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Today we lost the drug war

What does synthetic biology mean? Quinn Norton argues it means the end of the drug war: synthetic biology might be able to do the wonderful things (as well as the dangerous things) envisioned by Venter and others, but it definitely can produce drugs. It is also much easier to produce chemicals than fix the environment or make bioweapons. As Quinn notes:

"It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this
project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work
to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug
addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but
a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will
finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what
it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of
lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their
success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead
of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and
horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what
this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it."

Last week I attended a conference on addiction and self-control, and one of the key insights I gained was that the popular picture of the addict as being passive and lacking in self-control is wrong; addicts actually tend to have adequate abilities in most domains. Another popular myth is that people who use drugs will automatically become addicted. This information reinforces Quinn's point: as soon as there are ways of manufacturing drugs relatively easily and untraceably they will be used by highly motivated people. That it takes skill and knowledge to come up with a drug-producing yeast cell or lactobacterium does not matter since once it is done it can be given as samples to anybody who wants it.

In a scenario building exercise on the future of drugs I participated in a while ago we investigated a future scenario not too unlike the one above: new technologies makes the threshold of entry to the drug market low and people are fairly accepting of drugs. The result was a "drugs-com boom" where startups invented ever more innovative drugs (starting with enhancers, moving on towards recreational drugs and continuing towards strange pharma-bio-nano-info hybrid drugs), leaving drug lords and pharmaceutical companies in the dust. It was by no means an utopian scenario: quality control became a major issue, the old powers wouldn't let go of their markets easily and frightening new applications of drugs in law enforcement and social control hide in the wings. But compared to "neighboring" scenarios such as the one where there is no public tolerance of the new drugs (a hypocritical society where drugs are widely available but enforcement haphazard, biased and heavyhanded) it is very optimistic. The key is the joint realization that drug use will not go away, that harms can be minimized and old systems of control need to change in the light of changing conditions.

Synthetic biology is not quite there yet. It might turn out that it
will never be good for making drugs. But as it improves it is likely to
change some things – likely in areas we never expected.

"Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few
people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in
control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the
history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term."

Synthetic biology in specific forms might be controllable – that is likely what Venter is hoping for. Owning a platform for biological production, transformation and growth is worth a lot, and if it can also be made controllable by a few corporate or government entities it can be made safer and accountable (and hence more acceptable to governments and the public). But it is unlikely to stay that way. While there might be Microsoft and Apple biologies there will also be open Linux biologies – we are in a sense already living in one. And as the user interface of biology improves more people will poke at it.

Just like we will never win the drug war, we will not be able to win a war against biology – synthetic or natural. Just like we have to accept that people will use drugs, we have to accept that people will try to use available tools to get what they want. But harms can be reduced and systems of control can become adaptive. It is unlikely that restricting access to biotechnology or know-how is going to prevent misuse, but responsible biotech use can be rewarded and irresponsible uses can be punished. We can spend resources investigating different strategies to prevent
the spread of pathogens or nuisance organisms, as well as create
economic niches similar to the antivirus industry in software. To prevent the spread of dangerous organisms we need better and more global monitoring systems of the ecology – a daunting task, but also beneficial for many other key goals such as control over pandemics and maintaining the environment, as well a grand challenge for those who would love to built the internet (or tsunami warning system) of the biosphere. Instead of seeing it as a struggle of stopping bad people it is a struggle to stopping bad outcomes. Sometimes that is the same, but often the two goals require different methods.

There is also an ethical side to this rather than pragmatism. Drug addiction is regrettable, but it is not immoral in itself. Society exerts a degree of control for individuals through moral concern and when it works well the concerns motivate people to control their lives and steer clear of dangerous drug uses. Similarly I think using biotechnology is not immoral in itself (and it might even be used for good). But societal moral concerns about what uses are moral and immoral are important for motivating good biohacking. But these concerns cannot be proclamations from bioethical councils, but must be widely held moral views – views such as "it is wrong to release untested organisms or ones without an off-switch", "if you release it, you are responsible for its behavior", "do not reduce the quality of life of other species", "support your local civil biodefense" etc. Some might be simplistic and crude, but if they exist and are widespread they reduce risks much more robustly than attempts to directly impose a centrally planned morality. This way most biohackers will themselves want to keep things working.

We can learn much from the tumultous growth of the Internet and the failure of the drug wars that will be helpful in navigating the development of synthetic biology.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Brilliant! I’ll be forwarding it to various friends. If there is to be a discussion, I could contribute on the basis of my previous experience in the history of science/technology. I do recall doing a paper at Princeton in 1977, where I said that after the n-th nation nuclear weapons problem, we would have the n-th-squared lab problem with the new biology. Because of an incautious remark not on my main thesis, I got into a huge row with Bob May! For me the big issue is the opening up of Science to those who lack access to institutional resources and legitimacy. Quality assurance of knowledge will never be the same again. Sir Paul Nurse’s dismissive comments reminded me of nothing so much as the attitude of the mandarins at the BBC when television first came in.

    Best –


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