More Journalistic Excellence: Ex-Drug Czar Puppetry

Apr 03 2009 Published by under Drug Abuse Science, General Politics, NIH, Public Health

I had previously noted a distressingly anti-science bit in a newspaper called the "" on the website and apparently just "The Examiner" on the masthead. I've been following the story a little bit after the fact so let me just recap the events:
Mar 26-
Examiner Staff Writer Bill Myers published:

I posted an analysis of the bit. I focused on the opinions of Bush's (now departed) Drug Czar John Walters who seemed to be the prime driving force, concluding:

That's wrong. It is harmful to our Nation's public policy on drug control and substance abuse to run roughshod over the scientific information in this way. It is specifically harmful to drug abuse science to misrepresent the studies in this way. It really, really is time to push back against this mistreatment of science when it comes to the political arena.

[warning: I embedded a video after the jump and right now it is stuck on autoplay, so you may want to mute until you get to the controls]

The first thing I want to point you to is the comment string on the original article. It rapidly devolves into paranoid comments invoking the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, alleged treatment of members of the military and the like. Suffice it to say, the misleading message of the article was transmitted. There is very little sense that the reality is that very limited amounts (in terms of dose and frequency) of drug are typically administered to human subjects. Little understanding that the amounts given are not likely (in the overwhelmingly unlikely sense) to alter a given subject's addictive state one way or the other. No understanding whatsoever that most human research protocols involve some sort of counseling of the addict on health risks and where to seek help quitting. Of course, why would they? The journalist didn't actually do any investigation and try to present a realistic picture of what was being done, he just parroted some Walters talking points in sensationalistic professional journalist language.
Janet Stemwedel addressed the ethical implications in her typically comprehensive and excellent way.

None of this to say that ethical drug research on drug-addicted human subjects is easy to design. But it looks like it should be possible to strike a good balance between the ethical principles of justice, beneficence, and respect for persons in order to protect human subjects while generating sound scientific knowledge that may make it possible for people to loosen the grip of addiction.

A companion editorial was published on April 1, quickly followed the next day with a duplicate version in the San Francisco version of the paper.

Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 399 poor, mostly illiterate sharecroppers for the now-infamous "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." Its supposedly legitimate purpose was to determine whether then-available treatments for syphilis were worth their toxic side effects, or whether it was better not to treat syphilis at all. Participants gave their "consent" after they were offered free medical care for minor ailments (but not their syphilis) and hot meals. But the Tuskegee study went off the ethical rails when it continued for 25 years after penicillin was found to be an effective treatment.
Now we learn that government continues to use humans as guinea pigs. This disturbing news comes courtesy of reporter Bill Myers in a March 26 front-page exposé in The Washington Examiner ("Federal programs gave addicts street drugs"). Myers described a decades-long series of secretive government "studies" that gave cocaine, crack and morphine to drug addicts -- an undertaking that began, astonishingly enough, shortly after the end of the shameful Tuskegee episode. The studies are funded with tax dollars by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Participants reportedly sign "consent" forms and are paid to be government guinea pigs.

scicurious of Neurotopia chimed in with a post explaining the limits of animal research models when it comes to substance abuse.
When I wrote my original post, I was not aware of local Washington DC television coverage but a correspondent has pointed me to two short pieces.
This first bit on the local television news features a breathless reporter Examiner Staff Writer Bill Myers? There's a small bit from ex-Drug Czar Walters but it's mostly interviewing the journalist who wrote the story? The story is the story, but the actual story is not? OMG my head whirls.

A response piece featuring NIDA director Nora D. Volkow, M.D. and ex-ONDCP head John P. Walters in competing clips. Pathetic and short but at least Nora got her licks in on the this-is-not-just-political-football front. Still, the brief set of clips they allowed into the broadcast didn't help much to illuminate the factual inaccuracies in the underlying accusations, nor to explicate the fact that the ethical issues are extensively considered.
Hmm. Well it is hard to say what Walters is really up to, puppeting these journalists for his attack on NIDA-funded research science. I'm sure this will emerge over time. Drop me a line if you run across anything that would illuminate the reasons, eh?
Rumor has it that Campbell Brown will be touching on this issue on CNN tonight so you may want to look for that.

9 responses so far

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Well it is hard to say what Walters is really up to, puppeting these journalists for his attack on NIDA-funded research science.

    The charitable interpretation is that there's no upside to studying something when we already know all the answers: Drugs are Bad, and the solution is long-term incarceration.
    The less charitable interpretation is that "what actually works" is a subject that should not only be avoided but walled off.

  • Larchnut says:

    These rightwingers don't have to have a reason other than to try to destroy anything that might help poor people. Keeping the poor as addicted to drugs as possible serves that goal.

  • PalMD says:

    Jeezus...all of those vids exploded simultaneously in my ears..

  • Larchnut says:

    Ha! I love the way the editorial rips off the comments from the readers!

