One of the scarier ideas to come out of the drug war was reported this week by the British paper The Independent on Sunday. A government-convened panel of scientists in the UK is considering what the Independent properly termed "a radical scheme" -- a proposal to use vaccines, currently under development by pharmaceutical corporations, to immunize children against "euphoria" from drugs such as heroin, cocaine and nicotine. Panel members say the plan would target children who are at risk of becoming drug users in the future. They have not said how it would be determined who is at risk.
As a US activist and commentator it's not for me to decide what the British government will do or not do. But this is an internationally read newsletter, and in any case it's only a matter of time until some of our own drug war zealots or anti-drug mad scientists take the idea up here in the US, if they're not already. So I will speak. I believe that an anti-drug vaccine is a proposal that is both dangerous and immoral.
An anti-drug vaccine differs fundamentally from vaccines designed to protect individuals from diseases like measles, the example a committee member raised to the Independent's reporter. Measles is a disease that no one, or virtually no one, wants to catch, and which is communicable and could therefore spread to large numbers of people if unchecked. Perhaps measles vaccinations should not be compulsory, if we believe in freedom of choice. But the wisdom of such vaccinations is clear, and it's legitimate for society to encourage them and make them widely available.
An anti-drug vaccine, on the other hand, is designed to produce a permanent chemical alteration to an individual's brain chemistry to disable one's ability to experience certain mind states that humans are designed to be able to experience -- and which despite their downsides many people desire to experience. Though heroin and cocaine are illegal, that might not always be the case, and nicotine is legal. Legal or not, it is the individual's human right to seek such experiences. But even if one disagrees with that last statement, to alter a human being's brain and body to make the experience impossible, forever, is an extremist approach.
The "side effects" of such an alteration are hard to predict. Heroin is an opiate drug that was developed for pain control, which is still used for pain control in some countries, and which is derived from morphine and hence fundamentally similar to many other pain medicines. Would a heroin vaccine interfere with the ability of a pain patient to gain relief through heroin or other opiate medications? Cocaine is also used as a medicine, not for such a large number of patients as the opiates, but important for the ones for whom it is used. Would a cocaine vaccine interfere with a patient's ability to gain those medical benefits? Would it interfere with the potency of similar drugs like novocaine? Does nicotine have current or potential medical uses that would be stymied by a vaccine?
Not necessarily -- the physiological processes occurring in pain relief are not identical to those involved in opiate use to produce, euphoria, for example, or for relieving the cravings of an addiction. Nor, however, are they entirely dissimilar -- it's the same substance, after all. How can we determine in advance, with surety, that no such problems will arise? Through experimentation? On children? It's true that experimental drug trials are an accepted part of medical research, and some may even by necessity involve children as test subjects.
But the anti-drug vaccine is a fundamentally different proposition in this respect as well, for at least two reasons. One is that it is not necessary, as effective alternatives for reducing or avoiding the harms that sometimes from drug addiction are already available -- moderation, harm reduction, and abstinence. The other reason is the sheer scale, in time and in numbers of people, that would be needed to thoroughly assess an anti-drug vaccine's risks and effects. It's not something that can be accomplished in one or even ten years, with any reasonable number of people, because it's not sufficient to inject a test set of children with the vaccine and then feed them addictive drugs years later to see what happens.
Take the number of people needed for a proper drug trial. Then divide that by the fraction of them who statistically are likely to suffer from serious medical conditions in the future that require with opiates (a larger number) or cocaine (a smaller number). That much larger number of test subjects is the minimum number needed to ensure that the subset of the test subjects who will develop severe chronic pain and other serious conditions in the future will be available and still part of the study. There would need to be an ample number of them requiring heavy use of opiates. And the time scale is a lifetime, as the subjects would receive the vaccinations as children while the drugs are most often needed as medicines late in life.
We're not talking thousands of test subjects, nor tens of thousands. We are talking about at least hundreds of thousands and probably millions or more -- a substantial chunk of a generation -- with statistically significant results not possible for the better part of a century, to determine with any degree of confidence that such vaccines will not interfere with important medical treatments later in life.
Last but not least -- as millionaire Bruce Wayne told the future Riddler about his proposed brain experiment in the 1995 Batman movie -- there are too many questions. Don't go there!
If informed, consenting adults want to take an anti-drug vaccine, and if it could work on adults, maybe they should have that right. But the government should play no role in sponsoring, nor even encouraging, such a practice. In my opinion, an anti-drug vaccine for children is such a bad idea that it isn't even worth considering.