The ethics of drug addiction research in China
Question: would it be ethical to conduct research with drug user detainees in such circumstances? In the abstract, those with substance abuse problems are vulnerable persons in poor health, and it would be good to have research on effective interventions to combat drug addiction. But in practice, it gets complicated. The journal Science recently published an article entitled 'A memory retrieval-extinction system to prevent drug craving and relapse'. The study was conducted at Beijing Ankang and Tiantanghe Drug Rehabilitation Centers, but these are two of the facilities that have raised concerns about human rights violations over the past years. Human Rights Watch has published a Letter to the Editor in Science that raises concerns about research being done within institutions suspected of human rights abuse. Should a new intervention be tested against the local standard of care, where there are serious doubts about the effectiveness of that care? In these circumstances, is voluntary informed consent of participants really possible? Are researchers who conduct research in these facilities complicit in the ill-treatment of drug users at the hands of Chinese authorities?
The story is made murkier by the involvement of the US National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the study. Two of the authors on the study are from the NIDA, who apparently helped with data analysis and the writing of the article. Since they were significant enough contributors to the research to warrant authorship, should the study have also been reviewed under the (rather stringent) US regulations governing prisoner research, and if it did, would it have passed muster? It will be interesting to see how this case evolves as the facts become clearer.