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Recently there was a flag on a question about the synthesis of an amphetamine. Last year there was a similar question about this topic: Scope of unsuitable questions to include security and hazardous flags

In the comments we more or less concluded to treat these questions on a case by case basis. Dealing with that flag however put me in the position to make a decision. Without a clear recommendation of the community it was basically my choice. (If the question itself wasn't so lazy, I would have had a harder time. In this case I just closed it as homework.)

I am bringing it up again as a related question was also on the Moderator questionaire.

Do you think that a moderator should close and delete a scientifically relevant on-topic question for "legal reasons", because it touches the field of scheduled or controlled compounds? With other words: What is your stance on legal and moral concerns vs freedom of information?

I provided extensive reasoning there, here is the gist:
As long as it has a scientific background, asking about clarifications and / or mechanisms, I see no harm in allowing such questions.

I would like to have a consensus from the community on this, so that we can offer guidelines. Please discuss this in the comments section and/or answer on this.
Eventually this should spawn a like Q&A as we have for our homework policy.

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    $\begingroup$ :O "FAQ update" This only happens every 330 years. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. Nov 16 '15 at 19:46
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Note: The FAQ/on-topic has been updated to include the two points mentioned below.
Note: The tour has been updated accordingly.


TL;DR - We should add to our "off-topic" list in a way that does not ban questions about chemical principles. Note that my list includes personal medical questions, which are in the close question UI, but not the FAQ.

  • Personal medical questions are off-topic. We can not safely answer questions for your specific situation and you should always consult a doctor for medical advice.
  • Legal questions relating to chemical substances and techniques are off-topic. Laws can vary significantly by jurisdiction. You should consult a legal expert in your jurisdiction instead of a random person on the internet.

As long as it has a scientific background, asking about clarifications and / or mechanisms, I see no harm in allowing such questions.

I agree. I teach chemistry at a four-year institution and I deliberately try to address three important topics: very dangerous stuff, unethical stuff, and illegal stuff. Discussion of potentially illegal activities aimed at learning something about the situation is not illegal, unethical, or even inadvisable (else, how would anyone get through law school?). If I avoid these topics, I am doing a disservice to my students who one day may have to understand or work with these substances or scenarios as part of their job.

These kinds of questions can be thoughtfully answered in a way that helps the OP earn something while making it clear that they should probably not do what they asked about. Here's an example related to safety, which we think is generally on topic:

Hydrazine synthesis

Sometimes these questions come up innocently and what is needed is a rationally explained This is a bad idea.

So, where does this lead us? I do not think we need much more in our FAQ to cover this situation. See my answer to this meta question: How many shots will it take me to kill you with a neutron gun?

Questions that are clearly about underlying chemical principles are on topic. For example:

  1. Designing a theoretical synthesis of methamphetamine from phenylpropyne

Questions like the following are not on topic :

  1. Halp! I need mak my own codenie very fast what do I need to buy at the store... plz very important!
  2. Why is [seemingly innocuous substance X] a controlled substance in [jurisdiction X] but not in [other country Y]?

To be fair, questions like the first one about other compounds are also generally a low-quality or off-topic problem: I need 3-methoxybiphenyl tomorrow where can I buy it?

The second question is a legal question, which we should not answer. It is not about chemical principles, and laws vary by jurisdiction (sometimes significantly).

What should be in our FAQ?

I seem to remember something like the following in our FAQ a long time ago:

"Personal medical questions are off-topic on Chemistry. 
We can not safely answer questions for your specific situation 
and you should always consult a doctor for medical advice."

What I might be remembering is that statement from the close question UI, see Confused by Alternate Names.

Similar language about legal questions may be appropriate.

Biology.SE explicitly covers this issue in its FAQ:

enter image description here

Which questions are off-topic?

  • personal medical questions and health advice
  • philosophical or ethical questions related to biology

I am not advocating that we explicitly ban philosophical or perhaps even ethical questions (as that might suggest to some that we should not deal with safety!). Some of these questions that are off-topic can be handled by the suggestion that constructive subjective questions should not ask for opinions.

Adding the following to our off-topic list would be helpful in this case. I am including the language about personal medical advice, as it is a reason that we can close questions, but it is not explicitly stated in the FAQ (and it should be).

  • Personal medical questions are off-topic. We can not safely answer questions for your specific situation and you should always consult a doctor for medical advice.
  • Legal questions relating to chemical substances are off-topic. Laws can vary significantly by jurisdiction. You should consult a legal expert in your jurisdiction instead of a random person on the internet.
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  • $\begingroup$ Another instance where $+1$ just doesn’t quite do this answer justice. $\endgroup$ – Jan Nov 11 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. I just finished applying for tenure, which has the well-characterized ancillary property of consuming all of one's free time. $\endgroup$ – Ben Norris Nov 11 '15 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for that answer. The original intent of this post was to create a guideline to users, who are asking questions, that involve the mentioned substances. Much like what the homework policy should do for such questions. The medical close reason has previously been discussed. As far as I can see, questions relating to a legal background have not yet been discussed on meta. Yes, the FAQ pages need an update with the two points mentioned. $\endgroup$ – Martin - マーチン Nov 12 '15 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @BenNorris I thought that was the well-characterised property of just generally doing chemistry. $\endgroup$ – Jan Nov 12 '15 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin: The paragraph spacing on the updated FAQ page seems a little off to me, because the later list items don't have <p> tags inside them. It's just a tiny stylistic nitpick, but perhaps it should still be fixed, just for the sake of readability. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Nov 20 '15 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Ilmari Thanks. My HTML is so rusty... I didn't check that. I'll get right to it. $\endgroup$ – Martin - マーチン Nov 20 '15 at 3:33

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