The Balm Was Banned in '65, but Now 'Wonder Drug' Dmso Stirs a Booming Black Market
Jim Courtney, 41, drove a semi for a living until his highway accident in February 1976. It left him in pain so enveloping he toyed with suicide. "You just get so tired of hurting you don't give a damn what happens," he says. "I found myself popping Percodan like it was going out of style. One day I picked up my gun and started playing Russian roulette." He survived, but it wasn't until his first experience with DMSO in January 1979, Courtney says, that he began to live again. "Because of DMSO," he says, "I believe in miracles."
It tastes like a bad oyster, smells like garlic on the breath and leaves the scent of rotten cabbages in the air. A byproduct of wood chips during the manufacture of plain brown paper, it costs a few cents an ounce to produce and it is used full-strength as an industrial solvent. Selling it as a medical treatment (except for one bladder disorder, interstitial cystitis) is illegal in all but three of the 50 states. But DMSO—dimethyl sulfoxide—is attracting increasing numbers of believers among the millions of Americans who suffer from arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis and a formidable number of other maladies. In the process, it has rapidly become one of the hottest black-market drugs since marijuana. But getting high is about the only thing DMSO isn't used for.
Adherents claim it has cured headaches and toothaches, fought off infections, cleared up frostbite, varicose veins and acne. Its more fanatic boosters claim it can cure baldness, mental retardation, psychoses and cancer. The Food and Drug Administration, which has known about people using DMSO for nearly 20 years, outlawed it in 1965 when it was found to cause eye damage in laboratory animals. The agency's voluminous statements on the subject since then boil down to this: There are no tests sufficient to prove the claims of its supporters. Therefore, pending FDA approval, the National Arthritis Foundation reserves judgment on DMSO and cautions about "sensational testimonials, unscrupulous promoters and unsafe products." They warn that some users are buying forms of DMSO that are too strong for use on humans and can cause rashes and burns. The foundation's biggest worry is that patients who opt for DMSO will neglect proven forms of treatment.
But surgeon Stanley Jacob, 57, sometimes called "the Father of DMSO," has treated tens of thousands of patients at his office at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center in Portland—and now sees more than 200 a week. Some are victims of paralysis who come for injections of DMSO in the spine. "None of those patients has run a four-minute mile," he reported, "but some have shown improvement." He claims results with a wide range of muscular conditions, burns and spinal cord injuries. "DMSO has the largest potential number of uses ever documented for a single chemical," Jacob has said. "There's nothing like it."
Jacob's practice is the tip of an iceberg. Millions of Americans are using DMSO on their own, and a far-flung network of retailers is springing up to serve them. Carpet stores, ice cream parlors, even dry cleaners have turned to selling DMSO as a sideline. Except in Louisiana, Oregon and Florida, where legislators have legalized medical uses of the drug, its new promoters skirt the issue adeptly. In San Francisco a sign behind the counter in one surplus store warns clerks, "We are not allowed to say DMSO cures arthritis. Say it is a solvent."
Despite such constraints, business is booming. Dallas-Fort Worth dealers are selling DMSO from tailgates at ad hoc roadside stands. In Florida some two dozen establishments are offering vacation package deals for DMSO treatments, including room and board. Marty Friedman, who operates a hobby store in Thousand Oaks, Calif., first ordered a batch of DMSO for a customer last March. A few weeks later Dr. Jacob appeared on 60 Minutes with some of his patients. Their testimony impressed even the usually skeptical Mike Wallace (and reportedly prompted CBS chieftain Bill Paley to see Jacob). Jacob's hospital had to hire a dozen extra operators to handle the calls—and DMSO suppliers like Marty were deluged overnight with business. When Friedman ran out of bottles, he recalls, patrons brought their own mayonnaise jars. When he ran out of DMSO, they scalped the stuff outside his store. Solvent Sales Inc. of Seattle takes thousands of orders a week by phone. The bottles come with an offer to customers to become local distributors of the product, and company president Billy Williams says they're signing up. "I know what we're selling it for," he says coyly. "We're selling it for a profit."
