By Alfa · Apr 17, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    Research on Illicit Substances Is As Biased As Its Funding Source

    "One night's ecstasy use can cause brain damage," shouted a newspaper
    headline in September 2002, after the journal Science published a study
    that found a single dose of the drug ecstasy injected into monkeys and
    baboons caused terrible brain damage. Two of the 10 primates in the study
    had even died. The media trumpeted the news around the world and drug
    enforcement officials held it up as definitive proof of the vileness of

    But a year later, an odd thing happened. The author of the study, George
    Ricaurte, admitted his team had mistakenly injected the baboons and monkeys
    with massive doses of methamphetamine, not ecstasy, and Science formally
    retracted the article.

    The retraction was scarcely reported and drug enforcement officials said
    nothing about it. Obscure as this incident may sound, it actually
    demonstrates something vitally important about research on illicit drugs,
    something few laymen understand but is well known among researchers and
    academics. It's a deeply politicized field, says Peter Cohen, a professor
    at the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam. "There is
    no neutral science."

    For critics such as Cohen, George Ricaurte illustrates the problems in
    illicit drug research. Long before the Science study made him notorious,
    Dr. Ricaurte was accused by some academics of producing biased science
    designed to make drugs look as dangerous as possible. The motive was
    funding. Scientific research and scientific careers are built on funding
    and drug research is particularly expensive -- the flawed Science study
    cost $1.3 million US alone.

    "Researchers need to get their money from somewhere," says Cohen, but
    funding options are extremely limited. Pharmaceutical companies aren't
    interested. And most governments aren't prepared to pay a great deal of
    money for research on drugs they have already banned. The one exception is
    the United States, which lavishes money on drug research. As a result, the
    U.S. National I
    nstitute on Drug Abuse boasts that it "supports over 85 per
    cent of the world's research on the health aspects of drug abuse and

    But that money comes with ideological strings attached. The American
    government is dominated by a drug-war ideology in which drugs are not
    simply another health risk that can be rationally studied and regulated.
    Drugs are criminal, immoral, even evil. When most people think of alcohol,
    we draw a line between "use" and "abuse" -- consumption that does no harm
    versus consumption that does. But 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 his now-retracted study, Dr. Ricaurte was trying to prove something --
    that even one dose of ecstasy causes brain damage --which neatly fits
    drug-war ideology. Not surprisingly, NIDA covered the $1.3 million US cost
    of the research. In fact, Dr. Ricaurte has been given $10 million US by
    NIDA over his career. In exchange, NIDA consistently got what it wanted:
    Research that hyped the dangers of ecstasy.

    But funding research is just one way American drug-war ideologues control
    the scientific research on illicit drugs. Not funding research can be just
    as effective when almost all the funding in the world comes from the U.S.
    "If I would approach NIDA and say I want to show that marijuana use is far
    less problematic than the use of alcohol, I wouldn't be funded," says Cohen.

    This control can skew research in subtle but powerful ways. Cohen mentions
    his own research into ordinary people whose moderate use of cocaine causes
    little or no physical or social harm. He had been able to fund this work
    with money from the Dutch government. "But in many other countries, my
    colleagues could not find such money. They could find money to do research
    on cocaine use, but only in people who are in (rehab) clinics or living on
    the streets." In any other field this "selection bias" would be
    unacceptable because it distorts the results. In illicit drug research,
    it's standard.

    A final method of control is crude suppression. "It goes on all the time,"
    insists Cohen. "I was involved in the cocaine research of the World Health
    Organization and I saw this happen."

    In the early 1990s, the WHO asked a group of international scientists,
    including Cohen, to produce what it billed as "the largest global study on
    cocaine use ever undertaken." In 1995, the study was done. It concluded
    that most users consume cocaine occasionally, that occasional use usually
    does not lead to compulsive use, and that occasional use does little or no
    harm to users. It was a flat contradiction of the drug-war ideology, so the
    U.S. threatened to pull its funding if the report was released. The WHO
    buckled. The report was buried.

    Journalists are starting to catch on to the fact that they cannot always
    trust what officials say about drugs, Cohen feels, 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."

    Share This Article


To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!