Vice Squad
Sunday, April 18, 2004
Funding Drug Research: Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune

The Media Awareness Project (MAP) offers this article on the incentives facing drug researchers. The gist of the story is that government dominated funding of research into currently illicit drugs biases the types of studies that are conducted and publicized. In the US, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the major funder of research involving illicit drugs. The MAP story takes as its point of departure the discredited NIDA-supported ecstasy study headed by Dr. George Ricaurte that helped to promote federal controls over raves: "In his now-retracted study, Dr. Ricaurte was trying to prove something -- that even one dose of ecstasy causes brain damage --which neatly fits drug-war ideology. Not surprisingly, NIDA covered the $1.3 million U.S. cost of the research. In fact, Dr. Ricaurte has been given $10 million U.S. by NIDA over his career. In exchange, NIDA consistently got what it wanted: Research that hyped the dangers of ecstasy."

A major source for the MAP article is Dutch drug researcher Peter Cohen: "In the early 1990s, the WHO asked a group of international scientists, including Cohen, to produce what it billed as 'the largest global study on cocaine use ever undertaken.' In 1995, the study was done. It concluded that most users consume cocaine occasionally, that occasional use usually does not lead to compulsive use, and that occasional use does little or no harm to users. It was a flat contradiction of the drug-war ideology, so the U.S. threatened to pull its funding if the report was released. The WHO buckled. The report was buried."

The problem that the MAP article addresses applies to social scientists working on drug policy, too, it seems to me. Imagine the incentives facing a young PhD in economics (or some other social science) interested in an academic or research career dedicated to drug policy research. It would be very hard for such a person to take a strong legalization position, when research funding is dominated by the National Science Foundation and other organizations that will not be anxious to be associated with what easily can be labeled (or mislabeled) a pro-drug stance. Such a person, sad to say, might even understandably be reluctant to start or participate in a vice policy blog that generally eschews the criminalization of adult vices!

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