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Study: 'Partisan' Sites Winning Web War on Drugs

By Neil Sherman
HealthScoutNews Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 8 (HealthScoutNews) -- If search engines are any
indication, drug-promoting Web sites are winning the war on drugs, at
least on the Internet.

Researchers say a simple Internet search using street drug names like
"ecstasy" or "psychedelic mushrooms" lists eight to nine Web sites
promoting illicit drug use and providing misinformation, some of it
dangerous. Because only one or two federal anti-drug sites get listed,
the researchers say the federal government needs to be more Web-savvy
if it wants get its anti-drug message across.

Not so, says President Bush's Office of National
Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). More than 30 government anti-drug Web sites give
accurate drug information on the Internet, each designed to get the
anti-drug message to teens or their parents, an agency official says.

The Web site that sold manufacturing kits for GHB, the "date rape
drug," initiated the research, says Dr. Edward Boyer, an assistant in
general pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston. "And so we
started looking at a Web site called Erowid. I noticed that [the site]
described something called GHB withdrawal which was not, at the time,
well-described in the literature and wouldn't be for another year and
a half. What was interesting was that Erowid described a drug-use
pattern long before medical professionals picked up on it, and that
prompted us to look at other Web sites."

Boyer and his colleagues typed the names of such street drugs as
"GHB," "ecstasy," and "psychedelic mushrooms" into the Metacrawler
search engine on separate occasions over 10 months to see what
information would be retrieved.

"The information provided by the search engine focused on pro-drug Web
sites, and you were far more likely to get a pro-drug -- or what we
call a 'partisan' -- Web site than you were to get an anti-drug Web
site produced by the government," Boyer says. "And we also found that
the drug sites that promoted drug use invariably made recommendations
that were potentially dangerous."

Boyer says their first two searches listed eight "partisan" and two
federal anti-drug Web sites in the top 10 results. The third search
identified nine "partisan" sites and one federal site, and the final
two searches found eight pro-drug sites and no federal sites.

Boyer says Metacrawler was chosen "because it prevents repetition of
results." He also says researchers verified the findings using two
other search engines, Google (news - external web site) and Ixquick.

"We found these results significant because the federal government is
taking the lead in anti-drug efforts, and they also have a
multi-billion dollar effort to try and prevent drug use," Boyer says.
"Their multi-media effort is not getting out over the Internet. The
issue here is that the Internet is more and more the communication
vehicle of choice for adolescents and young adults."

The findings appear in a research letter in the Aug. 9 issue of the
New England Journal of Medicine (news - web sites).

Boyer says pro-drug Web sites are popular because they provide
"plausible descriptions of the preparation, dose and administration
and psychoactive effects of drugs. A site like Erowid has more than
4,000 pages of information on drugs, and it's not only believable, but
it's credible in the eyes of young users. And the federal government
is not keeping anybody off [these sites], and they do not have an
effective alternative to these sources of information."

Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug
Control Policy, says the researchers are right about the number of
pro-drug sites but wrong about the federal government .

"The National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign uses a number of
different methods to reach adolescents and their parents with
science-based anti-drug information, including significant outreach on
the Internet," says de Vallance. "Our interactive strategy is twofold:
to drive traffic to the media campaign Web sites like,
which targets messages to youth, and that provides
parents and other adults and caregivers with strategies for raising
drug-free kids. And there are actually 27 other anti-drug sites that
we are either sponsors of or we link to. The media campaign alone
purchases over 100 keywords to combat online pro-drug strategies."

She says, "The media campaign was never intended to match or divert
the plethora of pro-drug information available on the Internet. The
media campaign is designed to provide information and education to
empower youths and their parents to make healthy decisions about drug
use. To say that there isn't specific and scientific drug information
on any of our Web sites is just factually inaccurate."

Kids are using the Internet to find out about drugs, says Howard
Simon, a spokesperson for the Partnership for A Drug-Free America in
New York City.

"We know from our own research that the number of teens who are saying
they are using the Internet to find information on drugs is up 38
percent since 1998. Now, over that same period of time, the percentage
of kids exposed to anti-drug Web sites is up 50 percent. So while
these are interesting findings and worth studying, I don't think you
can draw the conclusion that there isn't any valuable anti-drug
information on the Web or that kids aren't see it. That does not seem
to be supported by what the Partnership is finding."

The proof may be in the pudding, Simon says. "Since 1997, teen drug
use in the United States is actually down." He says 53 percent of
teens in grade seven through 12 nationally said they had tried drugs
that year, but by 2000 the figure was down to 48 percent. "Is that too
high? Absolutely. But the number's moving in the right direction,"
Simon says.

Anti-drug efforts will only be successful if parents are involved,
Simon says. "If parents are talking to kids about drugs, then perhaps
that can spur kids to go to a site. If parent's are not speaking to
their kids about drugs, they can be darn sure that someone else is."

What To Do: To see what information is provided about drugs online,
visit a "partisan" site like The Vaults of Erowid. Anti-drug use
information and messages are provided by the federal government at
freevibe as well as by the Partnership For A Drug Free America.