It was with great pride that every single Scottish paper delighted in the news last year that we were “Europe’s new drugs capital.” Nobody likes to come second do they?
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) produces a report every year which is essential reading for goons and drug policy geeks across the continent. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, broadly followed the trends set across Europe (slow decline of speed and cannabis, spike in cocaine use, heroin deaths still critical but stable.) But one statistic stood out. Nearly 1 in 10 Scots, 9.3% of all adults in this country, have taken ecstasy and are happy to tell pollsters about it. I’ll lead you to draw your own conclusions about what the real numbers might be.
It’s lazy for those of us who claim to favour radical reform of drug laws to simply hide behind “free the weed” anymore. It’s very easy to make the case that heroin should be brought out of the backstreets and back to the NHS – like it was until the late ‘60s – in an attempt to stem the flow of unnecessary deaths. The law says that even having ecstasy on you could get you 7 years whilst the act of handing one to your pal could get you life in jail. Yet every weekend, hundreds of thousands of people across the UK get mad with it. If the EMCDDA are to believed then Scotland is leading that sweaty, loved-up charge. 25 years on from the summer of love, it’s time to start talking about pills.
The history of ecstasy is full of tall tales. The first surrounds its creation. I’d always been led to believe it was definitely a CIA/US/Crab People plot to find a “truth serum” to defeat opponents of the new world order. In fact, MDMA (the primary component of the drug known as “ecstasy“) was patented by the pharma company, Merck in 1913 as a “diet pill” and simply never developed further. It belongs to the amphetamine class of drugs, many of which were eventually developed as diet drugs. Ecstasy’s next moment of fame came as a treatment used by therapists and in particular marriage counsellors. The drug’s ability to invoke a sense of empathy and openness worked wonders for many couples experiencing relationship problems.
MDMA was outlawed in 1977 in the UK (not explicitly but in a general category with many similar substances). It wasn’t until 8 years later that reports of its recreation use surfaced. By 1988, Britain was engulfed in a “summer of love.” There was an explosion of club and particularly rave culture in the UK, riding a wave of ecstasy & luminous tat. 25 year later – the mainstream is still telling tall tales about pills.
Moral panics/dangerous misinformation about drugs in the media are commonplace, but the outcry about ecstasy is perhaps the classic case. It reached a fever pitch in 1995 with the death of teenager Leah Betts. Her death was cynically exploited by the tabloids and it would perhaps be equally cynical for me to do the same from behind the comfort of my computer. The official inquest concluded that the direct cause of death was the 12 pints of water she was made to drink due to the false belief this would mitigate the effects of the drug. Better information means this is much less likely to happen.
Attempts by those whose job it is to deal with the effects of drug use to actually provide such information or contribute to the debate have been met with indifference at best. The legal status of the drug makes rigorous and large-scale testing impossible but it’s possible to glean one point from the data we have – ecstasy isn’t nearly as dangerous as the tabloids first led us to believe.
13 years ago under the guidance of Viscountess Runciman, the Police dared to suggest that classification of drugs should be about the relative harm they do and not how many scare stories the tabloids print about them. The Polis recommended the reclassification of ecstasy to a Class B drug (removing the possibility of a 7 year sentence for 9.3% of the adult population). They also recommended that personal use of any drug should carry no more than a 12-month prison sentence and that an actual offence of “dealing” should be introduced to encourage resources to be dedicated to catching large scale dealers (as opposed to “supply/intent to supply“ which can be applied to someone who buys 2 pills and gives 1 to their pal). The politicians judged that the Police were obviously just lazy and didn’t know what they were talking about and failed to implement any of the recommendations of the report.
The scientific community themselves have also been at best ignored and at worst blacklisted when they have suggested that science and not hysteria should govern drugs policy. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has existed since 1971 to advise the government about drugs policy. They, like the police, have argued for policies which favour harm reduction and are based on empirical evidence. By 2009, they too were clear that, whilst mass consumption of unregulated MDMA in its various forms was not without risk, these risks were nowhere near as acute as with other class A drugs like heroin or cocaine.
The study lasted 12 months and no less than 4000 academic papers were sifted through. They concluded the risks of ecstasy could be minimised by following “appropriate advice” such as drinking the correct amount of water, that there was no evidence of strong physical dependency or withdrawal symptoms and little to support the claim that ecstasy caused long term mental health problems (although they again bemoaned the lack of well funded, long term research). Ultimately, the scientists, like the Police said reclassification of ecstasy would be the first step in the right direction.
Unable (or perhaps unwilling) to lay into the Police, the government had no hesitation in launching a crusade against its own advisers. Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith went for ACMD Chair, Professor David Nutt, who had made the observation that, in the course of a normal year, more people die as a result of horse-riding than taking ecstasy. Nutt also branded the decision by politicians to ignore scientists and the police a “political decision.” Calling something what it is didn’t please that powers that be, who bullied David Nutt into resigning. Some fellow committee members followed. The next Home Secretary, Alan Johnson ordered a review into the ACMD to further intimidate them and the decision by the government to criminalise Mephedrone saw further resignations from the committee.
