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Better Living Through Chemistry: Making Sudafed from Meth

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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April is coming and, with its approach, the latest publication from one of the most prolific synthetic chemists anywhere has just appeared.

Forget esoteric technologies like small hairpin RNAs. With this entry into the literature, chemists finally have something useful to work on again. Their expertise and ingenuity can pragmatically address a specific instance of the drug shortages experienced throughout the U.S. This paper proposes a novel and readily available starting material for making a critical drug now difficult to find.

Some highlights follow here from “A Simple and Convenient Synthesis of Pseudophedrine from N-Methylamphetamine,” which appears in the February Journal of Apocryphal Chemistry and is authored by the copiously productive I.B. Hakkenshit of Miskatonic University and his research partner O. Hai of the Institute for Theoretical Experiments.

—In recent years it has become increasingly difficult to obtain psuedoephedine (Sudafed) in many states because of its use as a precursor for the illegal drug N-methylamphetamine (also known under various names including crystal meth, meth, ice,  etc.. While in the past many stores were able to sell pseudoephedrine, new laws in the United States have restricted sales to pharmacies, with the medicine kept behind the counter. The pharmacies require signatures and examination of government issued-ID in order to purchase pseudoephedrine.

Because the hours of availability of such pharmacies are often limited, it would be of great interest to have a simple synthesis of pseudoephedrine from reagents which can be more readily procured. A quick search of several neighborhoods of the United States revealed that while pseudoephedrine is difficult to obtain, N-methylamphetamine can be procured at almost any time on short notice and in quantities sufficient for synthesis of useful amounts of the desired material. Moreover, according to government maintained statistics, N-methylmphetamine is becoming an increasingly attractive starting material for pseudoephedrine, as the availability of N-methylmphetamine has remained high while prices have dropped and purity has increased.

—This practical synthesis is expected to be a disruptive technology replacing the need to find an open pharmacy.

—While N-methylamphetamine itself is a powerful decongestant, it is less desirable in a medical setting because of its severe side effects and addictive properties. Such side effects may include insomnia, agitation, irritability, dry mouth, sweating, and heart palpitations. Other side effects may include violent urges or, similarly, the urge to be successful in business or finance.

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of senior author I.B. Hakkenshit, his papers seem to be all over the place. Check, for instance, the blog Retraction Watch, put out by former Scientific American colleague Ivan Oransky.

(Thanks to the excellent blog Neurobonkers for the tip. Go there for a link to a full copy of the paper. And here’s a link to the original blog post on Heterodoxy.)

Source: Journal of Apocryphal Chemistry

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kewl_caver 3:39 pm 02/29/2012

    I definately see where you are going with this article. Especially living in N.E. Indiana. Seems the meth problem keeps getting worse and worse. And when the average law-abiding citizen goes to the pharmacy to buy a legitimate box of Sudafed, they are really scrutinized.

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  2. 2. MadScientist72 4:01 pm 02/29/2012

    So much for SciAm as a source for serious science articles. Instead they opt for fluff pieces about ficticious researchers at imaginary institutions sumbitting papers to nonexistent journals! the scary thing is that some people might actually read this and believe it!

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  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 4:44 pm 02/29/2012

    Ouz nouz! Can’t have fun! Evah! Gotta stick to the serious stuff ONLY, in order to satisfy seriousness-geeks, right?

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