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Ecstasy, or hysteria? – part 2: some clarifications

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Yesterday I ranted for quite a while about the BBC’s coverage of two men’s deaths in Scotland – deaths that occurred after they took what police say was ecstasy “six time stronger” than “normal”.

It was piss-poor coverage of what could well be a non-story, or could well be about something far more troubling than ecstasy – but it wasn’t the only example of such reporting, nor was it even the worst (the tabloids, predictably, were more full-on in blaming MDMA for the evils of the world).

Since I wrote that post my blog’s traffic spectacularly soared into the thousands (thank you very much to those who linked it in article comments threads and the like), so I thought it sensible to do a quick follow-up post to address a few points that have been raised by people since I published the original post yesterday.

Point one: Am I “downplaying the dangers of drugs”?

One person on Twitter suggested I am. I’m not. “Downplaying” holds the nasty implication that I’m deliberately trying to make drugs sound safer than they are, but I am doing nothing of the sort. I’ve provided facts. The fact is that ecstasy is among the safest widely-used recreational drugs, based on all the scientific knowledge we currently have. It’s safer than alcohol, then tobacco, than caffeine, in terms of the nasty effects it has on your body. It’s non-addictive (there has only been one reported case of somebody who displayed typical addict symptoms), thought to be relatively non-toxic, and you can – while it’d be unpleasant – consume huge amounts of the stuff before it can kill you (c.f. paracetamol, for example). When people use it they are happy, over the moon, loved up and blissed out. People who use ecstasy are very irritating, but they are a harm to neither themselves or to others.

My post had nothing to do with any other drug (except mephedrone, whose harm potential we’ll never know because of a stupid, reactionary ban). The gentleman on Twitter suggested I should travel to Ayrshire to see quite how big a problem drugs are there. Might I suggest that A) the problem isn’t caused by ecstasy, and B) people’s turning to drugs is a result of poverty, boredom, and various other social factors. It is important to get the cause/effect directionality correct.

Point 2: Do I not understand that drug dealers just want to make money?

This is apparently raised because I questioned why anyone would want to make and distribute a super-strength ecstasy tablet. Unfortunately, asking this question demonstrates a severe misunderstanding of how the black market works, especially in the case of ecstasy.

Since huge amounts of saffrole (a precursor ingredient used to create MDMA) were seized and destroyed a few years ago, there has been an ecstasy shortage. Mephedrone’s rise in popularity can be attributed largely to this – it’s a drug that produces markedly similar effects, especially when consumed in higher quantities. MDMA, at the moment, is an absolute treasure to those who require it as a resource. Making super-strong tablets at the moment would not be worth it. You can get away with selling absolutely shit pills for £10 these days, and people will happily buy them and munch them down. Those wanting something more reliably good turn to MDMA in its pure, crystal form, which is also available on the black market, for around £40-£50 per gram. There is absolutely no demand for ecstasy that is six times stronger than a standard dose. For one thing it wouldn’t be pleasant, and for another, people don’t want to pay £60 for a pill (if it were even possible to get 0.6g plus binders into a pill anyway), which is what would have to happen. And six times stronger than a currently average dose would be, as we discerned yesterday, pretty much fuck all anyway, and as such in no way harmful to those who took it.

Drug dealers do just want to make money, yes. They do this by either ripping people off with shit drugs, or securing return customers with good ones. Selling super-strength products that people (might) have the chance of overdosing on is not very good business sense, so it quite simply does not happen.

Point 3: Am I “a druggie”?

I went to university and was in a band. I have sampled some drugs in my life, yes. These days, however, I’m much more content to sit in front of some good telly with a nice glass of wine. Drug culture is still an area I find fascinating, but my main motivation for writing the blog post was the utterly terrible reporting.

Point 4: Am I highlighting BBC bias?

No. I don’t think bias is the right word. To be biased you have to put some thought into it, which I genuinely believe none of the hapless journalists who practically reprinted the press release verbatim did not. It’s simply the height of lazy journalism: taking quotes from a source as if they are absolute fact, without checking if they even could possibly be true. Bias would imply they’d intentionally ignored the evidence presented to them. I don’t think they did; I just think they couldn’t be bothered to look for it.

Point 5: Am I not just shouting from the opposite extreme?

One person suggested that there’s the media on one side, science on the other, and “the truth” is somewhere in between. I’m not sure how to take this other than “I think lies are lies, but I also think facts are lies.”

So I want to reiterate that I was very, very careful to fact-check the definitive statements I made. I should have referenced my sources, of course. They are Bluelight, a drugs discussion community with a focus on harm reduction; Erowid, the largest resource of information pertaining to psychoactive drugs that we have anywhere in the world; and Professor David Nutt himself, who was sacked by the British Government because he dared to suggest that maybe they had their policy wrong when they decided to reclassify cannabis, even though they were paying him to advise them on the issue and he’d advised against it. He’s one of the leading authorities on drug harm (both direct and indirect) in the world. You should definitely go to one of his lectures if you get the chance.

