Headshrinking the American-By Cletus Nelson

No one will ever accuse the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of having low aspirations. Not content with merely limiting the use of narcotics, the powerful anti-drug entity wants to control of your mind. As part of a bold scientific venture, the organization is developing a revolutionary regime of pharmaceuticals that will render the brain immune to mind-altering substances. Make no mistake, researchers are taking part in a profound endeavor to reshape the human species in accordance with statutory law. Forget the heavy-handed tactics which have long characterized the war on drugs, these pioneering medications offer a teeth-chattering glimpse into the future of social control.


The primary battleground for this far-flung expedition is know as the ‘blood-brain-barrier’ — a sort of internal gatekeeper which prevents toxins from entering the brain. As narcotics typically interact with the nervous system on a molecular level, man has long imbibed a rich variety of consciousness expanding substances able to traverse this natural screening process. However, NIDA researchers are hoping to bring this blissful epoch to a screeching halt by employing a biological treatment that could forever close the doorways of perception.

The majority of these newly created medications trigger an immune systems reaction within the brain causing the production of a “drug antibody complex.” The antibodies then adhere to the molecules of a targeted substance thereby neutralizing its effects. “This represents a different approach to therapeutic research,” remarks a NIDA spokesman in a 1999 press release, “this strategy is aimed at preventing the drug from reaching the brain” (Zickler 1999)

Stories have already surfaced in Salon, the Village Voice, and other alternative publications heralding the creation of a liberating “cocaine vaccine.” One such treatment known as TA-CD, is being developed by Xenova, a NIDA-affiliated pharmaceutical firm. The anti-addition agent allegedly produces anti-cocaine antibodies that obstruct microscope coca crystals from penetrating the central nervous system. “When a person relapses, the high they get from cocaine reinforces the addition. The (cocaine) vaccine prevents the high, and therefore should help people who want to give up, “explains a Xenova spokesman in an interview (Sky News 2002).

Meanwhile Dr Donald Landry of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York has created a “cocaine specific catalytic antibody.” The synthetic compound utilizes features of antibodies which adhere to cocaine molecules and enzymes that transform the highly potent crystals into “inactive fragments.” Animal studies indicate that Landry’s research may prove invaluable when treating overdose victims while rats treated with the compound have shown little interest in self-administrating cocaine.


If you believe these wonder drugs will be strictly limited to what we consider “hard drugs,” think again. Plans are underway to eliminate the psychoactive effects of marijuana. Despite the herb’s well-documented history as a medical palliative and notoriously low potential for abuse, researchers involved with NIDA’s Intramural Research Program are perfecting an “antagonist” which paralyzes the brain’s cannabinoid receptors — thus eliminating the “high” attributed to the widely-used recreational drug.

The anti-post agent (SR141716) was first discovered by Sanofi-Synthelabo, a Parisian drug manufacturer working in tandem with NIDA under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). A NIDA press release circulated last spring indicates that human experimentation is already underway. Last year 63 lifestyle smokers were allowed to get high after being treated with the experimental vaccine. Test subjects reported a significant reduction in “how high they felt” and a 38% decline in how “stoned” they were.

As these experiments continue, NIDA is also funding attempts to find preventative antidotes for PCP, Methamphetamine, and Nicotine. Unlike today short-lived anti-addition remedies such as Naltrexone and Methadone, many of these medications have the potential to last a lifetime. Should these efforts succeed, there a little doubt, the anti-drug vaccine will emerge as an integral component of the contemporary “Recovery” process.


Obviously this development would signify a marked sea change in how we treat addition. However, this attempt to use biological agent to suppress drug use in strongly rooted in 12-step ideology. Indeed, as Stanton Peele remarks, “NIDA’s take on addiction has much in common with the view promoted by Alcholics Anonymous (AA) and it imitators” (Stanton Peel 2002).

