Ecstasy is much less dangerous than we thought, say scientists. But politicians are ignoring thisby Elizabeth Pisani / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
In February the government’s senior drugs adviser compared horse-riding and ecstasy. If the politicians followed the evidence, he said, riding would be classified as more harmful than getting loved up.
David Nutt, who chairs the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, published his paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. His claim was partly tongue in cheek. Obviously, he didn’t expect the police to start rounding up horses and shooting them. But he did want a debate about how the government deals with risk. He didn’t get one.
Ecstasy hit its stride in the dance culture of the early 1990s, but was originally used by psychiatrists in the late 1950s to make withdrawn patients friendlier and more talkative—in fact it used to be called “empathy.” For a sociable species, human beings can actually be rather shy, so when the drug leaked out into the market in the late 1970s, cleverly rebranded as the much hipper-sounding ecstasy, it quickly became popular.
At the time the drugs advisory council worried that ecstasy—Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA to its regulators, and simply “e” to its friends—would be the next LSD. The government slapped it in the class A category of drugs, along with heroin and cocaine. Dealing pink pills with smiley faces can get you a lifetime in jail. Just carrying them can put you away for seven years.
Consumers, on the other hand, found that it was nothing like LSD, heroin or crack. It doesn’t make the street turn into a spinning, multicoloured fairground as LSD can, it doesn’t make you zone out as smack will and it doesn’t make you want to thump someone, as crack so often does. The worst it does is make you hug a lot of strangers and dance for hours to really bad doof-doof music. Most of the 20 or so annual deaths attributed to ecstasy are caused by dehydration on the dance floor.
About 5 per cent of people aged 16-24, and 470,000 Britons in total, take the drug every year. And they seem to enjoy it—one of the reasons that ecstasy is a class A drug in the first place. In the classification process the more fun a drug is, the more “danger points” it gets. That’s pure fun, measured separately from psychologically or physically addictive qualities. Of course, this is absurd. As David Nutt put it, “The arguments about relative drug harms are…