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Ethical Issues Raised by Current Research on Drug Addiction. Dr Tom Walker Centre for Professional Ethics Keele University United Kingdom. Overview of what’s to come. Setting the context Ethical issues raised by the use of addicts as participants in research
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Dr Tom Walker
Centre for Professional Ethics
For some of these the fact that the research is into drug addiction makes no real difference to the ethical issues under consideration
For others, the topic of the research makes the ethical issues particularly pressing or important
Here I want to focus primarily on the latter
I will use examples of research projects to illustrate the various ethical issues. Some of these will refer to research carried out a few years ago where this presents the issues in their clearest light.
There is, however, across Europe a fair degree of common ground on what the issues are, and it is this that I will concentrate on here.
As we will see, many of the ethical issues depend on the extent to which drug addicts’ abilities are compromised by their addiction. As research tells us more about this it will help to clarify these issues and point to ways in which we might deal with them in an ethically acceptable manner
Explain what the issue is
Explain why this is a particular problem for current research into drug addiction
Outline the range of positions that have been taken on how to deal with this, or with similar issues in other contexts
Perhaps the most common ethical concern with using drug addicts as research participants has been that they are unable to give valid consent
This became the subject of particular debate when considering trials of the effectiveness of heroin prescription as a treatment.
Coming out of this debate it would seem that obtaining valid consent from addicts to participate in research can be difficult, and that a range of features need to be considered when doing so, including:
In the context of research into drug addiction this raises three interlinked ethical concerns:
Where the addict is not competent to make the decision, then there seem to be two ways in which we could go:
Both of these have problems.
If we try to decide on the basis of what we judge to be in the addict’s best interests this also creates problems for research:
It is in the nature of research that uses drug addicts as participants that researchers may come across information about activities that are illegal and/ or that may pose a risk to others, for example:
In these cases an ethical issue arises about what the researcher should do with that information.
This creates two concerns for such research:
Instead I have attempted to give an overview of the main ethical issues that arise when looking at current research into addiction, and the main issues that are likely to be raised in ethical scrutiny of such research.
To summarise, these are: