The Dark Side of 3D Printing Pharmaceuticals

The rise of 3D printing will not only disrupt pharmaceutical giants, but provide new opportunities for illegal drugs and psychedelics


The Double-Edged Sword of 3D Printing

The 3D printing trend is set to cause a ripple in almost every conceivable industry. Like the Internet fundamentally democratized how we create, access and share information, 3D printing will effectively make the creation of things accessible to anyone. My colleague, Rosy Zhao, examined how upstarts in the 3D printing pharmaceutical space will face challenges in the regulatory environment given the current legal framework in most Western countries in her blog: Innovation vs. Regulation: Interview with Dr. Michael Poulter.

What about stakeholders that don’t care about regulation? How will 3D printing drugs affect the production of illegal drugs like psychedelics?

At this point, it’s useful to review how 3D printing would work in manufacturing pharmaceutical products. We borrow Lee Cronin’s famous concept of a “chemputer”. Broadly, an individual would have a set of chemical inks, or the basic elements of the periodic table. They would also be able to download a blueprint or recipe which would, when processed, transform the inks in the printer to a desired compound through a series of chemical reactions. The idea of programmable chemistry in anyone’s home has limitless potential. This potential, however, has a double-edged effect.

Challenges and Use Cases in 3D Printing Illegal Drugs

There is an obvious effect that 3D printing will have on the production of illegal drugs: likely increase its accessible. The real question is, where will 3D printing leverage current trends and have a more subtle impact?

In his book Drugs 2.0, Mike Power investigates how the web has affected the proliferation of drugs and drug use amongst tech-savvy web users connected through a ring of social networks and blogs. Power argues that users are more connected than ever, and these networks produce a platform that incentivizes experimentation with drug manufacturing.

In 2008, the Cambodian government worked with the United Nations to control the production and distribution of Safrole Rich Oil (SRO), which is a natural substance that is commonly used to produce recreational ecstasy. This dealt a serious blow to manufacturers and drug dealers worldwide.

However, given the connected nature of manufacturers, a wave of do-it-yourself (DIY) experimenters began looking into alternatives. Soon enough, these DIY manufacturers discovered a legal alternative to SRO, mephedrone, to address the global MDMA shortage. This is one of many examples of the growing trend to constantly experiment with compounds and incrementally modify drug recipes so that they are legal in the eyes of the law. A strong, connected network of manufacturers means that this information is easily shared and used. Over time, 3D printers would bridge the gap that manufacturers face in actually bringing these ideas and experiments into fruition and mass-adoption. These printers would allow for more rapid prototyping on illegal drugs, bringing legal alternatives to the market faster.

Of course, this won’t come without a cost.

Risks in 3D Printing Illegal Drugs

The major risk in 3D printing illegal drugs is in the trust gap that would exist between consumers and manufacturers. When the MP3 file format was first introduced and was proliferated through peer-to-peer sharing services like Napster, users were mainly concerned about the integrity of their downloads. Have you ever downloaded a file that was meant to be something but was actually something completely different? Imagine that this was now something that you ingest into your body.

The industry can combat this in a variety of ways. One possibility is if printer manufacturing is consolidated between a few players, as is the case in the personal computing and mobile space. These players can heavily regulate what uses are allowed on the platform, and ensure quality control. Just like Apple regulates what type of apps and what quality of apps can exist on the App Store, so too would printer manufacturers control what types of blueprints or recipes can be used on their printers. Of course, a small subset of users could still potentially “jailbreak” their printer, but it would certainly protect the broader population from this threat.

3D Printing Will Force Change

Regardless of how things will take shape, 3D printing presents exciting and unavoidable changes to the pharmaceutical industry. How incumbents, both legal and illegal, will react, and how the industry will evolve to respond to these changes, will be fascinating to watch in the future.

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