Just as a placebo can mimic an immediately effective drug so chronic drug dependence may mimic an effective long-term or preventive treatment.
The discovery of the placebo had a profound result upon medical practice, since it became recognized that it was much harder to determine the therapeutic value of an intervention than was previously assumed. Placebo is now the null hypothesis for therapeutic improvement.
An analogous recognition of the effect of drug dependence is now overdue. Drug dependence and withdrawal effects should in future become the null hypothesis when there is clinical deterioration after stopping or reducing drug treatment.
Anybody who has been taking a psychoactive drug (whether prescribed, over the counter or illegal) in significant doses for a few months or more, should: 1. assume that they will suffer significant withdrawal effects; and 2. should taper-off the dosage gradually.
The ideal methodology for detecting drug dependence and withdrawal is a double-blind placebo controlled and randomized trial using disease-free normal control subjects.
Normal controls are necessary to ensure that the possibility of underlying chronic disease is eliminated: so long as subjects begin the trial as ‘normal controls’ it is reasonable to infer that any clinical or psychological problems (above placebo levels) which they experience following drug withdrawal can reasonably be attributed to the effects of the drug.
This is important because the consequences of failing to detect the risk of covert drug dependence may be considerably worse than failing to detect a placebo effect. Drug dependent patients not only fail to receive benefit and suffer continued of inconvenience, expense and side effects; but the drug has actually created and sustained a covert chronic pathology.
However, the current situation for drug evaluation is so irrational that it would allow chronic alcohol treatment to be regarded as a cure for alcoholism on the basis that delirium tremens follows alcohol withdrawal and alcohol can be used to treat delirium tremens!
Therefore, just as placebo controlled trials of drugs are necessary to detect ineffective drugs, so drug withdrawal trials on normal control subjects should be regarded as necessary to detect dependence-producing drugs.
Bruce G. Charlton. Covert drug dependence should be the null hypothesis for explaining drug-withdrawal-induced clinical deterioration: The necessity for placebo versus drug withdrawal trials on normal control subjects. Medical Hypotheses. 2010; 74: 761-763.