Marijuana Scheduling Is a Hot Topic. Hear From a DEA Pharmacologist Who Collects Data to Schedule Drugs
Last Updated: Thursday February 8, 2024
This is the 11th installment in a series of profiles featuring DEA special agents, diversion investigators, chemists, and more. Learn about the tough but fulfilling, fascinating, and vital work these DEA personnel do, as well as the many different ways to get involved in fighting drug misuse. For our 11th profile, we will be interviewing Pharmacologist Buki.
Prior to joining DEA, I was a professor of neuroscience, anatomy, and physiology at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. By this time, I had completed my Ph.D. in neuropharmacology and a post-doctoral fellowship in neuropsychopharmacology. I was always most interested in how drugs affect the central nervous system and in the psychology of addiction. Once I realized that DEA had a position called “pharmacologist,” I was immediately intrigued. My background in pharmacology and specifically in drugs of addiction was a perfect fit and completely aligned with my educational training and personal interests. While in my Ph.D. program, one of the questions that always baffled me is the question of addiction; in particular, are people biologically predisposed to addictive behaviors or can any drug taken by anyone, regardless of biological background, result in addiction? It’s questions such as these that continue to motivate me in my current position as a pharmacologist.
What does an average day as a pharmacologist look like for you?
On an average day, I collect and maintain pharmacology-related data that provides evidence that supports the scheduling of addictive substances that pose threats to public health and public safety. This data can be in the form of toxicology reports, case reports, and published literature accessible through the open-source web. Additionally, I give lectures at a host of different venues such as scientific conferences and emerging trends courses, which are held both domestically and internationally. I also author the regulatory documents, published in the Federal Register, that include a scientific review of specific emerging novel psychoactive substances. These federal register notices impose regulatory controls on novel psychoactive substances.
What has been your proudest moment as a pharmacologist thus far?
My proudest moment as a pharmacologist thus far has been my work in establishing a research contract to identify the abuse potential and abuse liability of a number of novel designer benzodiazepines and subsequently placing these substances under control through my publication of regulatory documents in the federal register. These substances were previously uncontrolled and unregulated, however they appeared in numerous toxicology reports and postmortem case reports.
How can young people who wish to become a DEA pharmacologist best prepare themselves for the job?
To best prepare yourself to become a DEA pharmacologist, think about where your core interests lie. If you are most interested in how drugs affect the mind and how the science behind addiction and addictive substances can be used to protect the public, you are on the right track. Next, work on obtaining your bachelor’s degree in any science of interest (it does not have to be in pharmacology). Now is the time to obtain some experience working in a laboratory setting as a laboratory technician for a professor at your college. This will give you a great opportunity to find out if the research track is right for you and if you are well suited to asking intriguing questions. You do not need a master’s in pharmacology to apply for a Ph.D. in pharmacology (although I did a master’s in medical sciences). After you graduate with your bachelor’s degree and you have exhibited an aptitude for scientific research, you can apply for a Ph.D. in pharmacology. There are usually a number of scholarships available through most universities for this track of study, and within the terms of your scholarship, you should also receive a stipend in exchange for work on campus, so money issues should not be your concern.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl – often mixed into other drugs – is now responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths per year. How has the fentanyl epidemic changed your job?
The fentanyl epidemic has always played a role in most of my job duties, mainly because fentanyl is mixed with many substances unbeknownst to the end user. As DEA pharmacologists, we each are assigned particular substance classes. However, despite the substance class we are assigned, fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances always play a significant role as evidenced by toxicology reports, case reports, and published literature that show that fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances are present in many postmortem and antemortem overdose cases.
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