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April 25, 2002

Junk Science in Service of Junk Drug Policy
Study Finds that Flawed Studies of Ecstasy-Users' Brains Have Been Exploited to Fuel the War on Drugs 

By Richard Glen Boire

The British magazine New Scientist recently asked the question "Ecstasy: How Dangerous is it Really?" The answer, found New Scientist, is that no one really knows. Further, the magazine found that any answer to the question is likely based more on politics than on science.

After a thorough re-examination of the brain scans that have become the centerpiece of the U.S. government-led "war on ecstasy," New Scientist concluded "certain high-profile studies claiming ecstasy causes lasting damage are based on flawed brain scans." The war on ecstasy has been built on junk science.

These disturbing findings reveal how the global war on (some) drugs is warping science, promoting and profiteering from a politically-driven scientific research system. The U.S. government, for example, doles out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of research grants through its National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). According to NIDA's website, the agency "supports over 85 percent of the world's research on all drugs of abuse." Which studies get funded by NIDA, and which do not, constructs the landscape of our scientific knowledge with regard drugs.  

NIDA is the number one funder and promoter of the flawed brain scan images that purport to show brain damage from ecstasy use. 

"Our enquiry doesn't prove ecstasy is harmless to brain cells," notes New Scientist.  "But it does raise questions key to the future of drugs policies the world over. When the evidence about the safety of an illicit drug is complex and disputed, who gets to decide which findings are sound enough to influence policy? How active should government policy makers be in screening out unreliable findings? And how open should they be about scientific dissent?"

Like the Church's hostile reaction to Galileo's telescope-based observations, the U.S. Government today is in charge of creating, enforcing, and policing a particular worldview with regard to psychoactive drugs; any plants, powders, pills or potions that affect the mind and are not the products of billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies, are cast as the very embodiment of evil. In the past witches embodied evil, but today it is illegal drugs like ecstasy. Drugs, and the people who use them, are demonized.    

Not only do prohibition-minded governments engineer evidence to support their agenda, the "war on drugs" is also responsible for suppressing scientific findings that depart from the government's narrative. New Scientist, for example, noted that some scientists whose research found little or no evidence of cognitive impairment caused by ecstasy have been unable to get their studies published by medical journals. 

The New Scientist study confirms that the drug war respects few, if any, boundaries. Not only is the Constitution smoldering, but now we learn that science itself has been thrown on the pyres. 

But no doubt the greatest sacrifice has been to basic notions of human autonomy and freedom of thought. Today's drug war is the latest manifestation of the age-old battle over how reality is to be experienced and described. It strikes directly at our most fundamental right to think for ourselves and to manage our own minds and mind states. 

Once we've allowed the government to decree that certain states of mind are authorized, and that others are unauthorized, and indeed criminal, is it any wonder that government has also seen fit to turn science into its slave? 

Richard Glen Boire, is co-director and legal counsel for the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics.

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