In Praise Of Ecstasy

The UK’s Channel 4 last week televised a remarkable experiment, screened over two evenings. The channel had funded, for the first time, detailed scientific research on the effects on the brain of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy. A selection of volunteers, including some well-known people, had been given an 83mg dose of the drug (or a placebo) before spending an hour and a half having their brain function analysed in an MRI scanner.

The study aimed to look at which areas of the brain were affected by the drug, and how. In particular, those behind the study, including the well known Professor David Nutt, wanted to look at possible clinical uses for MDMA, including as a treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Ecstasy first became popular in the US during the 1980s, and rapidly spread around the world, primarily as a club drug. It induces a sense of happiness, well-being, and increases people’s ability to empathise with and care about other people. It’s an intensely social experience, and is far better than alcohol at creating a bond between people. It was banned in the US (for no good reason that’s ever been articulated), and then around the world – after all, global drug policy has been decided by the US for many decades.

In the UK, a well-orchestrated campaign was rolled out in the media to frighten the public into supporting a clampdown on the drug. The death of Leah Betts after taking her first pill on her 18th birthday, in 1995, created a perfect opportunity for the tabloid press to generate a moral panic. Betts’ autopsy later revealed that she’d died of water intoxication, a surprisingly common condition caused by drinking too much water and washing the sodium out of one’s system; but of course, the tabloids and politicians didn’t retract their earlier version of events. Ecstasy was falsely established in the mass imagination as a “killer drug”.

The reasons for the demonisation of relatively safe drugs such as Ecstasy are many and complex. No doubt, the alcohol industry fears the emergence of competitors and lobbies behind the scenes to ensure that alcohol remains the only government approved method of twisting reality. Our politicians too are generally ignorant on the drugs issue – or if they’re not, they’re all too aware of how they will be attacked in the press if they come out in favour of decriminalisation. But ultimately, as noted above, these decisions are made in Washington rather than London. American puritanism and control-freakery is global policy, until the day the UN finds the collective strength to say no to America.

The police also enjoy the extra powers that come from drug prohibition. I often see police with sniffer dogs pulling people out of London club queues; and you have to wonder who in the police or political hierarchy sees it as a priority to stop people dancing on Ecstasy in private venues. It gives some justification to the current police cuts, if there really are no higher priorities for policing a large city on a Friday night. Most clubbers know how to get past drug searches, so the small amounts retrieved by police and club security can only represent a tiny proportion of the total; the fact is, sniffer dogs provide easy arrests for the police, which can look good when aggregated into national crime statistics. The Home Secretary can brandish increased numbers of arrests and incarcerations, without having to make clear that no additional serious crimes have been dealt with.

In the 80s and 90s, high quality Ecstasy was easy to find, generally in pill form. Then, an EU ban on a precursor chemical made true MDMA scarce. Pills were still sold in clubs, but often containing other drugs, such as caffeine, BZP and later, mephedrone (which then in 2009 became hugely popular in its own right). True Ecstasy was hard to find. And then over the past couple of years for some reason (I’m told alternative manufacturing processes were developed), pure MDMA has burst back onto the scene. These days, MDMA is more usually sold as pure crystals than pills – probably because pills are now more distrusted after years of fakes being sold, and MDMA crystals are easy to test by taste and appearance.

Almost 30 years after Ecstasy appeared on the scene, it is more ubiquitous than ever, and being sampled by a whole new generation, either as a club drug or a bonding experience to be shared among friends at home; which highlights (yet again) the complete failure of drug prohibition. Countless millions of pounds have been spent, countless thousands of young clubbers and festival-goers harassed by police, and many thousands arrested and criminalised, pointlessly.

The Channel 4 experiment included tests on pills seized at the Glastonbury music festival. A third of pills contained no MDMA at all, while many of the remainder were adulterated with other substances. Many prohibitionists hold up this kind of study to prove the dangers of substances like MDMA; but on the contrary, this merely demonstrates the danger of prohibition. The ban on so many drugs like MDMA has simply pushed people to try increasing amounts of untried, untested substances – a recent study reported around one new recreational substance appearing on the market every week. Tabloids regularly run scare stories about new drugs, many so ill-informed and laughable that they’re reminiscent of the hilarious spoof drug “Cake”, invented by the British comedy show Brass Eye.

And it’s not as if MDMA is a dangerous substance. It has been sampled by tens of millions of people over three decades, many of them long-term users, and recorded deaths attributed to Ecstasy are so low as to be statistically insignificant. For example, in 2010, between five and 18 Ecstasy-related deaths were recorded, depending which statistics you use; and in most of these, Ecstasy was cited as a contributory factor, rather than the sole cause. Annual estimated Ecstasy use in the UK varies between half to one million. On this basis, eating salty or fatty food carries a far greater health risk than taking Ecstasy.

And even if the drug were more dangerous than it seems to be, why should people not have the right to use it? Banning everything more dangerous than Ecstasy would see an end to legal swimming, driving, eating most foods and without a doubt alcohol and tobacco. The global panic attack that has led to the banning of dozens of safe substances (as well as a few more dangerous ones) bears no sane explanation. Popular drugs are banned without thought, before scientists can get a chance to research them. The government realises that if publicly funded research gave Ecstasy the all-clear, to maintain the ban would appear ludicrous. So almost no funds go into researching substances – while the government hypocritically continues to label them as dangerous.

