21st April 2007
A Conservative MP today criticised a leading university's decision to give money to crack-cocaine users taking part in a new medical trial.
Cambridge University scientists want "regular users of cocaine, crack-cocaine and amphetamines" to be guinea pigs in a new piece of research on the effect of certain chemicals on the brain.
Researchers - who have placed an advertisement in a local newspaper - say drug users who take part in the tests will be "compensated for their time and inconvenience" and paid travel expenses.
Stewart Jackson, a member of the Commons' Health Select Committee, said the university should think again. "There must be a value judgment here and I think they are dangerously close to the line where they are encouraging illegal behaviour," said Mr Jackson, MP for Peterborough, Cambs. "We are talking here about paying people who are taking crack. It's illegal behaviour. I think they should be asking themselves some serious questions before continuing with this. I've never heard of anything like it before."
Cambridgeshire Police said they could see no legal issues arising out of the advertisement or the research.
"The police recognise that any research leading to a greater understanding of the effects of drug misuse is useful," said Detective Chief Inspector Gary Ridgway.
"The service supports drug prevention and intervention as well as enforcement and, as such, we respect patient/doctor confidentiality covering individuals who choose to seek treatment for drug problems and who choose to provide information on their own drug use in order to assist medical or scientific research."
A university spokeswoman said the issues surrounding the trial - including the possibility that drug users would spend their "compensation" on illegal drugs - had been carefully thought through.
The university said the study was being funded by a drug company and researchers were trying to discover whether chronic drug users and non-drug users responded differently to changing levels of the brain chemical dopamine.
"In particular, the researchers want to examine how drugs that either increase or decrease the levels of dopamine in the brain affect the way people in these groups perform some simple memory tasks, make decisions and regulate their behaviour," said a spokeswoman. "It is hoped that this will contribute to understanding changes in the brain that accompany drug dependence which will lead to more effective treatments for chronic drug users." She added: "Several important clinical trials to develop treatments for drug addiction take place throughout the country every year. This research seeks to address the growing problem of illegal drug use, a problem which costs the UK as much as £16 billion a year.
"Drug addiction devastates the lives of people who have become dependent on drugs and their families, and impacts on society as a whole by contributing to an increase in crime and violence - as well as a massive financial burden on the health service. Clinical trials involving chronic drug users are critical to finding treatments for addiction. These trials are heavily scrutinised by the research ethics committee to ensure that the research abides by the highest standards of care.
"Like other studies exploring the use of new treatments, this trial compensates participants for their time. As this trial involves users and non-users, it would be unethical to compensate one group and not the other - they are required to receive equal compensation as it would otherwise be considered discriminatory by the global guidelines created for drug trials. Additionally, recruiting for such a study without compensating for inconvenience would be near impossible. With regard to the legality of the confidential nature of the study, the relationship is of a patient-doctor nature and therefore must not be compromised. If drug users were not given this privilege, they may never seek help."