At Don’t Try This at Home by Steve Silberman in Wired.
Garage chemistry used to be a rite of passage for geeky kids. But in their search for terrorist cells and meth labs, authorities are making a federal case out of DIY science.
A fascinating article on the legal hurdles placed in the path of the kind of exploring and enquiring minds that invent new products and make our lives better.
In the meantime, more than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state’s Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs. Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as “commonly associated with meth labs” are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips. Similar lists appear on hundreds of Web sites.
“To criminalize the necessary materials of discovery is one of the worst things you can do in a free society,” says Shawn Carlson, a 1999 MacArthur fellow and founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. “The Mr. Coffee machine that every Texas legislator has near his desk has three violations of the law built into it: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker, and a heating element. The laws against meth should be the deterrent to making it – not criminalizing activities that train young people to appreciate science.”
The increasingly strict regulatory climate has driven a wedge of paranoia between young chemists and their potential mentors. “I don’t tell anyone about what I do at home,” writes one anonymous high schooler on Sciencemadness.org, an online forum for amateur scientists. “A lot of ignorant people at my school will just spread rumors about me … The teacher will hear about them and I will get into legal trouble … I have so much glassware at my house, any excuse will not cut it. So I keep my mouth shut.”
Of course, it’s not just the drug war that’s causing this — it’s that intentional governmental linkage of the wars on terror and drugs. But it’s a sign of yet another casualty in the war on drugs — and it hurts society. It damages our future.