Many observers noticed years ago that the War on Drugs had been lost. Many ex-Presidents and police chiefs call for it to end, but only after retiring from office; the moron consensus doesn’t allow senior officials to tell the truth about drugs policy.

If you’re still in doubt, perhaps you should try MDMA for yourself – you’ll find it at the Silk Road marketplace, or perhaps via a young friend or relative. You’ll find yourself wondering why a substance far safer than alcohol, that makes people more caring and loving towards each other, is treated by the authorities as a threat to society.

Can 210,000 British Drug Deaths Be Prevented?

David Nutt Ranking of Drugs By Harm
Professor David Nutt's ranking of drugs by harm (

Regulation is often a dirty word, especially to the political right; but one set of regulations is generally accepted across the political spectrum: those that prevent monopolies from forming. An unfortunate fact about markets is that they tend to become less competitive over time. The winners purchase the rest, or drive them out of business, and without regulation, monopolies or cartels are virtually inevitable. The UK, EU and US all have anti-trust laws aimed at maintaining at least some competition within markets, and by-and-large, they work.

I can only think of one industry that is not only not subject to anti-trust legislation, but where governments actively weigh in to support one player above all the competitors: the recreational drugs business. Getting drunk, stoned, high or generally off-your-tits is one thing that almost all human societies have in common. Escaping daily reality, using one substance or another, is apparently one of the most universally human of all activities. Once we have food, water, shelter and sex sorted it seems that twisting reality is our next priority.

Different regions of the world have discovered their own substances of choice, and these have become tightly woven into human cultures and religions over the course of millennia. The Hebrews, probably including Jesus, used cannabis “anointing oil” for religious ceremonies. Asia has used cannabis and opium since pre-history. Native Americans had access to coca and most of the world’s hallucinogens; and of course, Europe found a special love for its drugs of choice, alcohol and caffeine, and exported these tastes to North America and other regions. There are many other drugs that have found a place in one culture or another.

As European empires began the process we now call globalisation, our different cultures clashed, and so did our drug habits. Europeans, in their wisdom, decided that their drugs were superior to those of other cultures, and in their fear of substances they didn’t understand, began to attack foreign drugs and the cultures surrounding them. The first drug to be outlawed in modern times was cannabis, banned by the British Empire in Egypt. Later, American puritans launched war on all drugs, and successfully banned several; but soon alcohol, the white man’s drug of choice was legalised again, while the cannabis and cocaine favoured by blacks, Latinos and Chinese remained banned. Popular new lab-created drugs, invented in more recent times, have been banned as they gained popularity; LSD, MDMA and Mephedrone being among the most popular of these.

Dozens of drugs are now banned in the UK, with little or no justification; three popular choices remain legal: alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. In a 2010 study by the then-government drugs specialist, Professor David Nutt, twenty popular drugs (legal and illegal) were ranked in order of harm. Alcohol came at the top, with Heroin and Crack Cocaine in second and third place. Tobacco came sixth. See the chart above for the full list.

A recent study by British doctors’ organisations predicted that up to 210,000 people would die from alcohol use in the next 20 years. The predictable response from the moronic media and politicians was a call for yet more alcohol controls. Yet alcohol is already a very well regulated substance, from production to retail. What the media and politicians failed to mention was that by making alcohol the government-approved recreational drug of choice, and leaving other drugs in the hands of criminals, our leaders have created us this problem.

The big lie is this: alcohol deaths are not treated as drug deaths – they are reported separately. If, instead of reporting 10,000 or so alcohol deaths in a year, the media said: “… around 11,000 recreational drug deaths, of which alcohol comprised around 90%…”, the nature of the problem becomes clearer. Alcohol is by far the most dangerous drug on the street.

There is an obvious need for a free (but sensibly regulated) market in recreational drugs; could it really be imagined that, faced with a selection of 10 or 20 legal drugs, most people would continue to choose the most dangerous of them all? Of course not – and this is why the alcohol industry is so desperate to keep its competitors outlawed. This is why a single Ecstacy-linked death can make headlines in the big business-friendly media, while a typical week in the UK brings well over 100 unreported alcohol deaths.

The legalisation, regulation and taxation of drugs would need to be done with care and under expert guidance – in other words by taking advice from the very experts the government repeatedly ignores. While the details are complex, the approach is potentially very simple: for example, as a first step, the authorities could legalise every drug scoring under 30 on Professor Nutt’s scale (note: alcohol scores over 70). This means legalising all shown on the chart, with the exception of heroin, crack and methamphetamine. Those dangerous drugs already legal would remain legal (we already know how dangerous a ban on alcohol would be, by looking at America’s failed experiment with prohibition).

Possession of any substance should not be a criminal offence – these laws serve only as an excuse for police and judiciary to harass and criminalise those sections of society they choose. The supply needs to be regulated from end to end. Drug addiction is best treated as a medical, not a criminal, problem. And most important, the public needs honest education. Many die from using drugs today, not because the substances are inherently dangerous, but because the government, criminally, refuses to provide information on safe usage, and continues to allow criminals to sell untested, unregulated substances to millions of users.

We don’t have to let 210,000 British people die unnecessarily – it’s a choice, and those leaders who make that choice should be held accountable for the deaths. People who have a free choice of drugs carry full responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. But those who are damaged by alcohol can, at least in part, blame the government for attacking alternative, safer, substances.