.
“This is gonna be a little bit racy,” Naisbitt said.
But, gentle readers, the talk is not — repeat, not — an endorsement of drug use.
Cheatham isn’t Timothy Leary, but he’s not Nancy Reagan, either. He’s an assistant professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Utah who rails against the dangers of meth and knows that drug abuse can wreak havoc on people’s bodies and lives. But he also sees a world to explore reaching beyond the wall of Just Say No.
Doctors in Denver are prescribing medical marijuana to patients with cancer and AIDS. Scientists are exploring different properties of marijuana’s component chemicals to treat for anorexia or obesity. Prescription pills like Ritalin or Adderall are practically cousins of methamphetamine.
And in a sense, we’re all drug users.
The morphine in heroin? The DMT, psilocybin and harmala alkaloids in hallucinogens? The THC in marijuana? Different scientific studies suggest that all of these controlled substances have correlatives in your own 98.6-degree somatic drug lab (Andrew Weil’s book “From Chocolate to Morphine” offers a layman’s overview to this idea).
“For almost every recreational drug that people abuse, there’s a natural component in our body,” Cheatham said.
In recent years, a slew of scientific research has plumbed the similarities between illegal drugs and chemicals produced in the human body.
Some scientists and drug researchers argue that our neurotransmitters evolved alongside — or even with help from — substances that will now get you thrown in jail. The ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna advocated what became known as the “Stoned Ape” theory of evolution, which suggests that psychedelic mushrooms helped our primate ancestors develop visual and linguistic functions.
Cheatham is bringing along Powerpoint slides that diagram the structures of some of these chemicals, and he’ll discuss how they work and don’t work on your body — why smoking a joint gets you stoned while eating a tryptophan-soaked dinner doesn’t put you straight to sleep.
“Essentially, all these drugs are being used to better understand how neurotransmission works and how our brain is working,” he said. “There’s some aspect of trying to understand how our minds work.”