Saturday, June 13, 2009

the wrong kind of data

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, on the results of a 1995 WHO report on cocaine use.

"Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use," they said. "Cocaine-related problems are widely perceived to be more common and more severe for intensive, high-dosage users and very rare and much less severe for occasional, low-dosage users."

The full report – which has never been published – was extremely critical of most US policies. It suggested that supply reduction and law enforcement strategies have failed, and that options such as decriminalisation might be explored, flagging up such programmes in Australia, Bolivia, Canada and Colombia. "Approaches which over-emphasise punitive drug control measures may actually contribute to the development of heath-related problems," it said, before committing heresy by recommending research into the adverse consequences of prohibition, and discussing "harm reduction" strategies.


At the point where mild cocaine use was described in positive tones the Americans presumably blew some kind of outrage fuse. This report was never published because the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw US funding for all its research projects and interventions unless the organisation "dissociated itself from the study" and cancelled publication. According to the WHO this document does not exist, (although you can read a leaked copy at

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