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Drug Abuse Coverage Leaves Out the Science

Posted Mar 03 2010 9:30am

How the media covers harm reduction.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a graduate of the Stanford University School of Medicine, recently wrote a piece for that zeroes in on a series of highly pertinent questions about the manner is which the America media tends to cover drug policy stories. Questions like: Why is the existence of credible scientific research rarely mentioned when drug controversies are in the headlines? Why does science not matter when it comes to the coverage of drug policy issues?

Mehl-Madrona cites the example of U.S. television coverage of Vancouver’s Insite project in Canada, which provides addicts with clean needles and a supervised injection room. Such “consumption rooms” are also available in Europe, and are being tried sporadically in the U.S. (See my earlier post on drug injection sites) Here is his reaction:

“The American TV was awash with criticisms of this policy, the primary one being that it promoted drug abuse and caused people to abuse drugs even more than they otherwise would. What amazed me was the complete lack of attention to data in the American media. Substantial research has been conducted on Insite and on harm reduction models. It is known that programs like Insite reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and of hepatitis C and reduce drug overdose. No evidence exists to support its spreading drug abuse.”

One of the primary concerns raised by the media was whether the Insite facility would encourage addiction by making injections safer and easier. Yet a reliable study in the British Medical Journal showed no substantial increase in relapse or decrease in quit rates among a group of Insite users.

Another concern was that the Insite facility would discourage drug addicts from seeking treatment. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006, involving more than 1,000 users of the facility, found that “individuals who used Insite at least weekly were 1.7 times more likely to enroll in a detox program than those who visited the centre less frequently,” according to Mehl-Madrona.

Moreover, the study confirmed that onsite addiction counselors were successfully increasing the number of addicts who signed up for detox. Rather than discouraging addicts from seeking treatment, the study confirmed that Insite was “facilitating entry into detoxification services among its clients.”

“I don't have an answer for why ideology trumps scientific evidence in the United States and its media” Mehl-Madrona writes. “Why are the opinions of ordinary people in cities across the United States considered more valid than three dozen rigorous scientific studies? Is this just the American way?”

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