YOU CAN'T TRUST MOST ILLICIT-DRUG RESEARCH
One night's ecstasy use can cause brain damage, shouted a headline
after the journal Science published a study that found a single dose
of the drug injected into monkeys and baboons caused severe brain damage.
The media trumpeted the news and drug enforcement officials held it up
as definitive proof of the vileness of ecstasy.
A year later, the author admitted his team had mistakenly injected the
primates with massive doses of methamphetamine, not ecstasy. Science
retracted the story.
Obscure as this incident may sound, it demonstrates something vitally
important about illicit drug research. It's a politicized field, says
Peter Cohen, professor at the University of Amsterdam's Centre for
"There is no neutral science."
Scientific research and scientific careers are built on funding and
drug research is expensive.
"Researchers need to get their money from somewhere," he said, but
funding options are limited. Pharmaceutical companies aren't
interested. And most governments won't fund research on drugs they've
banned. The one exception is the U.S. which lavishes money on drug
research, enabling the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse to boast
it "supports over 85 per cent of the world's research on the health
aspects of drug abuse and addiction."
But there are ideological strings attached. The U.S. government is
dominated by a drug-war ideology in which drugs are not simply another
health risk. Drugs are criminal, immoral, even evil. When most people
think of alcohol, we draw a line between "use" and "abuse."
Because the drug-war ideology sees drugs as inherently wicked, it
erases the line between use and abuse of illicit drugs. Any use is
abuse. Any use is destructive. And the job of science is to prove it.
In the now-retracted ecstasy study, the scientist was trying to prove
that even one dose of ecstasy causes brain damage -- which neatly fits
drug-war ideology. Not surprisingly, NIDA paid the $1.3 million US
cost of the research. In fact, the author of the research has received
$10 million US by NIDA over his career. And NIDA got what it wanted:
Research that hyped the dangers of ecstasy.
But funding research is just one way U.S. drug-war ideologues control
the scientific research on illicit drugs. Not funding can be just as
effective: "If I would approach NIDA and say I want to sh
marijuana use is far less problematic than the use of alcohol, I
wouldn't be funded," Cohen said.
This control can skew research in subtle but powerful ways. Cohen
cites his own research, funded by the Dutch government, into people
whose moderate use of cocaine causes little or no physical or social
"But in many other countries, colleagues . . . could find money to do
research on cocaine use, but only in people who are in [rehab] clinics
or living on the streets."
A final method of control is crude suppression. "It goes on all the
time," he said.
Journalists are starting to catch on to the fact they can't always
trust what officials say about drugs, says Cohen, but few know how
"poisoned the production of knowledge about drugs is." As a result,
misinformation abounds and "drug policy is not yet a topic that
society can deal with in a rational manner."