'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 ecstasy.
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 Mr. 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 U.S. alone.
"Researchers need to get their money from somewhere," says Mr. 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 Institute on Drug Abuse boasts that it "supports over 85 per cent of the world's research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction."
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 U.S. cost of the research. In fact, Dr. Ricaurte has been given $10 million U.S. 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 Mr. Cohen.
This control can skew research in subtle but powerful ways. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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."
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