In fact, the cornerstone of 12-step treatment is the inherent belief that addictive behaviour isn’t as much pathology stemming from personal, behavioural, or psychological problems, but a medically-recognized “disease.” This approach forms the primary foundation for NIDA’s anti-drug vaccines. “Just as medications have been developed for other chronic diseases, such as hypertension. diabetes and cancer,” writes the organization in its Five Year Plan, “drug addiction is a disease that merits medication for its treatment” (Spartos 2000)

Another AA concept that forms the underlying basis for these futuristic “peripheral blockers,” is the notion that only through abstinence can those struggling with the aforementioned “disease” ever achieve sobriety. While few will deny that many have achieved sobriety by “working the steps,” and swearing off booze or drugs, as we shall soon see, NIDA’s dogmatic belief in abstinence often collides with contradictory data.


For example, how do abstinence proponents reconcile their beliefs with a study commissioned by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), published in 1996, which found that a large majority of persons deemed “alcohol dependent” were capable of spontaneous recovery without any form of abstinence-based treatment? In fact, more than half of those who participated in the organization’s National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey (NLAES) and met the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism were capable of moderating their alcohol intake without swearing off booze.

Drugs are different? Not so according to long-term studies of US drug users. Peele reveals that, “Long-term cocaine users, for example, do not become addicts. And when they do go through periods of abuse, they typically cut back or quit on their own.” To substantiate this statement the addiction expert cites statistics from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) which show that some 3 million Americans have used heroin. Based on this figure, one would think we are in the midst of a crippling pandemic of addiction. However, roughly 5% had used the drug within the past month. The statistic for cocaine are similar. As Peele explains, “These findings indicate that the vast majority of heroin and cocaine users either never become addicted or, if they do, soon manage to moderate their use to abstain.”


If the abstinence theories on which NIDA’s vaccines are based appear largely untenable, one must then ask a provocative (and in some circles) heretical question: Is addiction actually a disease? Three decades ago Edward M. Brecher set out to answer this question. After an exhaustive analysis of all available scientific literature pertaining to drug abuse, his result were published in the 1972 Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalents, Hallucinogens and Marijuana — Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol.

In his authoritative study, Brecher divided the prevailing theories of his day into three separate categories. There where sociological theories which argues that drug use is strongly rooted in one’s environment, value system and peer group. Psychological experts reiterated the popular belief that addition was rooted in a “weakness of will” or possibly some undefined personality defect. Finally there existed the many “disease model” or “biochemical” theories. After his extensive analysis, Brecher concluded that the “vast bulk of the evidence of date … favours the psychological and sociological theories” (Brecher 1972).

Fast forward three decades and “Dr. Jeffrey A. Schaler has conducted a similar analysis … with similar results. Although Schaler concedes that drug and alcohol abusers exhibit physiological symptoms, he finds no basis that they suffer from a particular disease. Indeed, he points out that “abundant and convincing evidence exist to support the view that illegal drug use has more to do with choice, values, and expectations that with addiction, compulsion or disease” (Schaler 1997).


Despite these conflicting views over the nature of addiction, it is highly likely that this attempt to “medicalize” substance abuse will continue unabated. Indeed, with uncontained glee, Dawn MacKeen reports in Salon that “Medical historians point to the possibility of court-ordered shots for drug abusers. And the availability of a medical approach like a vaccine might persuade the public that addition is actually a disease, not the mark of bad behaviour that should be punished” (MacKeen 2000).

This optimism reflects a growing belief among many within drug policy circles that substance abuse should be perceived as a medical issue as opposed to a criminal act. While it is encouraging to know that many voters and elected officials are turning away from the largely punitive (and unsuccessful) strategy of locking up non-violent drug offenders, renegade psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz warns that placing drug abuse within the realm of public health could prove to be a double-edged sword.

“Interventions justified in the name of health — defined as therapeutic, not punitive — fall outside the scope of criminal law and are therefore exempt from constitutional restraints on state coercion,” he cautions in a 1998 editorial (Szasz 1998). In light of these cautionary words, can we be assured these powerful (and possibly permanent) vaccines will be administered in an ethical and non-coercive manner?


If current practices within the addiction treatment milieu are any indication, the answer is an unequivocal no. On any given day, employers, universities, jails, state licensing boards, and other powerful institutions use administrative sanctions ranging from extended jail time to the loss of one’s job to coerce many into treatment (often against their express wishes).