Point being, this isn’t the opposing extreme and we should all find some happy balanced middle-ground. This is the balanced middle-ground. The extreme would be “make all drugs legal and let kids buy them in corner shops like penny sweets.” Obviously that’s not sensible. But current drug legislation isn’t either, and it’s the media – and our stupid, mindless reactions to it – that encourage the Government to keep peddling this ludicrous crackdown that does nothing to reduce usage but does everything to make criminals out of people who aren’t harming anyone.

As Nutt said when I went to see him speak, the only real risk you take when smoking cannabis is that you might get caught doing it.

Some drugs are exceptionally harmful to the human body, like alcohol or tobacco. Others aren’t, like ecstasy or cannabis. I’m not concerned with anything other than conveying the information correctly and accurately, without the need for ridiculous “six times strength” nonsense that literally cannot be true.

The important thing to understand is that society’s drug problems aren’t often caused by the drugs themselves. Even heroin, the Bad Drug (TM), is actually very safe in regulated quantities of its pure form. The dangers come from the addiction potential and its route towards poverty; and from the impurities found in street heroin, which often contains substances far more dangerous than the diacetylmorphine itself.

The BBC’s article was, at best, a story about the ecstasy equivalent: impure ecstasy tablets that contained dangerous chemicals which led to two men’s deaths. That’s tragic. But the idea that it was ecstasy of six times normal strength is, I’m almost positive, impossible. And I’ll be so, so pleased to eat my words if it turns out I’m wrong.

11 responses »

  1. Thing is, I considered commenting after reading your initial post, with many of the points you listed. I figured I was better off having some tea and playing Halo Reach instead. I wake up today, and find the internet has done all the work for me and all I have to do is read the summary.


  2. Excellent follow-up. Just one small issue I have – the second paragraph on point 5. While I have a great deal of respect for Professor Nutt, and I think bluelight/erowid are very useful websites, you seem to be presenting a bit of an appeal to authority. Nutt may be one of the foremost experts in the field, but it’s the primary literature, reviews, and meta-analyses which give his words weight, and really that’s what you should be citing if at all possible. Of course, as far as I’m aware, they do support what you’re saying, but primary/secondary sources are always better than the words of An Expert (even if it’s an expert who took a level in badass).

    Oh, and a tiny point – the government weren’t paying Nutt. The ACMD positions are all voluntary, to the best of my knowledge (although they probably get expenses and whatnot). If anything, to my mind, this makes the fact that they sacked him for political reasons all the more reprehensible.

    But, yeah, the BBC article was stupid, as is the war on drugs. Good job on writing a well-considered response to their idiocy.

  3. IS there any more news on this story? Did these guys in Ayesure die because of the strength of the mdma in the pill? Or was it some other reason? I cannot find any follow ups so I was hoping you might know.


    I was just reading this article and it sounds awful. In this they said the pill was ‘1 and a half(!) times the normal strength!’… Now what that implies is that if you took 1.5 pills of normal strength you will die a horrific death. What I would like to know is why that particular girl died… was it an abnormal reaction? was it an unusual chemical in the pill? Did other people take the same pill and not have a problem?

    Why are these articles always so unexplanatory? I regularly go out with people and meet people who take several pills in one night, along with other drugs and alcohol and never have an issue… What is it that made that poor girl die so horrifically off one pill? It cannot be the ecstacy pill itself surely!? I personally am pretty cautious and even though I know there is a lot of hysteria about the dangers of drugs, I like to be sensible about it just in case I am the random unlucky one.

  4. So you were banned on moddb for impersonating members, duplicate accounts and member abuse. You seem to be very credible. Just as your article. Sleep well.

    • Uh. I’m not sure who you think I am, but you’ve got the wrong person. I have never been banned from ModDB, and certainly have never impersonated its members, had multiple accounts or been a knob over there. I did sleep well, though, thank you very much.

      • You are the creator of the mods Post Script and Nestlings. And you were banned on moddb. So either you are a liar, or you haven’t visited moddb recently.
        Maybe you should not keep the links from moddb to your developer commentary for Nestlings and back active, if you don’t want to get connected with that. What a strange guy you are, it seems you have some serious problems with yourself.

      • Huh – seems you’re right, my account has been banned. Which is curious as I’ve not done any of the things it says there. And I’m on good terms with the ModDB guys. So I’m sure this has been some sort of mistake. I’ve emailed the ModDB folks so I can try to get to the bottom of this. So I guess thanks for bringing it to my attention – although there’d probably have been a nicer way to go about it.

      • Spoke to the ModDB folks. It was a simple case of mistaken IP address – they had my IP down as the IP of someone who had been massively trolling. So that’s that. Think you’ll be able to calm down now?

  5. mustangrod100

    Question, How come we have not heard anything back about the toxicology reports relating to the two lads that died in scotland.

    I think the answer could be that that particular news story will not sell many papers, and the level of hysteria they try so desperately to create will be reduced, when the toxicology reports indicate the deaths were either not related to MDMA at all, or was not the main cause of death.


  6. Great article! Couldn’t agree more.
    Will, maybe you need to take some ecstasy, it may teach you to be a little nicer towards people. [This isn’t quite what I’m saying… – LD]


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