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Ecstasy, or hysteria? Part 3: Of course, the tabloids

It was today, when searching the Internet for any reports of what actually killed two men in Ayrshire earlier this year, that I instead discovered some new reports of ecstasy deaths. (Incidentally, those toxicology reports remain elusive, which – pure speculation, of course – would suggest to me that there was no evidence that ecstasy killed them at all.)

This time the stories – which I somehow hadn’t picked up on over the past few days – relate to two deaths at London’s Alexandra Palace, which has recently played host to a series of dance events. As well as the two fatalities, 20 further people were alleged to have been admitted to hospital, one of whom was critically ill.

It is ecstasy that takes the blame. And yet there is no evidence, it seems, that ecstasy was taken.

The Daily Mail‘s original headline, which began with the words ‘Ecstasy Alert’, has since been changed – perhaps when it became apparent that you can’t blame ecstasy for deaths when the body copy of your article notes that it is not known if those who died had taken ecstasy. It now says they took a ‘lethal drug’, although it is still made clear that it is only a suspicion that the men’s deaths were drug-related.

Chris Greenwood’s article serves to highlight the ways in which we can use both evocative language and clever syntax to present otherwise accurate information in a dubious manner.

“Two people have died and 20 more are in hospital after taking a deadly batch of the party drug Ecstasy, police fear,” is a perfectly true statement, but its phrasing somewhat glosses over that crucial information, relegated to a mere subordinate clause at the end of the sentence: ‘police fear’.

Detectives ‘suspect’ that perhaps the unfortunate clubbers ‘may’ have taken ecstasy before they died, seven hours apart from each other. And these deaths ‘highlight the dangers’ of ecstasy use, drills home one particularly nasty presupposition.

Rita Tierny of the Met Police said: “[i]t is too early to say what caused these men’s health to deteriorate” – but her quote is sandwiched between reams of unpleasant writing that aim to suggest the exact opposite.

Elsewhere in the piece, it is stated that two men in Ayrshire died earlier this year after taking ecstasy “six times stronger than normal”, but we already know this to be untrue. And the Government’s advisory body on the misuse of drugs, which has repeatedly suggested that ecstasy should be downgraded on the classification list, is referred to as “controversial” – a statement that appears quite rich once you consider that the controversy was created by the tabloid press in the first place.

The Mail’s article becomes especially interesting when you compare it to the BBC’s version of events. Here, a separate police spokesperson says: “At this time we have no further reports of anyone unwell at hospital having taken substances at the venue.” And yet the Daily Mail says that it is ‘understood’ that 20 people were taken to hospital. Intriguing? Well, we have already seen evidence of the Mail simply making up quotes: when they accidentally published the wrong result of the Amanda Knox case, for example, the resulting article included victorious statements supposedly from the prosecuting team, even though Knox was found not guilty of murder.

According to the Beeb, it could be a “rogue batch” of ecstasy – as in, one containing a chemical other than MDMA – that was the cause of the deaths. This is infinitely more plausible, though still unconfirmed.

How does The Sun tackle this issue? With an ENORMOUS HEADLINE containing a completely unmitigated statement of fact that these ‘deadly’ drugs ‘come from China’. Within three paragraphs we understand the slightly fuller truth: it is ‘feared’ that they consumed drugs that were ‘possibly’ made in China. (Side-note: I’m not sure exactly why this is a thing to be ‘feared’. The men are already dead, and the fact that a drug would come from China rather than – I don’t know – wintriest Russia seems to have no bearing on the risk involved with taking it.)

And then we get the remainder of the article from a member of FRANK, the youth-centric charity that attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of drugs. Now, I’ll lay my biases on the table: I think FRANK is an awful resource to be promoting in this way. The facts and figures on its website are outdated, and much of the information the charity comes out with sounds like it would belong far more comfortably on the pages of The Sun than those of a campaign that aims to reduce harm to our country’s young people. So oh, look, what a surprise to see what Chris Hudson has to say.

Hudson’s comments are most troubling because very little of what he says can be contended, and yet all of it is loaded with extraordinary scaremongering language that does nothing to aid understanding.

“The number of people who have taken ecstasy coming to my treatment centres has increased over the past year” might sound alarming, but it says nothing of why these people are in treatment, nor does it mention any other factors which might play a role in this increase of cases.

MDMA “is very powerful,” he continues. “[A] small amount has huge effects so it’s a total gamble.” A sentence comprising a number of vagueisms. ‘Powerful’, ‘small’ and ‘huge’ are all relative effects. What is a small amount, and what is being gambled? Few ecstasy users would consider 35 high-end tablets – roughly what it would take to kill the average human – to be a small amount. That’s close to £200 worth of the drug.

Or is it? “They go for around £5 each, but I’ve heard of them selling for just 50p,” he says. Ecstasy tablets being sold for 50p might indeed be a huge draw for young people… but the statement once again glosses over the fact that these cases are surely a tiny minority.

After managing not to outright make stuff up for the majority of his article, Hudson does let the charade slip towards the end, when he claims that “almost all pills contain a stimulant, even ketamine (horse tranquiliser).” This is when my head smacked against my desk. Ketamine is not a stimulant. It’s a general anaesthetic, which is – I dunno – something akin to the exact opposite. I also wonder when we’ll stop this ludicrous idea of it being a ‘horse tranquiliser’. Ketamine is indeed used to anaesthsetise horses. It is also used to anaethsetise a whole range of animals, including humans.

Given my associations with the publication, I am extremely pleased that it is The Telegraph leading the way for the sensible coverage. There, Andrew M. Brown rightly calls for more legal tolerance of drug use, so that users may get their products tested for strength and purity without the worry of prosecution. (I’m going to conveniently skip the bit where he calls piperazines ‘worming powder’, falling neatly into some nonsense that was made up by the tabloids a few years ago.) It would be ideal if these drugs didn’t exist at all, Brown observes, but they do. And so we need to accept this, and deal with it.

Make no mistake: to be a tabloid reporter demands a tremendous ability with language. The writers on the Sun and the Daily Mail are incredibly talented. But they are bound by their positions to use that talent in unhelpful ways. Perhaps, through the method that Brown suggests, we could prevent a number of tragedies, and ascertain what these unknown tablets actually contain. Then we’d stop giving the alarmists so much ammunition.

Once again: drugs are not to be messed with. But exaggerating the risk does nothing to alleviate their dangers, and it does everything to muddy the potentially life-saving facts.

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