Internet surfers are far more likely to come upon Web sites with wrong and potentially dangerous information about illicit drug use than they are to find more reliable, informed sites, a new study shows.
A study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine found that popular Internet search engines tend to direct users to sites that appear to promote drug use and provide incorrect and even dangerous information.
Often overlooked by the popular search engines are those Web sites that provide reliable information on illegal drugs, including sites funded by the federal government, the study said.
Some 24 percent of college students use the Internet to find information about illegal drugs, with some sites recording 160,000 hits a day, researchers said.
Edward Boyer and two other doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston conducted the survey, studying seven "partisan" sites "that promulgate information about illicit drugs."
"When we looked at fairly common illicit substances, we found that serious errors were pretty easy to find," Boyer told Reuters.
"Not only do partisan Web sites condone drug use with its attendant health risks, but any adverse effect arising from illicit substances potentially would be mismanaged with potentially lethal consequences."
For example, one promotes "cures" for poisoning from psychedelic mushrooms such as ingesting carbon tetrachloride, which can destroy the liver.
By contrast, sites with reliable information, especially those funded by the federal government, are often ignored or given a low priority by popular search engines that rank sites for information on Ecstasy and other illegal drugs.
"We were stunned to find the federal government sites were absent from some searches entirely," even though the government is spending millions of dollars developing them, Boyer said.
One reason is that those creating government-sponsored sites seem to "lack the technical expertise" to make them appear prominently in a search, he said.
For example, most Web sites use hidden keywords to help search engines flag them. Home pages for sites that promote drug use contain up to 60 such keywords.
But the home page for freevibe (http://www.freevibe.com), with drug information from the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, had none.
In order to find freevibe in a search, consumers had to know to ask specifically for "freevibe."
"In all searches, antidrug sites from the federal government failed to appear as often as the partisan sites, which dominate the search results when people are looking for information on illicit substances such as Ecstasy, GHB, or 'psychedelic mushrooms,"' the researchers said.
GHB or gammahydroxybutyrate, is similar to Rohypnol the so-called date rape drug, according to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.
"These data suggest that the U.S. government, despite extensive and costly efforts, currently does not provide effective alternative sources of information about drugs on the Web, where partisan sites still get the attention of both search engines and users," they said.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, which sponsors the freevibe site, criticized the study and chastised the authors for failing to contact the agency before putting out the letter.
"As far as I know, the people who wrote that letter never contacted this office," said Jennifer Devallance, a spokeswoman for the agency.
She said there were more than 3,000 links around the Web to either freevibe or The Anti-Drug, (http://www.theantidrug.com), which targets parents.