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See Also: CCLE Entheogen and Drug Policy Project

Results Retracted On Ecstasy Study

The CCLE is pleased to see that Dr. Ricaurte has admitted a major error in his government-sponsored studies on the dangers of MDMA (he used the wrong drug). Criminal drug prohibition predisposes government-funded research to show harms associated with various illegal drugs, and also predisposes research funded by drug policy reform groups to show little if any harm, and perhaps some benefit. Thus, because drug prohibition necessarily politicizes all research concerning prohibited drugs, CCLE is concerned that similar errors in the future are not only inevitable, they are encouraged.

Only in a world that respects cognitive liberty will scientific findings concerning the potential harms and benefits of psychoactive drugs be depoliticized. The result will be more accurate science, because the major incentive to skew results for political purposes will be eliminated.

Results Retracted On Ecstasy Study
By Rick Weiss Washington Post Saturday, September 6, 2003; Page A03

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University who last year published a frightening and controversial report suggesting that a single evening's use of the illicit drug ecstasy could cause permanent brain damage and Parkinson's disease are retracting their research in its entirety, saying the drug they used in their experiments was not ecstasy after all.

The retraction, to be published in next Friday's issue of the journal Science, has reignited a smoldering and sometimes angry debate over the risks and benefits of the drug, also known as MDMA.

The drug is popular at all-night raves and other venues for its ability to reduce inhibitions and induce expansive feelings of open-heartedness. But some studies have indicated that the drug can at least temporarily damage neurons that use the mood-altering brain chemical serotonin. Some users also have spiked fevers, which rarely have proven fatal.

Last year's research, involving monkeys and baboons, purported to show that three modest doses of ecstasy -- the amount a person might take in a one-night rave -- could cause serious damage to another part of the brain: neurons that use the brain chemical dopamine.

Two of 10 animals died quickly after their second or third dose of the drug, and two others were too sick to take the third dose. Six weeks later, dopamine levels in the surviving animals were still down 65 percent. That led Hopkins team leader George Ricaurte and his colleagues to conclude that users were playing Russian roulette with their brains.

Advocates of ecstasy's therapeutic potential, including a number of scientists and doctors who believe it may be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychiatric conditions, criticized the study. They noted that the drug was given in higher doses than people commonly take and was administered by injection, not by mouth. They wondered why large numbers of users were not dying or growing deathly ill from the drug, as the animals did, and why no previous link had been made between ecstasy and Parkinson's despite decades of use and a large number of studies.

The answer to at least some of those questions became clear with the retraction, which is being released by Science on Sunday evening but was obtained independently by The Washington Post. Because of a mislabeling of vials, the scientists wrote, all but one of the animals were injected not with ecstasy but with methamphetamine, or "speed" -- a drug known to damage the dopamine system.

The researchers said they discovered the mistake when follow-up tests gave conflicting results, and they offered evidence that the tubes were mislabeled by the supplier, identified by sources as Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina. A spokesman for the company said last night that he did not know whether the company had erred.

The error has renewed charges that government-funded scientists, and Ricaurte in particular, have been biased in their assessment of ecstasy's risks and potential benefits.

Rick Doblin, president of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a Sarasota, Fla.-based group that funds studies on therapeutic uses of mind-altering drugs and is seeking permission to conduct human tests of MDMA, said the evidence of serotonin system damage is weak.

"The largest and best-controlled study of the effect of MDMA on serotonin showed no long-term effects in former users and minimal to no effects in current users," he said.

Una McCann, one of the Hopkins scientists, said she regretted the role the false results may have played in a debate going on last year in Congress and within the Drug Enforcement Administration over how to deal with ecstasy abuse.

"I feel personally terrible," she said. "You spend a lot of time trying to get things right, not only for the congressional record but for other scientists around the country who are basing new hypotheses on your work and are writing grant proposals to study this."

But she and Ricaurte emphasized last night that the retraction had not changed their feelings about the danger of taking ecstasy.

"I still wouldn't recommend it to anybody," McCann said.

See Also

CCLE Entheogen and Drug Policy Project

CCLE Ask Dr. Shulgin Online

CCLE Drug Law Library - MDMA