Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Media and Drug Policy: Where’s the Science?


Groping blindly toward a new framework.

As states and the federal government clash at the legal, social, and political levels over legalizing marijuana, the science of drugs and addiction has taken a back seat. The dismal state of the addiction treatment business has recently been documented by Anne M. Fletcher in Inside Rehab, while over the past few years, drug policy officials in the U.S. have had to cope with three major developments: the medicalization and legalization of marijuana, the emergence of new synthetic drugs, and the abuse of potent prescription painkillers.

Major media outlets have largely failed to highlight the relevant scientific issues in each case. What we see instead is that journalists and others who are covering drugs and addiction issues are not making connections with solid scientific sources in the neurochemical research community. All too often, media reports of adverse drug events are sourced solely by police officers, or spokespersons on behalf of for-profit rehab centers, who are no more ready to make science-based pronouncements on these matters than anyone else.

States are now in the process of relaxing strictures on the possession and use of cannabis—and they are doing it well before they have put in place a set of evidence-based policies for the implementation of this new state of affairs. Who is in charge of directing policy decisions in Washington and Colorado? What will be the regulatory structure at the level of county and municipal government? Whose voices will actually be heard? Should the feds leave it to the states, and the states leave it to the counties, who then leave it to the cities? To what degree are the two states taking the medical and health aspects of this sweeping change into account? Can evidence be substituted for opinion in such cases? If so, how?

Even if the Department of Justice decides to shut down all efforts at relaxing marijuana statutes, it will need to rely upon a sound collection of scientific evidence to make its argument. The media play a compelling role in drug discussions, but coverage traditionally has been limited to articles about the legal, political, and sociocultural ramifications of the changes. These are all critical parts of the story, but science journalists need to step forward and direct more coverage toward emerging medical issues and the findings of science. Ordinary citizens will want to have at least a partial grasp of the medical and science-based decisions that state and federal governments will be making about personal health and habits as they legislate and adjudicate these concerns.

The federal government will have to begin working with states rather than against them, if public opinion continues to change on legalization issues. At the same time, the feds will be called upon to provide guidance for the states that is consistent with international drug treaties. Congressional committees will have to grapple with the realities of setting forth the limits and logistics of the market for marijuana in coherent and consistent ways. Incredibly, very little of this is pinned down, firmly understood, or even grasped as imminent problems by either legalizers or their opponents. Many of the issues that took years to wrestle down with cigarettes, such as warning labels on cigarette packages, will present themselves with equal and immediate force in the case of states with legalization plans.

In addition, marijuana policy makers in Colorado and Washington will have to render decisions concerning sales to minors, cannabis in the workplace, DUI marijuana laws, addiction issues, sales outlets, tax issues, and the results of ongoing medical research on marijuana. Some states allow private dispensaries, some have banned them. Some allow private cultivation of cannabis, and some do not. 

As for the newer synthetic drugs—the cannabis-like products known as Spice, and designer stimulant drugs known collectively as “bath salts”— these chemicals exist in a twilight zone of ignorance, with very little sound medical information passing to the public. Few people understand with any degree of certainty just what is inside those shiny foil packages. This glaring disconnect between clinical research and media reports leads to unsupported tales of face-eating zombies and dead teenagers on bath salts, well in advance of the drug testing that might factually answer questions about drug-related behavior. Meanwhile, scientists fear that the continuing effort to ban every substance illegally marketed in this category will close off certain valuable avenues of research, including new drug discovery.

Finally, the ongoing battle to lower the soaring use and abuse of oxycontin, Vicodin, and other opiate drugs has caused problems for legitimate pain patients across the country. Yet this medical aspect of the painkiller panic is rarely remarked upon. Some addiction researchers believe that as prescription painkillers are removed from the market or made more difficult to abuse, those with opiate addictions will migrate to heroin in greater numbers. Scientific research on addiction suggests that this may well be the case. 

What is missing specifically from most drug policy debates is the recognition of the vast metabolic variation among individuals. Different drugs affect different people differently, and for the first time, neuroscientists are building a solid body of information that could help policy makers better forecast the results of their actions. Lethality, side effects, tolerance, and susceptibility to addiction all vary widely due to metabolic differences among people.

But some shared reactions, and basic withdrawal parameters, do exist. Congress, the FDA, NIDA, as well as state health agencies and other regulatory bodies, need information about drugs and drug use that scientists have been busily compiling. The public needs this information, too. We need to search for ways media can more effectively inject science-based drug information into current policy debates. 

Science journalists are perfectly situated to serve as potential communicators between warring parties. What can the media do to markedly enhance intelligent, science-based coverage of drug issues?

Photo: Telstar Logistics

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