  • DuWayne says:

    DM - I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the drive to blog about too many damned things and keep up with schoolwork, but I will be posting about this as soon as I can. Too many things to say about it to leave a reasonable comment.
    Larchnut -
    Not to be a jerk, but it's important to understand that addiction is not remotely limited to poor people. Not even crack. Indeed, many addicts at least start out from middle class on up. I am not particularly offended by your comment, but I know a whole lot of other poor people who would find your paternalistic and condescending assumptions really maddening. And I also understand that you're probably not being intentionally paternalistic or condescending, but as a poor person and an addict, I can assure you that that is exactly how it comes out.

  • Larchnut says:

    Point taken, DuWayne- I was talking about the way those rightwingers think.
    That gave a bad impression and I apologize

  • Klem says:

    This is a great strategy for Walters, attack NIDA and drug abuse researchers.
    The drug war is falling apart.
    CNBC supports regulation and taxation of marijuana. Seven pundits gang up on a former Drug Czar, beautiful.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Minor note, Hutchinson was the head of the DEA, not the ONDCP, I believe. It is the latter position that is generally called the "Drug Czar".
    On point, rather than being "beautiful" Klem, this bit featured yet more of the same idiotic thinking about cannabis use, i.e. as if it was all upside. Several specific areas: The panel overlooked the consequences of dependence (well, Hutchinson sort-of touched on it). Some talking head issued an unchallenged assertion that he had never "heard" of MJ-related problems implying that it is unrisky in comparison with alcohol. This is nonsense on two fronts. First, of course, because it ignores the base rate of marijuana versus alcohol use episodes which is highly relevant when you are proposing to increase marijuana use in the direction of alcohol use. Second because there indeed are data showing emergency department visits, traumatic deaths, workplace injury, etc in which cannabis and only cannabis are involved as potentially-related factors. Whether some pundit has "heard" of something or not is irrelevant to making informed policy but it tends to have an effect on public understanding.
    The pro-cannabis d00d had a couple of doozies as well. As we have briefly explored on the blog in the past, good quality data about what happened during Prohibition in terms of actual population wide alcohol drinking and overall crime are hard to come by. Al Capone stories are highly salient but may not be very accurate in terms of what was happening. The notion that everyone was getting illegally soused and the use rate didn't change post-Repeal has little support...but again nobody seems to have very good data. It likely does not exist. The guy also tried to make the usual insinuation that everyone who was going to smoke cannabis in a legal environment is already doing so. This is nonsense.
    In short, not too " beautiful" Klem. It just happens that the media is starting to shift toward a pro-legalize-eet position, they are not doing any better a job of informing people of the relevant facts than they were during a prior drugs-R-bad-m'kay era of reporting.

  • Klem says:

    I wrote that quickly, perhaps meant to say it's "delicious" to see CNBC attacking the former chief of the morality police, also to see Walters embarrassing himself to scientists (thanks for posting these videos, it's a mood-brightener).
    Marijuana is today one of the largest industries in the US, completely untaxed and unregulated. It's easy to grow indoors or out. Relatively simple to get marijuana in any US city or town, if you have any friends. Yet, what 900,000 Americans were arrested last year for marijuana-crimes?
    Under current Prohibition, the US has one of the highest rates of marijuana (cannabis) use in the world, compared to other countries. Higher even than the Netherlands where you can openly buy and consume marijuana, hash, cannabis cookies, etc in clean, cozy "coffee shops". (see the WHO for stats)
    A few years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that homosexual acts were legal throughout the country. How did that influenced prevalence rates? In many US states (at least California) "poppers" and nitrous oxide canisters are openly sold in stores, also DXM is available OTC in most pharmacies, but are many people running out to drug themselves up with these "legal" psychoactive substances?
    Looking at the history of drug policy in the US, the only thing that really seemed to have worked was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required accurate labeling of ingredients and dosage. Previously cocaine, heroin, etc were sold in medical remedies without any labels. After the 1906 Act, and in combination with educational campaigns, use of cocaine and opiates dropped dramatically in the US. Later "get tough" prohibition measures only created a criminal black-market.
    Walters reminds me of Hamilton Wright, a politically ambitious MD who jumped onto the "drug problem" back around 1909 and was very influential at urging the US into the first federal and international drug prohibition policies, often using racist and exaggerated arguments, thinking that drug policy was his ticket to a plush diplomatic job, however Wright was forced to resign from the State Dept in 1914 because he often showed up to meetings drunk (see "The American Disease" by Yale historian David F. Musto).
    The US can soon throw off it's pathetic and counterproductive morality-police policies and implement sensible, public-health policies on drug use and abuse (including prescription drugs and alcohol). Noone wants troubled young people to harm themselves with drugs. American citizens who use drugs will be more receptive to informed warnings on drug effects and risks once they are treated with respect.

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