Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why Do Drug Rumors Persist?

The easy answer is because we need them.  These stories are a type of folklore that provide us with warnings and lessons.  As an oral history of societal dangers they tell us whom we should and should not trust and they provide a moral compass.  They also provide us with humor and a way of connecting to other people.  They give us a way of sharing deeply held fears in a brief and often entertaining way.

There is a particularly persistent group of rumors and legends surrounding the field of drugs and alcohol.  Because contemporary legends and rumors reflect everyday life, it is only natural that a large subset would be related to drugs.  People love telling these stories even though they are generally full of misinformation.  They speak to some basic, primal fears and concerns that we all have as parents, consumers and citizens.  Represented in drug-related contemporary legend is both our mistrust of the large corporations that produce our alcohol and other legal drugs, as well as our fears of the dark and sometimes crazy side of illegal drug use.

Demonizing illegal drugs is not a new phenomenon.  As a society, this is a technique we have used for centuries.  It may have started with the Temperance Movement's "Demon Rum" in the 18th century and moved on to Harry Anslinger's "Evil Weed" of the 1940's, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" of the 1980's, and current challenges to your children in school to DARE to stay drug free.  In order to emphasize the potential dangers inherent in drugs and alcohol we have exaggerated their effects and consequences to the point of lying.  But considering how "evil" the weed is, lying has been seen as acceptable if it works to keep kids away from drugs.

As a result of these well-intentioned but inaccurate drug prevention efforts, we now have a veritable library of misinformation, exaggerations and untruths about drugs.  In fact, in getting materials organized to write this blog it was often difficult to find accurate, scientifically grounded information with which to affirm or refute the stores.

At the very least, these legends and rumors can be tremendously entertaining.  Sitting around with friends and sharing all the stories you've heard about LSD can make for an interesting afternoon.  At their worst, these legends and rumors support the agendas of questionable groups.

An agenda is the collection of beliefs and goals held by a person or group.  When it comes to drug education, drug policy and what sort of drug-related research is funded, it's important to be aware of the agenda of the teacher, policy writer, research funder or current government administration. The information they produce will sometimes reflect their agenda instead of the truth.

To promote their agenda, agencies and institutions will place like-thinkers in policy making positions, or only fund research that will ultimately support their beliefs or goals.  Sometimes research or information that doesn't fit their agenda will be ignored or suppressed, even if it is accurate.  Sometimes the information will be oversimplified into slogans or sayings (Just Say NO!) or couched in scare tactics (Speed Kills!), both of which will feed the rumor mill of misinformation. All of this has lead to more and more misinformation about drugs being reported everywhere from mainstream media to conversations with your neighbor over the back fence.

Dr. Heath's Monkeys

Let's take a close look at what is perhaps the most well known piece of drug misinformation out there and examine where it came from, and why and how it supported a particular national agenda.

Have you ever heard that smoking marijuana kills brain cells?  Sure, everyone has heard that, and most people believe it because they heard it in mainstream media, read it in textbooks, heard it from teachers, counselors, or even while in rehab. from professionals in the field. Problem is, marijuana does not kill brain cells. How this piece of misinformation got started is a fascinating glimpse into our country's often questionable drug policies.

Over the past century there have been a number of anti-marijuana crusaders who have been highly invested in "proving" that marijuana was dangerous, an evil weed that threatened not just our health, but the very fabric of American society. Their work is legendary and can be enjoyed in films such as Reefer Madness.

Harry Anslinger was Assistant Commissioner in the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition before he was named First Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, (McWilliams, 1990). He was this country's first Drug Czar and has been called "The Father of the Drug War," serving in this position until 1962. He is best remembered for his racism and extreme anti-marijuana position, which he supported with exaggerations and misinformation. His articles describe how even one-time use of marijuana can lead to insanity and death. He was instrumental in getting the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act passed, which essentially made marijuana illegal. Perhaps most interesting, Anslinger is notably absent from government historical records, even though he served in his position as Drug Czar for over 30 years, (Inciarda, 1992).

The drug misinformation campaign that Harry Anslinger started in the 1930's and 1940's, Richard Nixon continued into the 1970's. Nixon was a brilliant, paranoid man who was determined to prove, once and for all, that marijuana killed brain cells so that he could enact more legislation against this drug.

To that end, the federal government funded research to be conducted by Dr. Robert Heath, (Heath 1976). Dr. Heath was expected to prove that marijuana was every bit as dangerous as the federal government hoped it would be. He got down to the business of supplying his pot-smoking monkeys with endless weed, then autopsied their brains.  When the smoke cleared, to no one's surprise, Dr. Heath concluded that his monkeys showed signs of brain damage that were caused by smoking marijuana.

