As this column has stated many times before, we always need to be very careful with how we interpret research results. Findings can be reported in a sensational way and as a result the true message can often be lost. Many drug users do not trust research findings, believing that they do not reflect their own experiences. Unfortunately, a story reported in the media during the week does not help the situation with a leading scientific journal called Science retracting a paper it published last year after the author, Dr George Ricaurte from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, admitted that he got it wrong. The original piece of research made headlines around the world when it claimed that one night’s typical dose of ecstasy might cause permanent brain damage, with symptoms similar to that seen in Parkinson’s disease.

However, the journal now reports that the monkeys in the study were not injected with ecstasy but with a powerful amphetamine. A medical school spokesperson called the mistake unfortunate. When asked why this sort of bizarre mistake could happen, the researcher said that his laboratory had made a simple human error. Asked why the vials were not checked first, he answered: We’re not chemists. We get hundreds of chemicals here. It’s not customary to check them.

The findings of the study were questioned by many at the time for a variety of reasons. One of the major issues raised was that it appeared to some that the primates seemed to have been injected with huge overdoses. Two of the 10 primates died of heat stroke, they pointed out, and another two were in such distress that they were not given all the doses. Many experts pointed out that if a typical ecstasy dose killed 20 percent of those who took it, no one would use it recreationally.

The media has reported that Dr Ricaurte said he realised his mistake when he could not reproduce his own results by giving the drug to monkeys orally. He then realised that two vials his laboratory bought the same day must have been mis-labelled: one contained ecstasy, the other d-methamphetamine.

It all gets very political from here. It has been suggested that Dr Ricaurte’s laboratory has received millions of dollars from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and has produced several studies concluding that ecstasy is dangerous. At the time the study was published, it was strongly defended by the former head of NIDA, who coincidentally was also the head of the company that produces the journal the study was published in.

Some people have suggested that the results were rushed into print because a bill known as the Anti-Rave Act was before Congress. The act would punish club owners who knew that drugs like ecstasy were being used at their dance gatherings.

The greatest fear that health educators have about this is that some ecstasy users will leap onto this error and somehow interpret that ecstasy is a safe drug. There are risks involved and anyone using the drug should be aware of these. Don’t lull yourself into a false sense of security -“ that is when things can go terribly wrong.

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