I’ve added a lengthy clarification to this post. Click here to read it.
It’s become a bit of a cliché to say the BBC’s reporting is going downhill, but that’s because – well – it is. And one of the trends seems to be an over-reliance on bad science, when the faintest drop of research, consultation or common bloody sense would reveal to a particular journalist or section editor that the words they’re writing down are bound to be inaccurate.
Increasingly, the media – and not just the tabloids – are enjoying fighting a bit of a war against drugs. There are several key commentators who are keen to stress how much the situation is exacerbated by the press, but on the whole reporters seem unprepared to rest on science and sensibility, instead opting for reactionary statements with no balance whatsoever.
It happened with the mephedrone scare, the government eventually backed into a corner where it could choose to accept scientific statements from medical and pharmacological professionals, or go with the Daily Mail, which it ultimately decided to — banning not just mephedrone, but all related substances, even rushing through legislation which allowed them to bypass the usual regulations with regards to drug classification. Want to know the grand total of published, peer-reviewed pieces of research into the effects of mephedrone at the time the classification ruling was passed? Pretty sure it was zero. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Certainly the other drugs outlawed in April 2010 were banned based on no evidence whatsoever.
Anyway, today, the BBC has run this extraordinarily alarmist headline:
Super-strength ecstasy warning after Ayrshire deaths
Basically, two men die after two separate nights out in Ayrshire, after taking what police suspect was ecstasy that’s “six times stronger than normal.” The article is careful not to misreport anything as such – the quotes seem genuine, and there’s certainly nothing that’s outright fabricated by the journalist himself. However, ask any specialist on the subject and they would explain to you why the article is hysterically misleading — even though police probably did issue a warning that “ecstasy tablets six times stronger than normal have been sold in the west of Scotland.”
Here’s why it’s bullshit.
What is “normal” anyway?
What is a ‘normal’ ecstasy tablet? 15 years ago it would probably have been a tablet containing about 100-150mg MDMA, pressed with binders, with no adulterants. These days, something between 60 and 80 per cent of ecstasy tablets seized by police contain no MDMA at all. They might be completely inactive (in which case 6×0=0), but more likely they contain cheaper psychoactive substances such as BZP, TFMPP or MCPP. These drugs used to be sold as ‘legal highs’ before they were (slightly less ridiculously than mephedrone) banned. They purport to mimic the effects of ecstasy, but most users report an initial mild high followed by several hours’ worth of unpleasant hangover effects – effects that kick in within just an hour or two of a pill’s consumption, rather than the next day as with ecstasy.
In other words, these days, a ‘normal ecstasy tablet’ is far from it — an average pill these days isn’t ecstasy at all.
If these two men died after taking a pill, and as a result of the pill (no toxicology reports have been released yet, so the cause of death is officially undetermined), it was almost certainly not ecstasy.
Six times the normal dose of – say – BZP (usually taken in 150mg doses, roughly) – would be very unpleasant. But it almost certainly wouldn’t kill you. No LD50 data is available for humans, but as an idea: rats can consume about 192mg/kg of caffeine before they pop their clogs. With BZP, it’s 2600mg/kg.
Piperazines are nasty drugs. They don’t, however, kill you.
Nor does ecstasy, for that matter. Not without freak accidents or almost implausible intolerance, anyway.
Ecstasy doesn’t kill you
Here’s something. Think about how frequently you hear about a death being “linked” to ecstasy. It’s every now and then – maybe a few times a year in the UK. These reports will account for almost 100 per cent of cases in which deaths have been linked with ecstasy. The media attention focused upon it is huge. MDMA has one of the lowest death rates of any recreational drug we know (out of the widely used ones, only LSD and cannabis are “safer”). We just hear about it every single time.
The fact of the matter is that, even if we’re talking about pills seized during the massive ecstasy highs of the 1990s, do you know how many an average adult would have to take before putting their life at serious risk, based on the LD50 figures available? About 35. Again, that’s not to say that it’s sensible to take a shitload of any drug, and the effects wouldn’t be at all pleasant. You’d hospitalise yourself, almost certainly. But for an ecstasy tablet – containing actual ecstasy – to kill you, it would need to contain upwards of five grams of pure MDMA. Have you any idea how big that tablet would have to be?
Also, that would mean each tablet would cost something like £200 on the black market. It just isn’t going to happen. Which leaves a few scientifically possible options.
1. The men behaved in a way that put their health at risk, regardless of the chemicals they’d ingested.
Possible. We all know the Leah Betts story, right? To be honest, you might only know her as “the girl who died the first time she took ecstasy,” since the media didn’t feel it necessary to investigate any further than that.