When the funders of this research, the federal government, heard these results, they were elated and started the media machine. Most major media outlets printed the news that marijuana smoking caused brain damage, and soon it was common knowledge. This single piece of research was the foundation upon which decisions about marijuana scheduling and medical marijuana research were made for decades to follow. Only problem is, it wasn't true.

Colleagues of Dr. Heath's reviewed his work, his laboratory methods and his results. A number of them tried to replicate those results yet none were ever able to show that marijuana killed brain cells. When other scientists are unable to replicate the results of a previous study, something is amiss, and the original study is generally suspect. All subsequent studies have repudiated all of Dr. Heaths findings. No accepted evidence exists to support the idea that marijuana smoking kills brain cells.

While the scientific community quietly discredited Dr. Heath's work, the media machine could not be stopped and continued to report that marijuana smoking killed brain cells. Today that piece of misinformation continues to land in drug prevention curriculums, textbooks and college lectures worldwide, and still doesn't seem ready to die. The misinformation is what the public remembers.

This couldn't happen today, right? We have far more checks and balances in place to protect the integrity of our research and government spending. Unfortunately, researchers, eager for prestigious grants and publication opportunities can still fall victim to political pressure.  

It Happened in Florida...

You know that using Ecstasy will kill you, right? Where did you hear that? Best guess is you heard it about 10 years ago, something on the news maybe, or a piece in the newspaper.  Want to know where that information came from?

This piece of misinformation about raves and Ecstasy was born in Florida at the end of 1999. During the previous summer, authorities across Florida had begun an enforcement initiative aimed at raiding raves and dance parties. This was followed by an attempt to count the actual number of deaths that had been caused by club drugs.  So far, so good.

In a shocking piece of drug war publicity, James McDonough, the "Drug Czar" for the state of Florida and former U.S. Army Colonel and Assistant to Barry McCaffery, the Director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, announced that club drugs had been responsible for 254 deaths statewide. This number far surpassed club drug deaths anywhere else in the world. The number was so shocking that it spurred an independent investigation by the Orlando Sentinel into the sources and collection methods to reach this number. Not surprisingly, the Sentinel found the number of deaths to be nowhere near accurate.

It seems that numbers were collected from autopsies that named any one of 20 drugs as present in the body at the time of death. Larry Bedore, the Director of Operations for the State Medical Examiner's Commission, had significant concerns about the collection of these data. One hundred fifty pages of memos and other correspondence show that Bedore and the Medical Examiner's Office tried to limit the number of drugs being counted as club drugs. After all, some of the drugs on the list had accepted medical uses and might be present in a body at the time of death while being completely unrelated to the actual cause of death. He also advised that deaths of the very old and very young that appeared on the list were clearly not club drug deaths. He said, "I spent weeks trying to educate them about what they were really looking for. I talked until I was blue in the face."

Office of Drug Control Chief of Staff Steve Lauer responded to the inaccurate results of the investigation by saying that he didn't know that certain drugs on the list were used in hospitals. When he was asked why he included the deaths of very old and very young people on a list of supposed club drug deaths, he claimed he simply, "forgot" not to include these.

The public take-away from this irresponsible data collection and reporting is that Ecstasy use will kill you, even though no accepted evidence exists to support this claim.

And It Continues

How does misinformation of this magnitude spread and persist?

1.  Often, as has been the case with the misinformation about marijuana killing brain cells, the lie has been repeated so often and for so long that it is just accepted as truth.

2.  There is inadequate fact-checking by people spreading the rumor or misinformation. Teachers today heard it from their own teachers, who they believed to be accurate and reliable sources of information, so it doesn't occur to them to fact-check the information. 

3.  It's printed right in the textbook; something we assume was fact-checked by someone else. 

4.  The media doesn't exactly jump on printing corrections.  In the case of Dr. Heath's brain damaged monkeys there was probably a correction printed, but not on the front page or under a big headline.  Just a little, "Oh, by the way..." piece tucked away on a back page somewhere.

Historically, the field of drugs and drug education has been more about politics than science. Research has been skewed to support various agendas, not necessarily what was true. Dr. Heath and the State of Florida's data, while done decades apart, are classic examples of politics over science. They "proved" what they were expected to prove. Never mind that their research methods were faulty or that their results were inaccurate, or that subsequent studies have repudiated their findings.

My 11-year-old son came home last week and guess what he learned in health class?  Yup, that marijuana kills brain cells.

Considering the history of the field of substance abuse, questioning authority is a very good thing. It forces everyone to take a more critical look at the information being shared. With that in mind, I hope this blog helps you to quickly find the proof you need to refute the rumors you hear.