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Ricaurte Confesses: Infamous 'Ecstasy Causes Parkinson's' Research Was A Fake! (9/10/03)
In the fall of 2002, the alleged scientist George Ricaurte whipped up a public panic when he published research in the journal Science claiming that even one dose of MDMA (the drug popularly known as "ecstasy") could cause severe damage to dopamine neurons, potentially leading to debilitating neurological problems similar to Parkinson's disease among human users. These shocking claims were quickly championed by the anti-drug crusaders at NIDA, helping to push the controversial RAVE Act through Congress (which wanted to hold event promoters criminally responsible if anybody at an event used drugs), preventing the start of human MDMA research planned by MAPS and generally increasing anti-MDMA hysteria among the press and government leaders.
After a year of controversy and bitter debate, Ricaurte's research team has come clean: The experiment never actually happened. Instead of MDMA, the monkeys and baboons used in his research had been given near-lethal overdoses of methamphetamine, a much more potent and dangerous drug. Ricaurte claims that this was all an honest mistake; that the lab providing the drugs had mislabeled the two vials. The manufacturer has so far refused to accept any responsibility or to agree with Ricaurte's assertion that the substitution must have happened on their end.
The error (or so Ricaurte claims) was discovered when his research team, after repeated attempts, was forced to admit that they were unable to reproduce the results of the first experiment. Testing frozen brain samples from the animals used in the original experiment revealed the presence of methamphetamine, but absolutely no MDMA.
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Who the heck is George Ricaurte anyway, and why am I skeptical of his claim of an innocent mistake (committed by somebody else, no less) being behind the switch? Ricaurte (pronounced retard-ay, except with a 'k' sound instead of a 't') has spent his professional life as an anti-drug attack dog. His claims of the horrible dangers of MDMA were used by the government from day one; his work was invoked as part of the original justification to make MDMA illegal and was used again to justify increasing penalties for MDMA to the point where dose for dose, MDMA was punished as much as ten times as severely as heroin. At every twist and turn in the history of government attitudes and policies towards this drug, there was Ricaurte, pockets stuffed with millions of dollars from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA.) When doctors fought to keep MDMA available by prescription for use in therapy, Ricaurte's claims helped to stop them. When users, political pundits, and even heads of law enforcement suggested that perhaps the anti-'ecstasy' hysteria was not entirely rational, Ricaurte's doom-and-gloom predictions were used to shout them down. And when legitimate, FDA-approved human research with the drug was on the verge of happening, Ricaurte's scientific terrorism helped stop it. Tying his professional future to the theory that 'ecstsy' users were damaging their brains, Ricaurte became a sort of Prophet of Doom, casting a dark shadow of dire predictions that death and destruction would visit itself upon any who came near the wildly popular drug.
In the process of earning his NIDA pay, Ricaurte repeatedly ran afoul of other researchers, who believed his claims of MDMA's risks were at best exaggerated. Among these critics, the most persistent and vocal were the scientists who had fought to keep MDMA legally available to doctors and had continued to work for FDA approval of the drug. Over the years, polite disagreement had turned into outright hostility between the two groups, with Ricaurte's claims growing ever wilder and less rational as the researchers grew closer and closer to their goal of prescription MDMA. With much of his career based solely on his claims that ecstasy users were damaging their brains, Ricaurte found himself with a lot to lose if his warnings were proven to be unfounded.
Beyond having a personal and financial motivation to constantly produce more anti-MDMA findings there's the matter of the timing of the publication of his 'ecstasy parkinsonism' findings; the research was rushed to press during a time when Congress was contemplating the draconian RAVE Act, which had been dragged to a standstill by public outcry. It was also published a matter of mere months after MAPS had received the final approval needed to go ahead with experiments to see if MDMA was medically useful in psychotherapy (a claim that Ricaurte's backers at NIDA had long rejected.)
Then there's the drug shipment itself. Ricaurte had two vials shipped to him, from the same lab, on the same day...one containing 10 g of MDMA, the other containing 10 g of methamphetamine. Methamphetamine also just happens to be perhaps the only drug known to man that could produce the pattern of damage Ricaurte wanted to create in his test animals. If nothing else, he had created the perfect excuse if the substitution were ever discovered.
There's also the question of what on earth made Ricaurte think he could produce damage to monkey's dopamine systems with MDMA in the first place. After all, he had personally done similar experiments in the past with MDMA that, at even higher doses, hadn't produced such damage. (5 mg/kg twice a day produced no damage to the dopamine system, yet he was now claiming that 2 mg/kg three times a day caused severe damage.) At the very least, a minimally competent researcher should have wondered why his new findings were so radically different from his past findings. Likewise, the 'ecstasy parkinsonism' experiment caused the deaths of 20% of his animals from drug toxicity (and almost killed an additional 20%, but they were spared from receiving the full dose.) Such a death rate from the amount of alleged-MDMA used was absolutely unprecedented. Didn't Ricaurte suspect something was wrong? (There were also a lot of omissions, errors, and exaggerations in the research report; for a partial accounting, read my letter to Science.)
Even now, having confessed that his original dire claims had been a load of shit, even after admitting that he had been unable to cause damage to monkey's dopamine systems with real MDMA, Ricaurte continues to claim that human users are, in fact, causing severe damage to their dopamine systems. He makes this claim in spite of multiple brain scan experiments on heavy 'ecstasy' users which failed to show any signs of damage to their dopamine systems, instead making handwaving references to 'unpublished data' that nobody else can look at. His own data, of course. I look forward to his next publication, and doubt it will be any more sound than his last.
Of course, this might really have all been just an innocent mistake, in which case Ricaurte is merely a dishonest incompetent hack, not a dishonest incompetent hack who cooks the data.
• Read MAPS response to the retraction (includes the retraction itself and other press coverage and opinions.)