A Vicar, a Pop Stars Dad and an Ex-MP All Taking Drugs on Live TV

Originally appearing here. The blonde woman is given a tablet to swallow, before being prepared for an MRI scan in a vast, space-age machine. Doctors study graphic images of her brain, looking for unusual activity. Asked how she feels, she replies: ‘Light. It’s pleasant. There’s an airiness and openness to the senses. A slight heightening of sensory perception, which I liked. The visual feeling is vivid.The colours are lush, which I enjoy. I might be a bit more alert to sounds. I feel physically relaxed and that is a pleasure. I can tell there is a little buzz going on. Long may it last.’This is the novelist Lionel Shriver, who volunteered to take the pure form of the class-A drug Ecstasy for a controversial new Channel 4 documentary to be screened in the coming week. Shriver, who wrote the bestseller We Need To Talk About Kevin, is one of eight volunteers — including a former MP, the actor Keith Allen (father of pop star Lily Allen), an ex-soldier and a female vicar — taking part in the programme. The group — many of whom look as if they might be more comfortable with a nice cup of tea — have all consented to take 83mg of MDMA, the active ingredient in the notorious rave drug Ecstasy, on television. While the drug-taking element of the series has already been filmed at London’s Imperial College in scientific conditions which comply with strict Home Office rules on drug trials — including the use of illegal ones — much of the two-part series will go out live. Programme-makers claim that the controversial series, Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, presented by newsreader Jon Snow and Embarrassing Bodies presenter Dr Christian Jessen, is an attempt to ‘tell the truth’ about the effects of recreational drugs, but others believe it will glamorise the use of illegal substances and encourage youngsters to take drugs. The study is being led by Professor David Nutt, the UK’s former chief drugs adviser, who was sacked after claiming that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than LSD, Ecstasy and cannabis. He has also suggested that horse-riding is more dangerous than taking Ecstasy. Nutt — who is one of the few UK scientists licensed to study Class A drugs — is investigating potential clinical uses for MDMA, such as whether it could offer hope for sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). During the trial some 25 participants — although only eight will appear on the programme — were given ‘pill A or B’ containing a placebo or Ecstasy, and then given a 90-minute functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan to examine how MDMA affects their brain. They then underwent a series of cognitive tests to examine Ecstasy’s effect on empathy, trust and memory. A week later, they were tested again, this time under the effect of a placebo or Ecstasy — depending what their first tablet contained. New Scientist deputy editor Graham Lawton describes taking part in the study. He says: ‘My usual pick-me-up on a Monday morning is a cup of coffee. Today it’s going to be something very different. ‘I’ve been up since 6am. I’ve had a breath test for alcohol, a urine test for drugs and a psychological test for mental health. Then I’m handed a red pill and a glass of water. I swallow it, and I’m told to relax. ‘Which is easier said than done when you don’t know if you’ve just taken vitamin C or 83 milligrams of pure MDMA. ‘Half an hour later, I’m inside a brain scanner, my head clamped in place and a visor over my face. It’s noisy and claustrophobic but I’m reassured by the panic button in my hand and a voice from the control room. ‘And then I start to feel it. A tingle of energy, like pins and needles, starts in the pit of my stomach and rises slowly, not unpleasant but not exactly pleasurable either. It builds in intensity, then breaks into a wave of bliss. When it happens again, I’m in no doubt. I’m coming up. ‘Over the next hour I ride ferocious surges of serotonin that balloon me higher and higher, while trying to focus on a series of tasks. At times I feel amazing, at others panicky. Keeping my head still is very, very hard. But I ride it out. ‘When I’m pulled out 90 minutes later, the drug effects have reached a plateau. My mind is clear, my movement feels smooth and, aside from some jaw clenching, I feel content and sociable. And surprisingly psychedelic: a purple door is throbbing before my eyes. I wake up the following day feeling pretty good.’ Critics have pointed out that, far from dissuading young viewers from taking drugs, comments like this may have the opposite effect. ‘The first two words that come to mind are reckless and pointless,’ says Julia Manning, chief executive of independent think-tank 2020 Health. ‘We are fully aware of the effects of Class A drugs on the body. ‘This will achieve nothing. If anything it will ‘celebritise’ the taking of illegal substances. This is purely anecdotal. It’s not part of any proper study. It’s publicity-seeking TV at its worst.’ However, the participants all claim that there are valid reasons for taking part in the study. ‘I wasn’t entering into this hoping to get a free high,’ says Dr Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. ‘I was just keen to help the study.’ Dr Harris says that he hopes scientists will one day find a dose of MDMA that might treat depression without making patients high. He admits taking drugs previously, saying: ‘In order to be allowed to take part in the trial, I needed to have taken Ecstasy at least once before without any ill-effects. Without going over my ‘Ecstasy history’, I qualified.’ The programme-makers would not reveal whether the others taking part in the trial had also taken drugs in the past. The trial was subject to an ethical approval process for research, he says, and all volunteers were screened by medics and psychiatrists before being allowed take part. ‘Alongside the study, these programmes offer a valuable opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding Ecstasy and a unique chance to give people balanced, evidence-based information about this drug.’ Actor and famed hell-raiser Keith Allen — who has confessed to taking drugs recreationally and even revealed that he used his pop star daughter to sell drugs at Glastonbury Festival when she was younger — is also taking part. ‘If you think that I’m glamorising the taking of drugs by spending an hour and 20 minutes for two consecutive Mondays in an MRI scanning machine, then you’re insane,’ he says. ‘There were soldiers taking part — people who’d never taken it before. It’s a neurological analysis of the effects of MDMA.’ The 59-year-old added: ‘It led to a debate on Channel 4 with the police, with Government ministers. It’s a very forensic analysis and a very calm look at the question of legality and illegality of drugs.’ Time Out magazine editor-at-large and former London Mayoral candidate Michael Hodges, 47, is also taking part. The magazine offers an insight into the programme, saying: ‘Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial will see volunteers, including our very own Michael Hodges, taking Ecstasy for the nation’s amusement, sorry, scientific advancement . . . In short, it’s going to be hilarious.’ Not quite in line with the serious scientific attitude the programme-makers have been claiming. Indeed, campaigners say that the series is irresponsible and could encourage drug use by failing to show the reality of taking illegal substances. Simon Antrobus,
chief executive of the drugs charity Addaction, says: ‘There are a lot of risks associated with drugs like this, not least that [in real-life situations] you can never be sure exactly what it is that you have taken. ‘People don’t take drugs under clinical conditions where a team of experts are on hand . . . they use them as a short-term escape from a range of personal and emotional problems. ‘Our concern is that this programme will be unrepresentative of street drug taking.’ A spokesman for the Home Office is also unequivocal in the Government’s condemnation of the exercise, saying: ‘Televising the use of illegal drugs risks trivialising a serious issue.’ Defending the experiment, Professor Nutt says: ‘Nearly half a million people are believed to take Ecstasy or MDMA every year in the UK, but there has been very little research into what it does in the brain. ‘We’ll see why it makes people feel empathetic, why kids use it.’ He adds: ‘Ecstasy has been vilified, which I think is unfortunate because it is one of the most interesting of illegal drugs. Millions of people have used it in this country, relatively few come to harm. Ten to 20 people die a year and 300 die of paracetamol overdose.’ Asked if he was concerned the series will promote drug taking, he says: ‘I don’t think that people interested in drugs are going to be encouraged by seeing middle-aged people taking drugs on the telly. It might even put them off.’ He said only one of 25 people in the study reacted badly, suffering from claustrophobia: ‘The SAS soldier — his view was that he had been trained to resist interference with his mind through brainwashing or torture.’ The female vicar had a better experience, however. Nutt says: ‘It was certainly a positive experience, yes. She described it as a positive experience.’ Channel 4’s David Glover, who commissioned the show, says: ‘Obviously we don’t want to be part of glamorising drug use. This subject is fraught with controversy and confusion — this series will provide viewers with unmediated access to a live drug trial. ‘Viewers will be able to see for themselves the actual effects the drugs have in scientific detail. The aim is to bring new clarity to the facts of illegal drug use. This is a programme that only Channel 4 would be brave enough to commission.’ Yet ‘brave’ is not the word that Paul Betts, whose daughter Leah died on her 18th birthday in 1995 after taking Ecstasy, would use to describe it. He spent years campaigning against drugs after her death. The heart-rending photograph he released of his young daughter on a life-support machine, as a stark warning to drug users, is an image few will ever forget. ‘What is going to be the benefit of this programme?’ he asks. ‘What is its purpose? Someone is certainly going to earn a lot of money out of it, and it will encourage youngsters to take drugs. ‘I would say to young people watching this, I don’t deny that for hundreds of thousands taking Ecstasy is a pleasurable experience. ‘What people overlook is what can happen to them. Just like in Russian roulette, how do you know if it is going to be you? Is it worth the gamble?’ Words that viewers watching these celebrities having an ‘amazing’ time taking Ecstasy might do well to heed. Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial is on Channel 4 next Wednesday and Thursday at 10pm. The Daily Mail highlights a variety of prominent figures and their involvement in new MDMA research being funded by Channel 4. Most notably, the article focuses on a three of the research volunteers and their thoughts, such as author Lionel Shriver, former MP Evan Harris, and actor Keith Allen.