By far the biggest U.S. producer is Crown Zellerbach Corp., a giant paper company headquartered in San Francisco. Crown reportedly produces a million gallons of the stuff every year. Less than 10 percent is earmarked for medicinal use, and a spokesman explains that the company cannot be responsible for how the substance is used after it leaves the plant.
For all the money being made by the producers and middlemen of DMSO, the question of how effective it is remains unanswered more than 100 years after its discovery. First isolated by a Russian scientist in 1866, DMSO was only a laboratory curiosity until a Crown Zellerbach chemist, Robert Herschler, began experimenting with it in the early '60s. Jacob got interested a year later because DMSO's ability to act as a human antifreeze—preventing cells from rupturing when frozen—had applications in the kidney transplant research he was doing at the time. By the time of the FDA ban in 1965 some 100,000 Americans had tried the stuff—and 1,500 doctors had tested it. Americans continued using DMSO in spite of the ban. Some bought it in other countries, others obtained it from sympathetic veterinarians, who have used it legally for years. Some physicians openly flouted the law. Richard Bachrach, a New York osteopath, used to supply it to his patients. "It's so widespread," he claims, "there's not a professional sports team or dance company that doesn't use it."
Efforts to get FDA approval, however, have been unavailing. Though the research literature on DMSO is already considerable, many of the favorable studies have been criticized and their results discounted. The FDA points out that because of the drug's strong odor it is impossible to administer conclusive "double-blind" studies—tests in which the researchers do not know which subjects have been given DMSO and which have been given a placebo. The FDA does not test substances itself, moreover; it must rely on others—and others besides Jacob have been hard to find. Crown Zellerbach says it favors FDA approval for DMSO, and it invites "some major pharmaceutical company to follow the FDA procedures to achieve that goal." But the nation's drug companies are understandably reluctant to undertake costly testing that would benefit only Crown, which holds patents on the use of DMSO as a painkiller. Furthermore, DMSO would be a cheap substitute for some of their most lucrative products. Except among consumers, there seems little economic incentive to bring DMSO up from underground. The going rate—$20 and up for an eight-ounce bottle—suggests that between the time it leaves Crown and the time it reaches the consumer it is generating a 1,000 percent profit.
The FDA says it is still waiting for adequate tests, but critics of the agency claim it will never be legalized because of political pressure from drug companies. Says Bachrach: "It's disgraceful. Clearly, there's been ample time for study." The co-discoverer, Herschler, now no longer with Crown, agrees: "The FDA is far more interested in rules and regulations than health and welfare. I hold them responsible for every death and mutilation that might not have happened if DMSO were freely available." Last year Jacob tried taking his case to the public. ("Americans," he declared, "are getting shafted.") But then he began refusing interviews, fearing that his high profile has antagonized the FDA.
There is some sign that legalization may be coming. A bill to require the National Institutes of Health to test DMSO died in the current lame-duck Congress. But Oregon Sen. Robert Packwood recently contacted FDA Director Jere Goyen on the problem and promises to keep pushing. "I am tired of the FDA dragging its feet," he says. "I told him he ought to make a decision on the merits of the drug, instead of harassing Jacob."
The 18-year struggle with the FDA and the scientific community over DMSO has taken its toll on Dr. Jacob. The father of five children, now 3½ to 29 years old, he attributes the failure of his three marriages in part to his "obsession" with the drug. He has been taking DMSO himself ever since 1963—"not for any medical problem but because if any side effects are going to develop, it's better that they raise their ugly head in my body than anyone else's." His interest in the drug's approval is, he says, purely altruistic: He will not get rich, because royalties on the patents he shares with Crown go to the university health center. Whether or not DMSO is legalized, Dr. Jacob expects to devote the rest of his working life to it. "I might spend a little more time with family," he says, "but my research interests wouldn't change. I couldn't begin to scratch the surface of DMSO's uses in the years remaining to me."