In the Doghouse

Synthetic Alcohol's Pint of Utopia Masks Liters of Warning Signs

Like having your brains bashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brickis no such thing as a free three-martini lunch. That, however, is the goal of a new strain of lab-made liquor, termed “Alcosynth,” according to a report published by according to a report published by Drink Sector, an industry analysis firm. Alcosynth creator Dr. David Nutt claims the drug has all the pleasant inebriation of alcohol without the hangover—or the physiological damage from long-term use. It almost seems to good to be true.

In fact, any ability to test or rebut Dr. Nutt's claim runs afoul of his lab's reluctance to share any details of the compound, citing pending patent applications. But there are some basic problems with the idea that an alcohol-without-drawbacks is a reasonable goal. Certainly, it would be better and more humane if those who engage in dangerous levels of drinking were less likely to suffer for their decisions. The problem is, those decisions still carry substantial risks that alcosynth does not seem able to rectify.

First and last, the goal for the drug is to mimic the acute intoxication of alcohol. It is important to note that hangovers and chronic liver disease are the results of heavy use, and by setting its sights on those symptoms, alcosynth explicitly lauds those patterns and turns a blind eye to the fact that patterns of overdrinking are as much deliberate creations of the alcohol industry as they are personal choices. Even if the physiological damage is avoided, using a "safe alcohol" at levels that would otherwise cause a hangover puts into play all of the compromised decision-making—including hazardous driving, violence, risky sexual behavior, and vulnerability to crime. Moreover, as LiveScience reports, nothing at all is known about whether alcosynth can cause dependency, nor whether the physical withdrawal symptoms would approximate alcohol's.

Dr. Nutt told the BBC that he had previously experimented with benzodiazepines, but now says he has moved on from there to other drug classes. This raises a very real specter: of alcosynth not replacing alcohol, but being combined with it. Many non-alcohol psychoactive drugs whose effects overlap with those of booze—including benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Klonopin) and GHB—have disastrous effects when combined with alcohol. These effects include blackouts and incapacitation, leading some to gain a reputation as "date rape drugs". This is not to say that alcosynth will be inevitably used for this purpose; rather, it's to suggest that an unregulated sibling drug to alcohol leaves plenty of room for misuse and abuse.

The idea that the physical harms from a dangerous drug can be totally evaded through unrestricted sale of a rival drug is quite au currant. As Dr. Scott Edwards, an addiction specialist at Louisiana State University Health Science Center, notes the similarities between the alcosynth "secret formula" and e-cigarettes. Like alcosynth, e-cigarettes major marketing pitch is the ability for smokers to maintain a nicotine addiction without being subject to the tragic long-term consequences. Yet the actual long-term knowledge of e-cigarettes' long-term safety is little. On top of this, the tobacco industries have jumped on board, both launching their own e-cigarette brands and promoting "dual use," wherein e-cigarettes are used to cut down on smoking without having to quit. Were alcosynth to gain a significant economic foothold as a legal toxicant, there is no question Big Alcohol would move quickly to use it to augment, not supplant, their product.

Perhaps that could be alcosynth's long-term contribution to the human race: a medicine to ease the transition to sobriety for problem drinkers. To simply throw it onto store shelves, however, is to ignore a century of understanding of how the recreational drug industry works. If we are smart enough to make a hangover-free alcohol, we should be smart enough to understand how it can hurt us just the same.