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The (Pseudo-) Science of the War on Drugs
and the Recent Ricaurte Error
by Earth Erowid
Nov 2003
Citation:   Erowid E. "The (Pseudo-) Science of the War on Drugs and the Recent Ricaurte Error". Erowid Extracts. Nov 2003;5:2-3.
Many Erowid readers are already aware that there was a major shake-up in the world of MDMA neurotoxicity research in September 2003 when George Ricaurte and his lab at Johns Hopkins University issued a retraction to their controversial article published in the journal Science in October 2002. The retracted article, which had been provocatively named "Severe Dopaminergic Neurotoxicity in Primates After a Common Recreational Dose Regimen of MDMA ('Ecstasy')", purported to show that MDMA caused "severe" damage to the dopamine system and could lead to Parkinson's disease symptoms after a single use.

This paper contradicted previous research and made claims that were criticized as politically motivated. Papers such as this one fuel increasingly draconian legal changes and frightful sentencing for drug-related crimes, all in the name of "protecting the children" from horrors like Parkinson's disease.

The Retraction
The retraction explained that Ricaurte's team had accidentally used methamphetamine (a known dopamine toxin) instead of MDMA in the study, causing deaths, near-deaths, and severe dopamine-system brain damage to the primates they experimented on. Since the retraction, much has been written about this incident. Commentators have highlighted problems ranging from scientific issues about MDMA's effect on the dopamine system, to the influence of politics on science, conflicts of interest in the current system of peer reviewed publishing, problems with the news-tainment industry's treatment of complex scientific matters, and the over-emphasis of negative findings by the War on Drugs industry.

The Ricaurte Error also brought into focus another systemic problem that plagues the science of this field: the lack of a neutral standards or review body for scientific research.

It is common in many fields for the media to jump on new scientific findings and present them as sensationalist fact. The rush to judgement is certainly not unique to the study of recreational psychoactives. Politics influence everything, including the media, and popular ideas are often out of sync with existing scientific understanding. In other fields of science, however, there are two primary pressures which mitigate the impact of bad data on public policy and law: competing scientific inquiries and neutral standards or regulatory bodies.

Competing Scientific Investigations
In most fields, scientists have the opportunity to study opposing theories, the ability to conduct experiments and test hypotheses, and generally, the freedom to question data. Unfortunately, because of the War on Drugs, the social, professional, and legal pressures are configured to dramatically limit this type of balancing research into illegal psychoactives. It can be professional suicide for a researcher to come out too vocally against studies that find harmful effects, even if the criticism is technical. Being perceived as "pro-drug" can mean jeopardizing the ability to get grants and inviting increased professional scrutiny.

Government sources almost never fund scientific research into alternative theories, positive effects or therapeutic uses of proscribed psychoactives, while research designed to show harm receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year. This immense funding imbalance precludes the competition of ideas required for good science.

Conflicts of Interest
Imagine if the FDA not only acted to evaluate whether a pharmaceutical drug was healthy and useful to the public, but was also required by its charter to disallow and discourage the use of all pain medications. They would declare the use of ibuprofen immoral, publish handbooks and review articles about how ibuprofen causes ulcers and thousands of deaths per year, with no mention of why so many people use it anyway. Imagine that this body would be the only source of funding for research into this dangerous type drug.

This Food, Drug, and Ibuprofen Abuse Administration would have a charter that is incompatible with the aims of producing information society can rely on.
Functionally, the scientific world works on a sort of democracy-of-data principle. Though neuropharmacological facts don't become true or false based on a vote, as data stacks up supporting a particular theory it's natural to assume that theory is more likely to be true. But if only particular theories are ever allowed to be studied, the system breaks.

There are a few who work to provide some measure of counterpoint to the flood of War on Drugs science. But with their hands tied by the current system -- with limited ability to do the research necessary to back their theories with data -- their voices are too easily dismissed by mainstream researchers, physicians, educators and lawmakers.

Science, as a result-neutral method for finding fact, can only function successfully when the choices of what and how to study are not dictated by a foregone conclusion. Since Ricaurte's article linking Ecstasy use to Parkinson's disease was published in the fall of 2002, there seems to have been an increased visibility of the War on Drugs machinery and the way it manipulates ongoing research to match its political objectives. Many normally silent researchers have reacted with outrage that this article was allowed to be published in the fi rst place and have openly criticized the weight it has been given in public policy.

Unfortunately, as long as a significant portion of research is funded by an agency with a political agenda, the chance for a balanced picture to emerge about the use and abuse of recreational psychoactives is very small.

Content-Neutral Standards
In many fields there are recognized organizations that work to create neutral standards, vet published research, and keep track of the status of ongoing scientific debates.

In the pharmaceutical industry, scientists employed by corporations work to show the beneficial effects of their potential products while researchers at universities, independent labs and rival companies test their claims. Competing scientists challenge theories and argue about the meaning of their findings.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also acts as a semi-neutral review organization for pharmaceutical science. The FDA makes decisions about approval or removal of pharmaceutical drugs based on its evaluation of current research. If a company disagrees with a finding, they can perform more research or resubmit their data. Although it's important to note that there are strong political and economic pressures influencing the FDA's decisions, as well as an organizational tendency towards risk aversion, the vetting process provides a system for the evaluation of data by informed, trained individuals within a defined structure.

For illegal or recreationally used psychoactives, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the closest there is to a moderating body. NIDA, a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has a budget of over one billion dollars. It not only acts as the funder for nearly all research into recreational drugs (their website claims they fund over 85% of the world's research into "drugs of abuse"), but it is also the body entrusted by the U.S. government to evaluate the evidence, publish papers, and testify to Congress about the current state of the science. It is NIDA that sits at the center of the War on Drugs science debacle. It has dramatic conflicts of interest between its roles as a neutral standards body, a funder of research and a governmental hub for the "demand reduction" policy objective. As Stephen Kish, a brain scan expert, described at a presentation to NIDA in September 2003, NIDA has repeatedly overstated the certainty of the data. For example, under previous director Alan Leshner, NIDA used brain scans of questionable validity as part of a huge national "education" campaign to show how dangerous ecstasy was. Dr. Kish said that NIDA has been effectively misleading both the public and Congress about how well understood the issue of ecstasy-related brain damage is. What is particularly concerning is that some of the top scientists at NIDA were well aware of the problems with their official media campaign, but in the end political and marketing considerations drove their public description of the "science".

The Ricaurte Error stands out as a red flag, a warning that the scientific "system" in this field is dangerously flawed if not broken. In this case, a bogus finding, inconsistent with previous research, from a lab known to be biased, was able to influence U.S. law and stop research in other countries. As we are immersed further into the post-post-post-modern world where fact and fantasy melt in the digital foundries, there is a growing need for neutral scientific expertise isolated from profit motive and political agenda.

A neutral evaluative body has become necessary. Perhaps it can be found outside the United States. Or perhaps a private association of scientists in the field can form a collaborative effort to provide a measure of distance from the corrupting influence of politics. Until then, the field will remain another pseudoscience.

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