In 2011, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) initiated an inquiry to determine whether there is a need for expanded ethical guidance in the form of a discrete guidance document for alcohol and other drug (AOD) research. An issues paper was developed to frame the inquiry. AOD researchers, Human Research Ethics Committees and others were invited to discuss whether there are distinctive ethical issues facing researchers and Human Research Ethics Committees in the AOD setting. Based on the public submissions, the NHMRC recommended that no AOD research-specific guidance is required. The inquiry and the NHMRC decision were not widely publicized, and we feel there is a need for further discussion. In order to do so, we have analysed the public inquiry submissions and described the central themes. Few submissions in the inquiry explicitly agreed AOD research warrants a specific guidance framework. Most were concerned that the NHMRC issues paper unfairly targeted people who use drugs as complex research participants. The inquiry highlights tensions around research governance and ethics review boards dealing with illicit and stigmatised behaviours. While we agree that a specific guidance framework for AOD research is not needed and could potentially be harmful and restrictive, we are concerned that the wholesale rejection of a guidance framework has closed the door to much needed debate. There remains, we argue, a need for alternative strategies and tools to support ethical research, inform and streamline institutional ethics approval, and engage and protect participants.
Keywords: ethics; research; guideline; drug; Human Research Ethics Committee