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Scientists at Johns Hopkins University retracted the results of a 2002 study on Ecstasy Friday, admitting a major research blunder that renders 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 legislation related to Ecstasy.
Drug education experts expressed dismay at the revelation, warning that every time young people learn they’ve been misled about the harms of a drug, open communication about all drug issues becomes more difficult.
“This study looks like high-class Reefer Madness,” said Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Safety First Project of the Drug Policy Alliance. “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.”
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 2002 study purported to find reduced dopamine levels in monkeys injected with large amounts of MDMA, or ecstasy. The lead author, George A. Ricaurte of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, concluded that ecstasy might lead to Parkinson’s disease. Ricaurte’s study was considered accepted proof in Congress as to Ecstasy’s apparent dangers, as they sought to enact the Illicit Anti-Drug Proliferation Act, commonly known as the RAVE Act, which responds to Ecstasy hysteria by punishing club owners for drug use on their property. Since then, two other similar pieces of legislation have been in the works – the CLEAN-UP Act, and the Ecstasy Awareness Act.
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.
Critics also question the sincerity of the study’s retraction. While this study was used to influence Congress and shape public opinion last year, little effort is being made to rectify the situation. Worse yet, months after the failure to replicate results with oral administration was apparent, Ricaurte still defended his results in a letter to Science published June 6, 2003, in which he repeated the claim that oral administration was just as dangerous as injection.
“The authors of the report have an obligation to promote the retraction as hard they promoted their fraudulent findings,” said Nadelmann, “And the members of Congress who used the report’s finding to push for harsh Ecstasy laws and penalties should do the same.”
When the study was first released in September of 2002, critics strongly questioned its validity even before this 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 the current controversy 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, has also been 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 plain 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.