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  • Writer's pictureDr. Harold Pierre

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Future of Illicit Drugs

Updated: Jan 17


Imagine an app on your phone that creates brand new illicit drugs. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to mix and match existing chemicals or create new ones. The app makes drugs that could be dangerous but still give you a high. It also determines what FDA approved drugs can be mixed with others to be abused. This might sound like science fiction. But experts say apps like this could be real in just a few years.

New AI programs can create millions of possible new drugs very quickly. Some of these AI tools could help doctors find better medicines. But others may help drug traffickers make dangerous new synthetic drugs. The speed of these creations will leave law enforcement agencies in a dust. The future of drug trafficking will create drug dealers with access to an endless drug supply full of new chemical structures.

We need to think hard about how to use AI for good, not harm. If we plan ahead and make smart rules, AI can improve health. But it will enable a new wave of dangerous illegal drugs. This issue is complex with no easy fixes. But we cannot ignore it and hope it goes away.

As a current addiction doctor and former CIA operative and electrical engineer, I could easily see artificial intelligence synthesized illegal drugs becoming a problem. While I do not like intrusive regulations, governments everywhere need to start thinking now about what to do. They need to get ready for the time when AI and unlawful drugs come together.

A Brief History of Getting High

People have always sought ways to change how they feel. Every culture uses intoxicants for fun, healing, or spiritual reasons. Many modern drugs started as traditional plants. Opium comes from poppies and has an 8000 year history of human consumption. Cocaine comes from coca leaves. Now chemists make stronger lab-brewed versions.

In the 1960s, there were about 10 known recreational drugs. Today there are over 28 classes of recreational drugs and each class has different versions creating 100s that are tracked by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But even more keeps getting created.

New technology speeds up drug discovery. What once took months in a lab can now be done on a computer in hours. AI tools can explore millions of possible new molecules to find ones predicted to have certain effects. This computing power could unlock good and bad uses.

Frugal Doctor's way of treating addiction using AI

How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing the Game

The idea of AI-designed drugs excites some people but worries others. To understand why, you need to know what AI is and how it’s being used.

AI refers to “smart” software that can do tasks like a person. One type, called deep learning, uses networks modeled on the brain. These AI programs can search huge numbers of chemical mixes to find ones fitting certain criteria.

Scientists are using AI to find better pain drugs without addiction risk. But it could also help crooked chemists make dangerous new highs. We’re at a fork in the road. AI can improve lives but also do harm if misused.

The Power of AI Drug Discovery

In many ways, AI drug research works like an intelligent chemist. It can examine the structures of drugs, propose new molecular structures and make educated guesses about their properties. This allows quickly screening billions of hypothetical compounds. At some point, computers could model receptors, tissue, and organs. They could run virtual lab experiments with these new compounds, discovering which work, which are toxic, and which avoid detection; all without requiring animal or human testing.

For example, AI can identify small tweaks to fentanyl or heroin that might increase their potencies while dodging drug laws. AI's creative power is incredible.

AI Could Develop Beneficial Synthetic Drugs

AI could also unlock groundbreaking new treatments for suffering:

  • It may find non-addictive opioid alternatives for pain, enabling safer prescribing.

  • For alcohol addiction, it could discover more effective medications working through new brain pathways.

  • It can also aid research into better antidepressants, anxiety treatments, and PTSD therapies.

  • AI can generate new antibiotics to counter resistance, and safer non-opioid painkillers.

Transforming Mental Health Treatment

Millions struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, or addiction with inadequate medical options. AI drug discovery promises to vastly expand treatment possibilities tailored to specific conditions.

For PTSD, AI could identify fast-acting drugs preventing re-consolidation of traumatic memories. New antidepressants might quickly lift depression with minimal side effects. And better addiction medications could reduce relapse and overdose risk.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence Leading to Precision Medicine

AI excels at finding patterns. As AI gets better with faster processors, their predictive ability could enable personalized medicine optimizing drugs for each patient's unique biology.

Genetic testing could identify individuals more prone to opioid addiction. AI can then discover safer alternatives precisely matched to their neurochemistry. Similar approaches could target medications to individuals for other conditions too.

While technical hurdles remain, machine learning is unlocking precision medicine’s promise. Our health struggles are deeply personal. Perhaps AI can help match treatments to our individual needs.

Concerns About Misuse

While AI drug discovery holds medical promise, its potential for ill purposes provokes unease. Underground chemists could use it to churn out endless new recreational drugs.

