Home-brew heroin: soon anyone will be able to make illegal drugs

Humble fungi and a home-brewing kit could soon do what the combined might of the West failed to – halt the thriving poppy industry in Afghanistan, the source of 80 per cent of the world’s opium. Genetically engineered yeasts could make it easy to produce opiates such as morphine anywhere, cutting out the international drug smugglers and making such drugs cheap and more readily available.

If home-brew drugs become widespread, it would make the Sisyphean nature of stopping the supply of illegal narcotics even more obvious than it is now. “It would be as disruptive to drug enforcement policy as it would be to crime syndicates,” says Tanya Bubela, a public health researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. “It may force the US to rethink its war on drugs.”

A growing number of drugs, scents and flavours once obtainable only from plants can now be made using genetically modified organisms. Researchers want to add opiates to that list because they are part of a family of molecules that may have useful medicinal properties (see box, below). Plant yields of many of these molecules are vanishingly small, and the chemicals are difficult and expensive to make in the lab. Getting yeast to pump them out would be far cheaper.

Morphine ale

Yeasts capable of doing this do not exist yet, but none of the researchers that New Scientist spoke to had any doubt that they soon will. “The field is moving much faster than we had previous realised,” says John Dueber of the University of California, Berkeley, whose team has just created a yeast that produces the main precursor of opiates. Until recently, Dueber had thought the creation of, say, a morphine-making yeast was 10 years away. He now thinks a low-yielding strain could be made in two or three years.

It might take many more years to produce a high-yielding strain. But once it exists, in theory anyone who got hold of it could make morphine in their kitchen using only a home-brewing kit. Merely drinking tiny quantities of the resulting brew – perhaps as little as a few millilitres – would get you high. “It probably is as simple as that,” says Dueber. “The beer would have morphine in it.”

We need to start thinking about the implications now, before such strains – or the recipes for genetically engineering them – become available, he says.

Other teams are working on producing tropane alkaloids – a family of compounds that include drugs such as cocaine. Cocaine-making yeasts are further off, as we still don’t understand certain critical steps that coca plants use to make cocaine. But there’s no reason we cannot engineer yeast to produce any substance that plants produce, once we understand the machinery, says biochemist Peter Facchini of the University of Calgary in Canada. “So indeed someone could potentially produce cocaine in yeast.”

Bringing heroin home

If these kinds of biosynthetic yeasts became widely available, they could transform the drug market. Instead of drugs like heroin and cocaine being grown abroad and imported by criminal gangs, they could be produced locally by individuals or small groups. It would “democratise” production, as Dueber puts it.

Brewing would also be much harder to detect or prevent than the cultivation of drug-yielding plants. Growing cannabis indoors, for instance, requires a lot of electricity to power lights. A drug-producing “microbrewery” would have only a tiny footprint.

Synthesising drugs like methamphetamines in small illegal labs, meanwhile, requires not only expertise but also the right chemical ingredients. Cutting off the supply of these chemicals is one of the main strategies of drug enforcement efforts. This would be impossible with homebrew drugs – the only raw material needed is sugar.

And unlike crystal meth labs, say, brewing does not create a toxic mess: the waste products are just brackish water and some very mild chemicals such as acetate, says Dueber.

In a commentary in Nature, Bubela and her co-authors say governments need to act now if they want now to prevent morphine-making yeasts getting into the wrong hands. Some fear that drug use could soar if home-brewing makes drugs easily available.

Criminal disruption

But it is far from clear that this is true, especially for rich countries such as the UK. Here the war on drugs has failed: opiates like heroin are sold very cheaply on the street, says David Nutt of Imperial College London, a former drug policy adviser to the UK government. “People don’t take them because most of them are not stupid.”

In theory, home-brew drugs could deprive traffickers in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia of their main source of revenue – money that fuels corruption and other criminal activities, destabilises governments and even funds terrorism. “If I were a member of a criminal syndicate, I would not like this very much,” says Kenneth Oye, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of Bubela’s co-authors.

The following two tabs change content below.

Purple Kendrixx

Co-Founder/Co-Owner at Tiger Hoods
The original co-founder of Tigerhoods, Purple Kendrixx is the acting editor and a daily writer to the site known since 2009 as the Urban TMZ. Kendrixx is a 2004 graduate of Virginia Tech.

Latest posts by Purple Kendrixx (see all)