As author Chaz Bufe reveals, “there are myriad avenues by which individuals are forced into 12-step alcohol and drug treatment (Bufe et. al. 2001). Although exact statistics are unavailable, Bufe estimates that the total number of Americans forces to attend treatment exceeds well over 1,000,000. Because our definition of an “addiction” can often prove to be highly subjective, sometimes even the most minor transgression can land you in treatment:

“A young man working in a mail room tested positive for marijuana use in a random drug test. He was suspended from his job until he completed a drug treatment program. In the program he was in constant conflict with his counselors because he refused to acknowledge — as required by the 12-step program — that he was powerless over his drug use: “I smoke grass once a month!” (Bufe et. al 2001)

Although the courts have long recognized that it is the duty of every healthcare provider to obtain patient consent prior beginning any form of medical treatment, the incident cited above shows how the doctrine of informed consent is all too often ignored by those charged with treating, employing, and adjudicating those accused of substance abuse. Should today’s 12-step therapy include mandatory inoculations, there is little reason to believe these practices will cease.


One must also keep in mind that the perceived exigencies of the drug war have become a routine justification for a supine judiciary to allow a number of repressive measures ranging from asset forfeiture to “courier profiling.” Obviously there exists a high probability that similar arguments will be applied in favour of mass vaccinations.

During the Gulf War, Defense Department lawyers petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a waiver granting military physicians the right to inoculate Desert Storm Troopers against possible biological and chemical toxins. “The FDA granted the waiver, placing military physician’s in the awkward position of having to administer an agent without the recipient’s informed consent,” remarks Joel Martin Schofer of the Hahnemann Scholl of Medicine (Schofer 1999).

Dr Peter J. Cohen, a legal scholar who has written extensively about the vaccines, speculates that there will be few legal barriers obstructing the application of the new medications:

“In view of the (potential benefits of universal immunization), why not institute mandatory immunization once a cocaine vaccine is available? There is ample legal support for the state’s application of police power when necessary to act in the interests of public health. However, just because society has this power does not mean that such an approach is ethically justified…” (Cohen 2000).

Cohen, an Adjunct professor at Georgetown law school is also quick to point out that there are also a “number of persuasive reasons not to initiate mandatory immunization with a cocaine vaccine.” Moreover, the legal-medical expert writes that “vaccines are still in the earliest stages of experimentation as the “required FDA studies will not be completed until well into this decade” (Cohen 2000).


As the aforementioned passage indicates, the advent of the anti-drug vaccine remains within the realm of speculation. Nevertheless, the mere fact that an agency of the federal government is exploring this disturbing option merits concern. Indeed this is no small matter. Should we fall victim to mass inoculations, it will be left to future historians to record the cognitive landscapes we once possessed within our minds. In the meantime, the clock is ticking…



Brecher, E.M. Licit and Illicit Drugs; the Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana – Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Boston: Little Brown, 1972.
MacKeen, D. “Immunized Against Addiction.” Salon.com, April 26, 2000. http://www.unz.org/Pub/Salon-2000apr-00400.
Peele, S., C. Bufe, and A. Brodsky. Resisting 12-Step Coercion: How to Fight Forced Participation in AA, NA, or 12-Step Treatment. Sharp Press, 2000.
Peele, S. “Hungry for the Next Fix.” Reason (2002).
Schaler, J.A. “The Drug Policy Problem.” Psychnews International 3, no. 1 (1997).
Schofer, J.M. “Violations of Informed Consent During War.” The Journal of the American Medical Association 281, no. 17 (1999).
Spartos, C. “Injecting Big Brother.” The Village Voice, July 11, 2000.
Szasz, T.S. “The Political Legitimation of Quackery.” Reason 29 (1998): 25-26.
“Vaccine for Cocaine Addiction.” Sky News. U.K., April 2, 2002.
Zickler, P. “Blood-borne Medications Could Intercept Drugs Before They Reach the Brain.” NIDA Notes 14, no. 2 (1999). http://archives.drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol14N2/Medications.html.