(New York, December 2, 2003) -- Today's New York Times story -- "Research on Ecstasy is Clouded by Errors" -- documents years of flawed research by Johns Hopkins University researcher Dr. George A. Ricaurte. Ricaurte received $10 million from the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than any other investigator of "club drugs," and published studies with heavy publicity warning that ecstasy and other recreational drugs may cause permanent brain damage. Although these studies have been proven fundamentally flawed, three seriously dangerous consequences have emerged as a result, says the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading drug policy reform organization.
First, due in part to Ricaurte's "scientific studies," harsh drug laws were passed, including the Illicit Anti-Drug Proliferation Act, commonly known as the RAVE Act, which punishes club owners for drug use on their property. (Other similar pieces of legislation are pending, including the CLEAN-UP Act and the Ecstasy Awareness Act.) Second, the government has further lost credibility with young people when it comes to scaring them away from drugs. And third, the exaggerations of the risks of MDMA, or Ecstasy, have had a devastating impact on research into the drug's therapeutic potential.
"This is high-class Reefer Madness," said Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Alliance's Safety First Project. "When young people see this kind of thing, they start to assume they're being lied to about everything - including the most important information about their safety."
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University retracted the results of a 2002 study on Ecstasy last September, admitting a major research blunder that rendered the results invalid. The study, published in the prestigious journal Science, claimed to find a connection between Ecstasy and Parkinson's disease. Its results received sensational media attention worldwide and influenced Congressional decisions on Ecstasy-related legislation. In numerous attempts, however, Ricaurte was never able to replicate his high-profile results with oral MDMA. Eventually, he says, he realized that a labeling error had resulted in methamphetamine being injected into the monkeys - not ecstasy at all.
Drug policy reformers said the error raises serious questions about researchers' biases in assessing the dangers of a drug for the government. Too often, critics say, research is driven more by drug war politics and scare tactic philosophy than by scientific principle and integrity.
"Whether this was just sloppiness or something even more troubling, there's an ends-justify-the-means philosophy at work here," said Ethan Nadelmann. "This is a particularly bold example of the corruption that permeates federally-funded research on illicit drugs."
The first FDA-approved study of the therapeutic use of MDMA in the 18 years since it was made illegal is also being held up by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Dr. Michael Mithoefer, the psychiatrist who would conduct the MDMA/PTSD study, has yet to receive his required Schedule I license since July 2002, when he first submitted his application. The Times article mentions that a study in Spain using MDMA to treat rape victims is underway, when in fact it has been prematurely shut down as a result of political pressure by the Madrid Anti-Drug Agency, aided in part by an anti-ecstasy climate created by Dr. George Ricaurte in his numerous recent talks in Spain, some at the invitation of the Spanish Anti-Drug Agency.
"The harms caused by the exaggerations of the risks of MDMA far exceed the harms of MDMA itself," said Rick Doblin, Ph.D., founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS, www.maps.org
), the organization that is sponsoring MDMA psychotherapy research. Doblin obtained a Public Policy Ph.D. from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, with a dissertation on the regulation of the medical uses of MDMA and other Schedule I drugs.
When Ricaurte's study was first released in September of 2002, critics strongly questioned its validity even before the most recent mistake came to light. While the researchers claimed to mimic the "commonly recreational dose regimen" to determine potential side effects and long term neurological damage, they actually gave dosages higher than those of an average human user. Additionally, they administered it by injection, not orally -- ignoring his own research that showed that injecting MDMA was twice as neurotoxic as oral administration. Ricaurte also ignored human research that showed that MDMA had no effect on dopamine levels.
Scientists also note that Ricaurte's latest study follows a pattern of dubious research about Ecstasy, much of which has been prematurely used for political purposes. Ricaurte's classic 1998 PET scan study into the effects of Ecstasy on serotonin levels in heavy users, published in the Lancet, was also challenged as seriously methodologically flawed. The National Institute on Drug Abuse used the data from this study in its major educational campaign against the use of Ecstasy, including the regular brain / brain after Ecstasy image, but has quietly removed it from its website. A much larger and better controlled PET study published in 2003 failed to replicate Ricaurte's claims of massive serotonin reductions in Ecstasy users. Instead, the study found no long term serotonin reductions whatsoever in former Ecstasy users.