And if AI can optimize addictive qualities, restricting that ability would show laudable restraint. But it could also impede harm reduction. These complex trade-offs have no simple solutions.

Another concern is autonomous systems running amok. While human guidance focusses on ensuring AI alignment such that they are steered towards human values. What if it escapes our control? This is a real concern among the experts in the AI field. However, the bigger risk is careless or malicious programmers.

A Real-World Example of AI Creating Dangerous Synthetic Chemicals

A startling real-world example shows the threats are not hypothetical. In 2021, researchers at Collaborations Pharmaceuticals Inc. decided to test if AI could reinvent dangerous chemical weapons like the nerve agent VX. Within just 6 hours, their system generated over 40,000 molecular structures predicted to be highly lethal to humans. The computer's suggestions included VX itself and other molecules more lethal than publicly known nerve agents, even though the dataset used to train the AI did not contain any nerve agents. It also designed many novel compounds that looked equally deadly based on toxicity predictions. This experiment crossed ethical lines by making virtual weapons. But it powerfully proved AI's potential to churn out hazardous substances at staggering speeds.

While these were digital proposals, not physical molecules, it highlights the urgent need to guide AI down paths helping not harming humanity. This technology offers much promise, but could also unleash threats eclipsing any society has faced.

Envisioning a Future of AI Psychoactive "Designer Drugs"

It’s hard to predict how AI will shape future drug use. Will it mainly help doctors or dealers? With the amount of money in the production of both pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs, you can bet it will help both. The temptation to create profitable street drugs will be hard to resist. Here are some possibilities experts imagine:

  • AI helps illegal chemists churn out new drugs faster than governments can ban them.

  • You can buy custom highs tailored to your genes on the dark web.

  • A universal basic income is instituted. With all of the free time society has, people have free time to get "high".

  • AI speeds up real medicine development but has little street impact due to tight rules.

  • Societies allow limited licensed sales of safe synthetic highs, similar to cannabis laws.

  • AI reduces drug misuse by finding healthy alternatives that make the need for illegal drugs obsolete.

Reality will likely be a mix. The effects may also shift rapidly as the technology evolves. Mapping scenarios helps spotlight challenges so we can forge solutions proactively.

Above all, we must guide AI to improve societal health while limiting harms. But there are no cookie-cutter fixes.

Tricky Ethics of AI Drug Design


AI-made recreational drugs raise ethical questions without clear answers:

  • Should we limit AI tools to avoid misuse? But could that also slow helpful research?

  • Can we ban hypothetical drugs before they exist? Or does that restrict appropriate access?

  • If AI can make addiction more likely, is limiting that wise restraint or "big government"?

Drug innovations always carry ethical trade-offs. For instance, opioids are essential medicines but also fuel overdoses. AI might enable safer versions. Then again, wider access could worsen the crisis. There are no perfect policies, just hard choices requiring thoughtfulness.

Would Bans Work?

Some could propose banning AI systems from churning out recreational drugs. But that may not be effective and risks unintended harms. As of August 2023, Hugging Face, the open source AI library, has a repository of over 250,000 AI models made by hobbyists, scientists, and other professionals. The ability for the public to develop AI systems is already there. "The cat is out of the bag."

Underground chemists would likely circumvent the restrictions. Criminals don't obey laws by nature. And excessive regulation could discourage legal drug discovery.

What About Cognitive Liberty?

Some believe consenting adults have a right to alter their own minds. From this lens, measures limiting access to AI-designed drugs could infringe on cognitive liberty.

However, even champions of cognitive freedom recognize its limits. Our choices affect others, especially with addictive and unpredictable substances. And does society have an interest in keeping citizens not just safe, but healthy? Where should the line be drawn?

The Need for Nuance

Knee-jerk policies risk stifling progress or infringing freedoms. But unfettered access enables misuse. Navigating these extremes demands nuance attuned to ethics and health. Blanket bans could drive dangerous uses underground. Yet inaction leaves society vulnerable.

Preventing Dark Uses Without Limiting Progress

Powerful innovations require responsibility. We must stop malicious uses of AI drug technology without sacrificing helpful applications. This demands nuanced policies like:

  • Using AI itself to flag and ban toxic combinations. But leave others open for research.

  • Outlaw synthesizing or selling certain AI-generated compounds, through careful global agreements.

  • Incentivize use of AI for beneficial medicine over recreation drugs, via patents and tax breaks.

  • Require licensing and ethics training for chemists. Set up confidential reporting of risky work.

  • Monitor for early warning signs of dual-use technologies in need of oversight.

