Home-Brew Heroin Is Coming

When it comes to producing drugs like heroin and cocaine, science is on the verge of a revolutionary breakthrough that could disrupt traditional drug markets by making it possible for anyone to produce their own. Researchers working with genetically engineered yeasts are rapidly advancing toward the point where all it would take is some humble fungi and a home-brewing kit.

Professor John Dueber at the University of California at Berkeley leads a team of researchers who have created a yeast that produces S-reticuline, the main precursor of some 2,500 molecules, including opium. Their results were just published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Other groups of researchers have been working on the beginning, middle, and end stages of the process needed to make opiates from S-reticuline. In theory, combining the research efforts could create an opiate-producing yeast tomorrow; in practice, it's likely to take a while longer.

Still, progress is accelerating.

"The field is moving much faster than we had previous realized," Dueber told the New Scientist, adding that he now thought a morphine-making yeast was now only two or three years away.

Once high-yield morphine-producing yeasts are developed, anyone could use them to make morphine with a home-brewing kit, Dueber said. And it wouldn't take much—perhaps a few milliliters—to get high.

"It's probably as simple as that," he said. "The beer would have morphine in it."

Other researchers are doing similar work with tropane alkaloids, a family of compounds that includes cocaine. Because researchers still don't fully understand  certain steps the coca plant takes to make the alkaloids, cocaine-making yeasts are further away, but there is no reason that a coke-yeast can't be produced once the mechanism is understood.

"Indeed, someone could potentially produce cocaine in yeast," conceded biochemist Peter Facchini of the University of Calgary in Canada.

The implications for drug markets and drug prohibition are enormous. If home-brewed drugs became widespread, suppressing them would become an even more futile task than it already is. Similarly, the availability of cheap, home-produced drugs would undercut traditional drug producers and traffickers, removing or reducing a primary source of funding for guerrillas, terrorists, and other non-state actors dependent on drug crops to finance their wars and revolutions.

"It would be as disruptive to drug enforcement policy as it would be to crime syndicates," said Tania Bubela, a public health researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. "It may force the US to rethink its war on drugs."

"If I were a member of a criminal syndicate, I would not like this very much," said Kenneth Oye, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In Dueber's words, the availability of biosynthetic drug-producing yeasts would "democratize" drug production. Individuals or small groups could make them locally, without the chemical expertise needed, for example, to make methamphetamine.

Yeast-based drug makers also would have a much easier time coming up with ingredients. Unlike the tightly controlled precursor chemicals used in traditional drug-manufacturing processes, the only ingredient needed for the yeasts is sugar. 

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