The Rise and Fall of a “Miracle Cure” for Drug Addiction

Dr. Walter Ling, one of the world’s most respected addiction treatment researchers, has completed the first long-term placebo-controlled trial of PROMETA. This alleged miracle cure for methamphetamine addiction proved completely ineffective. I have a short commentary in the journal Addiction (pdf here) describing the rise and fall of this heavily-promoted treatment protocol.

60 Minutes did some investigative reporting on PROMETA a few years back, noting that the treatment protocol was never FDA-approved and that a suspicious number of its advocates were discovered to have a financial stake in the product. The whole story is worth watching as a cautionary tale:

As someone who has worked with addicted patients, I am struck by the moment when journalist Scott Pelley asks the creator of PROMETA (a former junk bond salesman named Terren Peizer) about the need for evidence before an addiction treatment is marketed. Peizer responds as follows:

If you had a son. If you had a son or a daughter, and maybe you do. If he’s strung out on meth. And he’s going to kill himself. Would you, if you had the opportunity. And I said to you, will you treat your son with Prometa?…Would you take that option for your son?

The answer to this question is yes for many people, but this undermines rather than supports Peizer’s contention that it’s wrong to wait for evidence. Rather, it is *because* people are so desperate for a cure to addiction that we have a responsibility to rigorously research putative cures before they are marketed to the public. Otherwise, vulnerable, frightened people may spend thousands of dollars on ineffective treatments instead of pursuing other options that have a greater chance of restoring them to health.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.