From the Lab to the Street: How 3 Illegal Drugs Came to Be

There's a huge gap, temporally and culturally, between the inventors of illicit drugs -- usually rather austere, cerebral, and disciplined -- and their consumers.

"We're not going to need pseudoephedrine," Walter White mutters through clenched teeth. "We're going to make phenylacetone in a tube furnace, then we're going to use reductive amination to yield methamphetamine."

The chemistry lab is the heart of AMC's Breaking Bad. Although this lab may have had scrappy beginnings, it is still a lab, a home of science. And that's fitting: Many illicit drugs today have their origins in formal laboratories, though ones that were much more above board than that of Walter White's.

This points to an interesting and unexplored dichotomy in the history of drugs: There's a huge gap, temporally and culturally, between the inventors of illicit drugs -- usually rather austere, cerebral, and disciplined -- and their consumers, whoever they may be.

An early depiction of cannabis from Jean Vigier's Historia das Plantas (1718), originally published in French in 1670 (The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

1. Cannabis
In the fall of 1689, the scientist Robert Hooke ducked into a London coffee shop to purchase the drug from an East Indies merchant and proceeded to test it on an unnamed "friend." It was evidently a large dose. "The Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth," Hooke reported. "Yet he is very merry, and laughs, and sings... and sheweth many odd Tricks." Hooke observed that the drug eased stomach pains, provoked hunger, and could potentially "prove useful in the Treatment of Lunaticks."

Hooke strongly hinted that he'd personally sampled his coffee shop score: The drug "is so well known and experimented by Thousands," he wrote, that "there is no Cause of Fear, tho' possibly there may be of Laughter." (Hooke's readers would have had good reason to be afraid of a new drug: This was a world in which pharmacies sold ground up skulls and Egyptian mummy feet).

"The Beggars" by Pieter Breugel the Elder, a painting believed to show victims of ergotism.

2. LSD
During the time of the Roman empire, physicians described a painful disease called the sacred fire (sacer ignis), which by the Middle Ages came to be known as St. Anthony's Fire -- "an ulcerous Eruption, reddish, or mix'd of pale and red," as one 1714 text put it. Sufferers of this gruesome illness, which could also cause hallucinations, were actually being poisoned by ergot, a fungus that grows on wheat. Several authors, most recently Oliver Sacks in his excellent book Hallucinations, have noted a potential link between ergot poisoning and cases of dancing mania and other forms of mass hysteria in premodern Europe.

By the 1920s, pharmaceutical firms began investigating the compounds in ergot, which showed potential as migraine treatments. A Swiss chemist at the Sandoz Corporation named Albert Hoffman grew especially intrigued, and in November 1938 (the week after Kristallnacht) he synthesized an ergot derivative: lysergic acid diethalyamide, or LSD for short.

It was not until five years later, however, that Hoffman experienced the drug. Immersed in his work, Hoffman accidentally allowed a tiny droplet of LSD to dissolve onto his skin. He thought nothing of it: Hardly any drugs are psychoactive in such minute doses. Later that day, however, Hoffmann went home sick, lay on his couch, and:

sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Three days later, the chemist decided to self-administer what he assumed was a tiny dose to further test the drug's effects. He took 250 micrograms, roughly 10 times higher than the threshold dose. Within an hour, Hoffman asked his lab assistant to escort him home by bicycle. Cycling through the Swiss countryside, Hoffman was shocked to observe that "everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror."

Presented by

Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is executive editor of The Appendixa journal of experimental and narrative history, and is writing a book about the history of drugs in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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