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Full Review
The Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs; History, Pharmacology, and Cultural Context
by Daniel M. Perrine
American Chemical Society 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 5/31/2007

The Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs by Daniel Perrine is an outstanding volume and a natural fit for many Erowid readers. The book introduces the history, chemistry, and pharmacology of common psychoactive substances from valium and alcohol to LSD and 2C-B. It is not only a valuable reference, but is also quite engaging and can be read straight through. Expansive and interdisciplinary in its scope, the book gives space to literature and history as well as to chemistry and pharmacology. It is aimed at a college-educated audience and does not shy away from technical topics, but is accessible to the interested layperson.

The book opens with a serviceable overview of the basics of neurotransmission and psychopharmacology. Perrine summarizes what we know about how psychoactive drugs work, primarily in terms of chemical binding to neurotransmitter receptors. He reviews basic pharmacological terms such as half life, efficacy, and so forth. By the end of the first chapter the reader is acquainted with the concepts necessary to understand the bulk of the material that follows.

The remainder of the book explores a plethora of psychoactive drugs. Perrine discusses opiates, depressants, stimulants, antipsychotics, antidepressants, psychedelics (including less common varieties such as 2C-B), disassociatives, and cannabinoids. Perrine begins his analysis of each substance with the history of the compound, describing how it was first discovered and used. He explores how each substances has been culturally regarded, primarily within European and North American society. Perrine liberally quotes novelists, poets, essayists, and historical figures describing the character and effects of each substance. This cultural context provides a refreshing and illuminating counterpoint to the technical information.

Perrine then describes the chemistry and pharmacology of each substance. He summarizes the synthesis of the compounds, considers their structure-activity relationship, and sketches their pharmaokinetics and pharmacodynamics. As it was published in 1996, this part of the book is beginning to show its age, but it is sufficiently up-to-date to be of use.

Including both science and cultural history allows Perrine to intelligently consider broad questions about psychoactive substances. For example, in one cogent analysis Perrine argues that the term “addiction” is vague and inconsistently applied in scientific and popular literature. As such, it carries a value judgment as well as a factual claim. Describing behavior as “addiction” partly conveys a judgment that a particular use of a drug is at odds with the values of a society.

Perrine shows excellence not only as a scientist, but also as a humanist who is sensitive to the big picture of psychoactive drug use. His outlook is unbiased and thoughtful, and he never panders or recapitulates political rhetoric. In these pages he dispels many myths, affirms some common wisdom, and presents information that will surprise and fascinate many readers.

Perrine’s interdisciplinary approach will probably appeal to the generalist, but at the expense of the specialist, who may be left hungry for more information. For example, the pharmacokinetic data provided is only of a summary nature. Readers seeking a copious treatment of pharmacology would probably do better with a different book, such as Marcello Spinella’s The Psychopharmacology of Herbal Medicine.

Some of the material in this book is irreducibly technical and will be intelligible only to people with backgrounds in chemistry. However, the novice reader can easily skim the brief technical digressions and understand the majority of the book. Perrine makes every effort to explain the technical terminology used in this book so that additional resources are not necessary. He includes a useful primer on the basics of organic chemistry in a series of appendices. These serve equally well to jog the memory and to introduce basic subjects, such as chemical bonding, 2D and 3D diagrams, nomenclature, and so forth.

If you are interested in Erowid’s chemistry and pharmacology material but lack a background in science, this book might be a key to unlock many doors. If you already have some familiarity with this material, the scope and thoughtfulness of Perrine’s exploration may still offer interesting reading. This is an excellent book, and is very highly recommended.

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