Ecstasy report sparks controversy in Britain

A British report based on a 12-month study of 4,000 academic papers says that the drug ecstasy poses a significant public health issue in Britain with up to five million tablets taken every month.

But the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) also reported that ecstacy is nowhere near as dangerous as other class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, and should be downgraded to class B along with amphetamines and cannabis.The British Government however has refused to downgrade the drug.

The British SMC rounded up comment on the report from British scientists:

Professor Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience at University of Oxford and former Head of the Medical Research Council, said:

“In his capacity as Professor of Psychiatry not as the Chairman of the ACMD, David Nutt has published a paper in a peer-reviewed international journal, reporting how virtually all the definable risks associated with horse-riding (except the probability of a custodial sentence) exceed those of the class A drug, ecstasy. The Home secretary’s intervention is a worrying sign of the government’s rejection of rational evidence on the emotive topic of illegal drugs. Does this mean that scientists who publish research raising concerns about other areas of government policy – perhaps food safety or nuclear waste disposal can now expect a late night phone call from a government minister demanding an apology?”

Dr Clare Stanford, Reader in Experimental Psychopharmacology, University College London, said:

“It seems to me that a number of, quite separate questions, are raised by the recent debate about MDMA.

“The acute toxicity of MDMA is well understood and on those grounds alone, there is a case for legislation to restrict its use. The current classification of MDMA could send a signal that the consequences of taking MDMA are equivalent to heroin and cocaine, which is clearly not the case. In that respect, Prof Nutt has a logical case for reclassification.

“However, it is evident that we are extremely fickle in our assessments of ‘risk’ and ‘harm’. Prof Nutt points out that the number of deaths per annum echoes that of many other activities that are condoned. That is not to say (as the press seem to imply) that he is saying that MDMA is ‘harmless’. Rather, it confirms that our assessment of harm depends on social context (horse-riding is acceptable, MDMA is not.

“Finally, there is lingering debate about the long-term effects of MDMA: in particular, possible neurotoxic effects of its metabolites.

“Sunbathing is another example of a behaviour that carries a high risk of long-term harm and premature mortality. I don’t think anyone would propose criminalisation of that activity but the criteria we apply to distinguish between sunbathing and consumption of MDMA are not clear to me.”

Dr Ken Checkinski, Senior Lecturer in Addictive Behaviour at St George’s, University of London, said:

“When is recreation not healthy? When it refers to drug misuse, often with substances like ecstasy and cannabis. Equestrianism is a sport but drug misuse /per se /will never make the Olympics! The lethality of ecstasy is low: the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths at St George’s (np-SAD) bears that out with its recirding and interpretation of coroners’ (and similar authorities’) verdicts from around the UK.

Nevertheless, deaths occur unpredictably and often affect young people just embarking on their adult lives. All these deaths are preventable and there are no real benefits to offset such tragedies. The ACMD is “advisory”, whereas legislative changes are political and have to go beyond the scientific analysis of risk-benefit ratios in our society.”

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