She had a couple of ecstasy tablets, then killed herself by drinking so much water that she gave herself hyponatremia. It later emerged that she’d been told by a friend to drink lots of water if she was going to take ecstasy, so she consumed seven litres within an hour and a half. That’s nearly four massive bottles. If you went and did that now, with no intoxicants in yourself at all, you might die too. (Staggeringly, secondary schools continue to tell the media’s version of the Leah Betts story in drugs education lessons. I firmly believe this to be outright lying to children by the education establishment.)
If the men who consumed the tablets were this naive as well, it’s possible that this sort of thing could have happened. It could also have happened if they’d – say – not drunk any water and spent all night dancing, overheating and dehydrating. Once again, you’d have to be a bit of an idiot to let this happen, but it’s feasible.
2. The men had extremely unusually low tolerance to MDMA.
Unlikely even for one person. I don’t know the exact figures, but it’s like one in loads of thousands. For two people in the same area to die in this way, it would have to be an extraordinary coincidence. Even so, it would be just that.
3. The tablets did not contain MDMA, nor did they contain any of the usual adulterants.
Very possible. There are a lot of chemicals out there that cause psychoactive effects, some of which should only ever be consumed in tiny doses. If someone put a high dose of one of these in a tablet – whether accidentally or intentionally – death is a very real possibility. And while these cases are rare, they’re the reason why anyone taking a risk on popping a pill should always, always spend five quid on a testing kit (although, increasingly, dodgy drug producers are finding ways of fooling them).
So yeah, this is a real possibility. In which case the story is “Something poisonous is being sold as ecstasy in Ayrshire,” which would be an entirely different – and extraordinarily valuable -report to run.
4. The men took strong ecstasy tablets (strong any tablets, to be honest) as part of a ‘lethal cocktail’ of substances.
In their purest forms, in regulated doses, and – crucially – on their own, most drugs are fairly benign. Start to mix certain drugs together, however, and you’re asking for trouble.
Ecstasy is a stimulant. Among other things, it makes your heart rate speed up. It stays within safe regions, though. However, take another stimulant at the same time, and your heart will speed up even more. This can lead to stuff like cardiac arrest, if you’re not careful (though even then, usually only after repeated, extended sessions).
But take it with a depressant and you’ve got two different substances straining your heart in opposite directions. This, too, can be quite disastrous, even lethal.
That’s just with two drugs. Throw in a few and maybe a few pints as well, and you’re behaving extremely irresponsibly. But the drugs don’t even have to be The Bad Ones. Taking ecstasy while you’re on certain antidepressant medication can, for example, make you a bit dead too.
What’s going on here, then?
So this, to me, is the most likely explanation of what’s gone on here — followed closely by the scary adulterant idea. What this ultimately means is that the two most likely explanations for this story (the only scientifically-sound explanations?) have been completely misrepresented by the BBC, in a perhaps dangerous way.
If the men died from their silly drug cocktails, then it might be reported in a small article in a few weeks’ time when the toxicology reports come out. No one will really care, and we’ll all move on. Congratulations, the BBC: you’ve just contributed to more pointless hysteria about drugs that keeps them quite so illegal and forces them quite so much into organised crime. Give yourself a slow clap. We’ll let you know the next time someone dies in a nightclub.
If the men died because they took a drug that was not ecstasy, however, this article presents an even bigger problem — one that puts drug users who try to stay as safe as possible, by educating themselves about the substances they’re consuming, the most at risk.
One of those people might read this article, know the facts, and know that there’s absolutely no way it’s not bullshit. But if they haven’t quite got the knack of this sensible drug use thing, despite their best efforts, they might not take that thought process any further than that. They might go out in Ayrshire one night, fancy partying on through, buy a few ecstasy tablets… and those tablets might contain a potentially lethal substance — the substance that, quite possibly, has left two men dead this week.
The media’s responsibility
As reporters, in any area of the media, it is of course our responsibility to generate compelling headlines. But it’s also our responsibility to not mislead. And this stretches further than just making sure you don’t do a libel. Not a single line of the BBC’s article is factually inaccurate. But at no point has anyone questioned the validity of the source. The second you do that, the whole thing falls apart.
Taking drugs always carries a risk, and journalists are obviously going to report on risks. Risks are exciting; they sell papers and ad slots. Whether you think drugs should remain rigidly illegal or not (clue: they shouldn’t, partly because it would stop people dying) isn’t the point. We have to report sensibly. When a story has a number of possible explanations, blindly reporting the one you’re given in a press release – even if it’s the least likely explanation – is a flagrant disregard for what the job is about.
So here’s your full, factually accurate story based on what is known at this time:
Two men have died in Ayrshire after taking what was, at the time, though to be ecstasy. The men’s actual cause of death is unknown.
To quote Detective Inspector Craig MacArthur, that “is a lot, lot, stronger.”
I’ve added a lengthy clarification to this post. Click here to read it.