The Ecstasy Factor

Bad science slandered a generations favorite drug. A new study aims to undo the damage.

It's easy to paint Ricaurte as a rogue scientist motivated by ambition, but the scientific establishment and its patrons also played key roles in the wider scandal, from merely ignoring critical flaws to blatantly promoting problematic studies. Alan Leshner, publisher of Science and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has come under fire for endorsing the botched study at its time of publication. "It isn't clear why an officer of the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] should be involved at all in publicly promoting a particular result published in its journal, least of all one whose outcome was questioned at the outset by several experts," wrote Nature. Pinholster says she called upon her boss "to serve as an expert source as a service to reporters," adding, "There was no conspiracy." Leshner declined to be interviewed.

Leshner has long railed against the dangers of Ecstasy. In 2001, when he was director of NIDA, he told the Village Voice, "We've known since the late '80s that MDMA can damage serotonin neurons, and if you give enough of it, they're blown away."

On the eve of his own study, Rick Doblin says the payoffs for such shoddy science have been immense. "Leshner was willing to exaggerate findings to pander to politicians for money," he says. Leshner did help NIDA bring home the bacon: NIDA's budget for Ecstasy research has more than quadrupled over the past five years, from $3.4 million to $15.8 million; the agency funds 85 percent of the world's drug-abuse research. In 2001, Leshner testified before a Senate subcommittee on "Ecstasy Abuse and Control"; critics say Leshner manipulated brain scans from a 2000 study by Dr. Linda Chang showing no difference between Ecstasy users and control subjects. But NIDA insists it's independent from political pressures. "We don't set policy; we don't create laws," says Beverly Jackson, the agency's spokesperson.

NIDA wasn't the only benefactor of Ricaurte and wife Una McCann's research. "George and Una are cash cows for Johns Hopkins," says Doblin, who points out that every time a scientist receives a grant, money indirectly goes to the affiliated institution. While both NIDA and The New York Times have clocked Ricaurte's NIDA grant money at around $10 million, Doblin believes that's a low-ball figure. "Just this one study was $1.3 million, and he has done loads and loads of them." Johns Hopkins spokesperson Gary Stevenson declined comment beyond the official statement.

Another consequence of the retracted study and other discredited NIDA-funded findings is that they've helped obstruct legitimate research into the possible medical benefits of Ecstasy. Doblin believes Ricaurte and others are threatened by such research because it doesn't square with their drug-war agenda. In the past, Leshner has balked at those accusations. "It frankly bugs me," he told the Village Voice in 2001. "It's easy to say that the government isn't approving studies because they're politically incorrect. The government may say yes."

Now that the government—more specifically, the FDA—has indeed said yes, Doblin's research into the benefits of Ecstasy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder is under way. The $300,000 MAPS project, which is funded by private individuals and family foundations, has had some major setbacks since it initially received FDA approval in November 2001. The study was to have been conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina before that institution backed out; it will now be held in a private doctor's office. While Doblin believes the program would have gotten off the ground without Ricaurte's retraction, he says it's made all the players, including the institutional review board and insurance company, "feel a lot more comfortable."

A study under way in Spain examining the potential therapeutic effects of Ecstasy in rape victims hasn't fared as well. The Madrid Anti-Drug Authority pressured the sponsoring hospital to shut the study down in May 2002. Doblin largely blames Ricaurte for the mounting difficulties the research team has faced since then: Ricaurte, who was born in Ecuador, is fluent in Spanish, and gave four talks in Spain presenting his bungled findings.

As for the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, Margaret Aitken, press secretary for Senator Joseph Biden, who sponsored the bill, said, "Senator Biden will not change his position based on this one [retracted] study." A Senate aide also confirmed the legislation would not be revisited, and that there's "no official process to go back and correct the record."

Blakemore, meanwhile, is still calling for a "full and open discussion" from Science, including the disclosure of the paper's referee reports. "If the referees didn't spot what I noticed right away, then what does that say about the quality of [Science's] referees?" asks Blakemore. "And if the referees did make negative comments [that went unheeded], what does that say about Science?" At press time, Blakemore and Leslie Iversen, an Oxford University pharmacologist, were drafting a letter that Don Kennedy has promised to publish in Science. That journal, NIDA, and Johns Hopkins insist there's been no evidence of foul play; no investigations were being conducted at any of these institutions at press time.

In the end, the ones most negatively affected by the studies may be those they purport to help. "I'm very concerned about drug use, but the way to tackle it is not to misrepresent scientific evidence," says Blakemore. "What's going to be the impact of these studies? Young people won't believe anything they read."

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