Column: Latest Ecstasy study misleads public

Recent government-funded research into the effects of Ecstasy applies truth-bending scare tactics that attempt to frighten the public about the “horrors” of the drug instead of using responsible scientific evidence to prove truths. These researchers should be up-front with the facts and the serious problems in their methodology that lead to misleading results.

In a recent study published in “Science” magazine, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine argue repeated doses of MDMA, the chemical in Ecstasy that affects the brain, over several hours can cause Parkinson’s disease – characterized by the loss of dopamine-producing neurons usually associated with old age. These researchers, however, hurt the credibility of the scientific community and the trust that students put in it by publishing damaging conclusions without firm scientific backing.

Researchers, attempting to show the negative affects of Ecstasy to the individuals most likely to use it, conducted tests that supposedly resemble normal use patterns. Researchers said they administered the equivalent of a “heavy night’s worth of MDMA” to monkeys, what they contend would be usual among users at “all-night raves” – to test the effects of the chemical on the brain.

What is not made clear in the premise of the study is that the “normal” usage they describe is actually the human equivalent of three doses of MDMA injected directly into a monkey’s bloodstream over a period of nine hours. How can this be considered normal? Humans do not usually take pure MDMA in Ecstasy pills, and they usually take it orally and at a slower pace. Opposing researchers say oral digestion of Ecstasy is half as potent as injection. Oral consumption can cause dramatically different effects on the body than if one were to inject the drug, especially three times in one evening.

These researchers administered overdoses of MDMA and passed it off as normal usage. Two of the 10 monkeys given the Ecstasy injections died quickly after their second or third dose, and two others became so ill that they could not receive a third. Nearly 40 percent of the animals tested either died or came close to dying, but nowhere near 40 percent of human Ecstasy users die or even become ill.

New York City, where there are thousands of Ecstasy users, only shows one death per year linked to Ecstasy by itself, according to a recent Washington Post article. Opposing research shows that while brain damage is a likely side effect of Ecstasy use, there is much less dopamine depletion than this latest study shows and some of the effects might be temporary, especially in single time users. The new research would have the public believe one exposure to MDMA has the potential to lead to Parkinson’s disease, even though, according to the Post article, there has only been one case of Parkinson’s linked to Ecstasy use out of thousands of ecstasy users.

Many contend federally funded research provides biased experiments like this, what they call improper “politicization of science.” In the Post article on this Ecstasy experiment, Charles Grob, a neuropsychiatrist at University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, said much of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded research is scientifically irresponsible. He said the research “suffers from serious flaws in methodological design, questionable manipulation of data and misleading and deceptive reporting in the professional literature and to the media.”

In an attempt to direct the public – presumably young people – away from drugs, the government is passing off biased and unreliable research as scientific discovery. This betrays the ethical demands of scientists to provide the public with factual conclusions drawn from experiments that have no predetermined agenda. More accurate and realistic studies are possible and deserve funding. The emphasis should be on scientific truth, not dissuasion from drug use.

Make no mistake, Ecstasy is an illegal drug that has serious consequences to the body and mind, but researchers should be above the politics of the drug war. The legitimacy of agencies such as NIDA is weakened when the truth is bent in an attempt to scare people away from drugs. This works against their cause. The studies can have the opposite effect of what they are intended to do. Students, overwhelmed by anti-drug information, will throw research like this into the category of elementary drug education, something they discard as meaningless, and will instead attempt to find out the effects of drugs like Ecstasy on their own.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in International Affairs, is Hatchet Opinions Editor.

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