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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.

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Ecstasy, or hysteria? – On the BBC’s drugs reporting

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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.

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