Be Skeptical of Illegal Drugs as Miracle Cures (Legal Drugs Too)

Like everyone else, I constantly see headlines that the cure for some dread disease has been discovered. On those occasions when journalists interview me about such stories, I have a habit of dispensing cold water. For example, a few years ago, a small clinical trial seemed to show that anti-depressants helped meth-addicted people to stop using drugs. This is what I said to an excellent health reporter, Erin Allday, about the findings:

“There have been quite a few bombs pharmacologically…those earlier experiences have taught me to be cautious now.”

Being skeptical about miracle cures is simply playing the odds. As my colleague John Ioannidis pointed out in one of the most-read papers in medical history, most medical research findings are wrong. This is particularly true of small studies, which are usually followed by larger studies that disconfirm the original miracle finding (Fish oil pills are a good example).

Lately, currently illegal drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and marijuana have been aggressively hyped as miracle cures for a range of serious disorders (cancer, diabetes, PSTD, alcoholism etc.). You may have heard for example dramatic anecdotes “proving” that high-CBD marijuana cures seizures in children. Sounds great, but as more data were gathered by neurologist Dr. Kevin Chapman “the miracle” took a beating:

Dr. Chapman’s study, which involved a review of the health records of 75 children who took CBD, found that 33% of them had their seizures drop by more than half. However, 44% of the children experienced adverse effects after taking CBD, including increased seizures. Of the 30 patients whose records included the results of brain-wave tests, a less subjective measure of seizure activity, only three showed improvements in those exams.

“It really wasn’t the high numbers we were hoping for,” Dr. Chapman said.

No one who understands medicine will be surprised by this result. It happens every day with initially touted legal miracle cures too (e.g., PROMETA for methamphetamine addiction). Alas, legal or illegal, most flashes in the medical pan are pyrites rather than gold.

[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.