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The Ecstasy Debacle

If young Americans are ever to believe what our government tells them about drugs and other policy issues, we must be sure that our messages are based on sound science rather than political ideology.
 
 
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Earlier this month, with little fanfare, highly touted researchers from Johns Hopkins University made a stunning announcement. Data from their experiments with the now infamous drug, Ecstasy, published a year ago in the esteemed journal, Science, turned out to be fatally flawed. It seems the vials had been mislabeled, and the drug that killed 20 percent of the study's laboratory monkeys and baboons was not Ecstasy at all, but a completely different substance.

As a research scientist myself, having conducted the first federally funded sociological study of Ecstasy users, I am happy about the recent news that one dose of Ecstasy does not, as the widely publicized Science article had claimed, cause irreversible brain damage leading to Parkinson's disease. What bothers me is the turn of events that enabled our government to consistently use faulty research to shape bad drug policy.

Ecstasy's story began nearly 30 years ago, when it was first used legally in the 1970s as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Psychiatrists were impressed with its ability to help couples communicate, to enable trauma victims to heal, and to soothe chronically ill patients facing death. MDMA (Ecstasy's chemical name) crossed over into recreational circles in the early 1980s and shortly thereafter became illegal. Its use remained relatively quiet until the early 1990s, when it became associated with underground dance parties known as "Raves."

Ecstasy became popular with growing numbers of young people, and at its peak in 2000, nearly 12 percent of high school seniors admitted to using it at least once. As problems, largely associated with look-a-like pills, overheating and dehydration, were reported, the frenzied print and electronic media ran 1,000 fear-producing stories.

At this point the Johns Hopkins team had released a study showing massive changes in brain chemistry resulting from the use of Ecstasy. Though now considered methodologically flawed and never replicated, the "brain damage" claim resulted in panic.

The federal government couldn't move fast enough, quickly enacting anti-Ecstasy legislation and promoting its $54 million educational campaign to alert young people and their parents to Ecstasy's dangers.

While states enacted laws targeting users (such as in Illinois, where possession of 15 pills resulted in a mandatory 4-year sentence in state prison), federal legislation was initially stalled but subsequently pushed through as a tag-on to the 2003 Amber Alert bill.

The RAVE (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) act held event promoters liable for their patrons' drug use. Since the presence of medical staff and other safety measures at dances or other gatherings constituted awareness that drugs might be used there, sponsors faced an impossible dilemma. They could eliminate "harm reduction" measures such as pill testing and chill-out rooms and risk patrons' health, or maintain them and risk their own arrest and prosecution.

As an educator, the credibility of the Ecstasy educational campaign had me worried from its inception. Drawing from the Johns Hopkins "serotonin" research (now refuted by a recently published, much larger and better controlled study) web sites and television spots carried frightening "this is your brain" images showing a normal brain alongside an obviously damaged Ecstasy user's brain. Although those images turned out to be phony, the National Institute on Drug Abuse director loudly proclaimed to worried parents and politicians that the government finally had the science to show young people that Ecstasy could have dire consequences.

So much for science, and so much for convincing young people that the government is telling the truth. Indeed, the recent Science retraction is just another nail in the coffin of credibility when it comes to what adults tell young people about drugs. Although those "this is your brain..." ads (along with the drug-use-equals-terrorism spots) have now been pulled, as my 25-year-old daughter, a graduate of the DARE program, remarked when she heard the recent news about Ecstasy, "Now I'm convinced that any information about drugs coming out of the government is automatically suspect."

The problem, of course, is much bigger than this one piece of research, and bigger than Ecstasy. It provides just one example of the way in which science is manipulated to promote partisan public policy. That's what ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform, Representative Henry Waxman, learned when he began to investigate the administration's use of scientific information. Regarding more than 20 issues, including substance abuse, his shocking report concludes, "The Bush Administration has manipulated, distorted, or interfered with science on health, environmental, and other key issues."

As the mother of a teenager and a young adult, my main concern, like that of most parents, is the safety of my children. It would help if, along with the retraction of the faulty Ecstasy research, the policies that came in its wake -- the RAVE act and the "this is your brain" education campaign -- were retracted as well. Indeed, NIDA's web site has now pulled some of its information on Ecstasy and says it is being revised.

If young Americans are ever to believe what our government tells them about drugs and other policy issues, we must be sure that our messages are based on sound science rather than political ideology. Then, and only then, will young people have the kind of trusted information they need to make sound health decisions.

Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph.D. directs the Safety First project ( www.safety1st.org) of the Drug Policy Alliance ( www.drugpolicy.org) in San Francisco.