  • Monitor supply chains and illegal internet pharmacies for new designer drugs.

  • Pass nuanced laws prohibiting AI uses meant solely for harm, but avoid broad bans.

  • Incentivize and accelerate AI applications for conditions like pain, PTSD, and substance abuse.

  • Use digital tracking to spot surges in drug ingredient purchases. Deploy AI to detect manufacturing patterns.

  • Use AI to monitor surges in overdose deaths to identify new synthetic drugs.

  • Launch campaigns educating people on the risks of synthetic drugs. But avoid scare tactics - honesty and compassion work best.

  • Expand training for health providers to recognize emerging drug threats. Regularly update treatment guidelines.

  • Make drug checking services at festivals more available. Help users make informed choices.

But care is required to avoid market distortions. Overregulation risks slowing progress everywhere. Balancing freedom and control remains key.

Getting Health Systems Ready

For frontline healthcare workers, AI drug discovery brings new challenges. Medical education should provide more addiction treatment training to prepare clinicians for unfamiliar emerging drugs.

Hospitals will need enhanced toxicology capabilities and expanded roles for poison control centers skilled at analyzing ambiguous compounds. And public health campaigns aimed at safety, not fear, can promote wise choices despite unpredictable threats.

Key Takeaways

  • AI could soon design new illegal drugs faster than we can respond.

  • Smart rules are needed to prevent harmful uses of generative chemistry.

  • Policies must balance innovation and oversight thoughtfully.

  • Health providers and educators must get ready for new challenges.

  • There are big risks, but also opportunities to help many if guided well.

  • With care and wisdom, we can steer AI’s power toward improving lives.

The path ahead is uncertain but I am excited about what the benefits the future with artificial intelligence brings despite the risks. While certain U.S. intelligence agencies remain focused on adversaries and the threats they pose through developing AI, I urge them not to overlook a different but equally alarming issue. The agile generation of street drugs using AI represents an emerging domestic threat that also warrants their attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What impact could artificial intelligence have on the war on drugs?

A: AI will have both good and bad impacts on drugs and crime. It can help us discover new safer drugs that help humanity and drug traffickers can use it to created new street drugs.

Q: What kind of impact could artificial intelligence have on efforts to enforce drug laws?

A: AI might really change how we enforce drug laws. It can study tons of data to spot patterns about how drugs are sold and used. This helps cops figure out how to reduce illegal sales.

Q: Could AI tools help lower the number of overdose deaths?

A: Yes, AI programs can forecast what areas and people are at high risk for overdoses. That information helps health workers target prevention to save lives.

Q: What role could AI play in fighting against the illegal drug trade?

A: AI can track online drug dealer activity to disrupt their sales. By following sellers on apps and social media, police can shut them down and limit dangerous drugs.

Q: Is AI able to identify new street drugs as they emerge?

A: It sure can. AI examines posts on forums and social media to find discussions about new illegal drugs hitting the streets, like synthetic opioids and designer drugs. AI can also help law enforcers monitor the chemical supply chains for patterns such as a ramping up of certain chemicals intended for illicit drug use. This keeps law enforcement ahead of the illegal drug sellers.

Q: How good is AI at spotting illegal opioid sellers online?

A: Early results show AI is pretty accurate at identifying shady opioid sales online. It quickly analyzes massive data to pinpoint suspicious patterns.

Q: Do only police use AI to combat drugs?

A: No. Researchers, health workers, and policymakers use it too. AI provides insights about drug trends to help make programs and rules.

Q: What institutions use AI to improve drug enforcement?

A: The National Institute on Drug Abuse and University of British Columbia medicine researchers develop AI tools to address illegal drug problems.

Q: Could AI have a big impact on the opioid epidemic?

A: Experts believe AI could significantly help the opioid crisis by aiding early intervention and prevention to save lives.

Q: Is AI able to detect drug sellers on Instagram and other apps?

A: Yes, AI can analyze posts and accounts on Instagram to spot illegal drug sales and share with police.

Q: How might AI inform the creation of drug policies?

A: AI can provide data on drug use and crime patterns to help leaders make smart, evidence-based decisions about effective policies.

About the author:

Dr. Harold Pierre is a board-certified anesthesiologist and addiction medicine specialist with over 20 years of experience. He is board-certified by the American Board of Anesthesiology and the American Board of Preventive Medicine.

This website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute providing medical advice or professional services. The information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, and those seeking personal medical advice should consult with a licensed physician or another qualified medical professional. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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