Image: 16/365-sp: À votre santé from Dominique Archambault's Flickr Photostream

A synthetic alcohol substitute looks set to challenge legal regulations and cultural norms in the UK and beyond.

If there is one person who represents an almost permanent challenge to British Government drug regulators it is flamboyant scientist, Professor David Nutt. He spectacularly parted company with the government’s scientific advisory committee on drugs in 2009 after publicly pointing out that the division between legal and illegal substances has little to do with scientific evidence about the harm they can cause. Since then, Nutt has continued to be a thorn in the side of politicians, law enforcers and health promoters by insisting on talking about what psychoactive substances actually do, rather than the lurid half-truths and cultural prejudices that are the stock in trade of UK policy making.

But Nutt’s most recent appearance in the media is a new departure. In September he made the striking announcement that his work on a safe synthetic alcohol replacement is coming to fruition. Patented and trademarked as “Alcosynth“, Nutt’s invention is designed to produce what he calls “the good effects” of alcohol (ethanol) and avoid “the bad effects”.

That, in itself, is an interesting cultural proposition. The general underlying idea is that feeling euphoric, becoming loquacious and seeing the world in a rosy glow are good, while risking damage to internal organs, experiencing nausea and having a thumping headache are bad. If the effects of ethanol consumption were as easily compartmentalised as that, then the argument could indeed be as simple as that. But because these categories are essentially culturally defined rather than objectively identifiable as ‘real’, it is quite possible to view them differently. If, for example, we re-cast euphoria, loquaciousness and a tendency to like people as elements of ‘impaired judgement’, their positive values become questionable.

The reason why this discussion is likely to figure prominently over the next few years in the media, Parliament and the wider world is because, eventually, Alcosynth will be ready for launch as a consumer product. For that to happen it will need to find its place in the framework of laws that govern the production, supply and consumption of what we loosely call “drugs”. This will be an interesting process, because, in spite of its name, Alcosynth apparently has little or no relation with ethanol, chemically speaking. So, to be recognised as a practical alcohol substitute, it would need to be demonstrated that its psychoactive effects are exactly like those of ethanol. This will be difficult, as it is very well known in sociological and cultural studies circles that the experience of taking alcohol and the behaviours associated with it are massively varied across cultures and hugely dependent on social and emotional contexts.

The timing of the appearance of Alcosynth is very interesting for sociological observers of the drug scene. Just a few months ago, the new ‘Psychoactive Substances Act‘ came into force in the UK. This law makes it illegal to make, distribute and possess any substance that has a “psychoactive” effect that is not covered by existing drug and licensing laws. Specifically, the new law does not cover drugs used in medical therapy and all products whose only psychoactive ingredient are ethanol (alcohol), nicotine or caffeine. Famously, the 2016 Act was rushed through Parliament in an attempt to assuage a wave of public/media concern over what used to be called “legal highs” (newly invented chemicals which were not governed by existing regulations).

Because Alcosynth is not ethanol, not nicotine and not specifically therapeutic, it will need a specific exemption from the Psychoactive Substances Act. For this to happen there is going to have to be a large amount of research and an even larger amount of both public and professional argument about the precise short and long term effects of Professor Nutt’s new “high”. The new substance will, apparently, get you ‘merry’ like traditional booze but is incapable of making you totally ‘pissed’ (these are not technical terms, by the way). Indeed, the inventor is quoted in the press as saying “We think the effects round out at about four or five ‘drinks’ – then the effect would max out”. Another key claim is that the build-up of toxic chemicals in the body that can follow excessive ethanol consumption will not be possible with Alcosynth. This means that it will not produce the risk of liver and heart damage. Following Professor Nutt’s announcement, however, the mass media mainly chose to focus on the claim that the new product will not cause hangovers – which, from a regulatory point of view, is probably not that important!

The legal and cultural hurdles that Alcosynth will have to surmount are considerable. Research will need to demonstrate knowledge about potential health damage, possibilities of addiction and the details of effects on judgement and motor skills. Even if regulatory authorities are prepared to be seriously guided by research evidence and public health arguments (unlikely if recent history is anything to go by), a raft of socio-cultural issues will still need to be addressed. Using yeasts to ferment sugars into ethanol is an activity with thousands of years of history and the almost countless variations on the basic theme are deeply imbedded and woven into many societies and cultures around the world. Brewing and, of course, the distillation of ferments into spirits is closely intertwined with feelings of national and local belonging. The current global explosion of ‘craft’ alcoholic drink production is an illustration that these identity-related aspects of drinking culture are continuing to develop in an era of post-modernity. In this context it is frankly difficult to see how the wholesale migration from ethanol to Alcosynth that Nutt envisions will ever take place.

All that said, it would be curmudgeonly not to wish the Professor every success with his inventions. His continuing role as an irritant and challenge to the bovine conservatism of the establishment is surely to be applauded by anyone with an intelligent approach to intoxication and everyone who claims some sociological understanding of drugs, risk and public health.