In the spirit of continuing the cuts started by their Labour predecessors, the Tories have decided science has no place when it comes to assessing the effects of drugs and have removed the need for scientists to sit on the ACMD altogether. Instead of vets, scientists, toxicologists, dentists, pharmacologists who would be able to assess the many of varied uses of particular substances and make recommendations on policies to reduce their social harm, we get yes men. In the case of ecstasy it’s “just say no” men. Science and politics are at loggerheads. It’s easy to see why politicians might get nervous when a journal like the Lancet has a graph like this in it:
The idea that alcohol and tobacco are much more dangerous to our society than ecstasy doesn’t sit well with the political class who often have one cheek on the boards of the companies who punt fags and booze. But the empirical evidence points to this being the case. Alcohol and tobacco are heavily regulated to mitigate their dangers, ecstasy is not. The potential to make ecstasy much safer than it is now is clear. There just doesn’t seem to be a desire to make it happen.
Nobody can or should be saying that taking ecstasy is “safe,” that no-one dies as a direct or indirect result of its use or that there are no health risks. But it’s time we started putting ecstasy use in context and understanding what science is actually telling us. Strangely, science seems to be backing up the claims of the cuddly, sweaty types stumbling around dark basements telling everyone they love everything. Well, kind of. Every so often, another study is done which concludes ecstasy could still have potential to be used to help damaged relationships. A small study also pointed to great benefits for those with post traumatic stress disorder although it was not large enough in scale or scope to be decisive.
For years we’ve been hearing anecdotes from users who’ve experienced trauma, have low self-esteem (or even those who just lack confidence) about the positive effects taking the drug has had on them and their ability to form or mend relationships – even if they don’t rush out every weekend to get mad with it on a regular basis. The scientists are always keen to tread what is seen as acceptable ground. There is a lot of chat about marriage counselling and war veterans. The fact that ecstasy could help two young guys who are pals but barely interact suddenly be able to express their emotions shouldn’t be any less of a taboo in a mature society.
The cost-benefit analysis of pills always seems to ignore the biggest benefit put forward by its users: the fact it makes you feel fucking smashing when used correctly. It’s not just taboo but downright rude/verging on illegal to suggest that people take ecstasy because it’s a lot of fun. But this is probably the main reason people say they take pills. You can call that unscientific if you wish but given that they are not physical addictive like so many other drugs and that the entire political and media class has been overselling the dangers of ecstasy use for years, it’s just not conceivable that people would continue to take the drug in such large numbers if it didn’t deliver on its central promise. It’s called ecstasy for a reason.
Even if you think ecstasy is dangerous, doubt it can have any medical benefits and don’t think “but it’s quite good” is a particularly strong case for changing the law; the fact is, the law isn’t working.
Ecstasy being illegal carries many costs in and of itself. Firstly, it means it is unregulated. As with cannabis, this means the production and supply are in the hands of criminals who can sell just about anything to just about anyone and not have to deal with the consequences. Simple steps, like the introduction of drug testing kits in clubs, could help mitigate the effects of a supply chain tainted by dodgy pills. Harm-reduction measures could be implemented urgently, even without a change in the law. Pill testing exists in many countries where MDMA is illegal. The UK embraced needle exchange as a necessary response to heroin deaths years ago despite heroin being a Class A drug. Alcohol and tobacco also have age restrictions which, in practical terms, the sale of ecstasy doesn’t.
Another cost associated with ecstasy being illegal is the massive waste of the time and resources of our Police force – who have repeatedly said themselves there are far better things they could be doing. “Intent to supply” encourages the Police to go 1 up the chain and hit a target but discourages vast resources being put into catching big dealers. There is also a desire in the “law enforcement community” not to rock the boat too much, especially now the health risks of ecstasy are more fully understood. Unlike supply of some other drugs, (including booze) there is little street violence associated with ecstasy supply and/or use. Taking out the big players could shake up the market and create turbulence which those responsible for our safety would rather avoid. The Police know someone has to supply ecstasy so perhaps they’d rather it was the same somebody they knew who’d being doing it for years. The only alternative is getting rid of prohibition and bringing supply out of the hands of criminals altogether.
The entire discussion is impinged greatly not just by a lack of available evidence but the total ignorance of the evidence we do have. It’s not about saying ecstasy is amazing or unproblematic or that everyone should take it – it‘s about actually bothering to look at all sides in the argument and not just accepting what the government tell us. A change in the law to allow proper research would be a massive step in the right direction. We suspect the government doesn’t fund this because they simply don‘t want to know the answers. David Nutt himself was at the UN this week arguing that scientific research was being seriously impeded by the law. It says a lot about our society and our politics when science and scientists are the enemy.
If substantial long-term risks are established, or if some of the immediate health concerns cannot be dealt with by the provision of information or reduced by better science, then those of us who favour radical reform should rethink. We’re capable of accepting when we are wrong. However, the case for ecstasy being illegal – much less a class-A drug, whose possession could land you a 7 year prison sentence – has simply not been made after 25 years of its existence.
The argument that its legal status reduces demand or consumption is not supported by the patterns of use in other countries. More people take pills in Scotland than in Portugal where it is not a criminal offence to possess ecstasy for personal use. People don’t not take pills because they’re illegal. They won’t suddenly take them just because they are legal either. However we respond, people will continue to take pills and going out dancing. Some of us don’t think that’s the end of the world.