Are They Raving Mad?

Originally appearing here. It’s the sort of stunt he might once have pulled on some late-night Channel 4 show, back in the second summer of love. However, when Keith Allen takes MDMA on a programme called Drugs Live this autumn, he can at least claim to be doing so in the name of science. The 59-year-old actor, and father of Lily, is among several human guinea pigs who have taken the drug under laboratory conditions. The results will be screened in a four-part series that will examine our relationship with narcotics. ‘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,’ Allen said in response to the tabloids. ‘There were policemen taking part. There were soldiers, people who’d never taken it before. It’s a very, very forensic analysis, a neurological analysis of the effects of MDMA.’ Admittedly, most laboratories do not have a film crew in situ, but according to the man in charge, Professor David Nutt, needs must. Nutt, one of Britain’s leading authorities on psychotropic drugs, was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs from 2008 to 2009. His outspoken stance led to a series of clashes with politicians, including the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, for stating that taking ecstasy was statistically safer than horse riding. He was later dismissed from his role by Alan Johnson for his paper Estimating Drug Harms, which ranked ecstasy safer than alcohol. ‘I have watched experts on television be asked the question: “Which is more dangerous? Alcohol or ecstasy?” and they always try to avoid the issue,’ he told the London Evening Standard shortly after his dismissal. ‘Eventually somebody has to tell the truth.’ It is a similar form of the same politics that makes it difficult for scientists to study such drugs. As Nutt has complained, banned substances require prohibitive levels of security and funding to research. The introduction of Temporary Class Drug Orders to deal with new drugs — such as methoxetamine or mexxy — makes it still harder to present evidence-based findings of their actual harm. ‘Funders often shy away from such research because of the red tape, associated higher costs, and the perception that it is possible to be stigmatised for supporting such work,’ he writes. Channel 4 stepped in with the funding for the latest research. In the case of ecstasy, Nutt believes this is a missed opportunity, as the very qualities that make ecstasy popular among clubbers have huge therapeutic potential. Its active ingredient, MDMA (methylenedioxymeth-amphetamine), was first synthesised in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck as a diet aid, but it was in 1965, when it was ‘rediscovered’ by Alexander Shulgin of Dow Chemicals, that its unique ability to promote empathy was noted. Through the 1970s, psychotherapists experimented by giving small doses to warring couples as part of marriage counselling. Now, a broad range of scientists believe MDMA could help treat mental afflictions including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. At the University of Western Australia, there have been trials using MDMA to treat Parkinson’s. At the UCLA in California, it has been used to ease the suffering of terminally ill cancer patients. Nutt himself oversaw a study earlier this year in which volunteers were given psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogens) and had their brains scanned. Researchers found that the drug helped to deactivate the regions of the brain that integrate our senses and govern our sense of self. Nutt believes the drug could help to cure depression by deactivating the area of the brain that is overactive in depressives. Since depression costs the UK an estimated £17 billion a year, and suicide remains the biggest killer of young men, any new treatments are surely worth investigating further, he argues. None of this is to say that self-medication is a good idea. While many of the scariest stories about ecstasy have proved to be nonsense — such as the retracted theory that it causes Parkinson’s — it can cause short-term paranoia and anxiety, and long-term sleep problems, loss of energy and depression. It also has lasting effects on serotonin levels, which govern our natural feelings of happiness. Julia Manning, of the independent think-tank 2020Health, is one of a number of people to dismiss Allen’s stunt. ‘The first two words that come to mind are reckless and pointless. We are fully aware of the effects of class A drugs on the body.’ Simon Antrobus, of the drugs charity Addaction, called the programme ‘voyeuristic’. Street ecstasy and medicinal MDMA are, in practice, two very different things. What you obtain from your dealer could contain anything. ‘We wouldn’t want anyone to come away from the programme thinking that MDMA is benign,’ he said. On the street — or more specifically, in clubs, warehouse parties and student accommodation — ecstasy looks to have peaked in popularity, though there has been a recent resurgence in the powder form of MDMA. According to the British Crime Survey, ecstasy was taken by 3.8 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds in 2010/11, making it the third most popular drug, after cannabis (17.1 per cent) and cocaine (4.4 per cent), though that is almost half the number who were taking it in 1996. According to Nutt’s findings, ecstasy is one of the lesser available evils; the Office of National Statistics recorded five ecstasy deaths in 2010, compared to 98 from paracetamol, 8,644 from alcohol and 81,400 from tobacco. The long-term risks of MDMA on mental health are less understood, but after 25 years of widespread use, there is no epidemic of addled former clubbers in our mental-health wards. So is Keith Allen’s TV drug-taking a mere publicity stunt? Perhaps, partly. But if we come to frame our discussion of MDMA within the context of the effects that it has, and begin basing our policy towards it and our uses of it on scientific evidence, he may have done us all a service. Channel 4, a United Kingdom television station, has funded the U.K.’s latest MDMA research. The scientific study, led by Professor David Nutt, was a neurological analysis of the effects of MDMA on the resting brain. The research was filmed and the results will debut on Channel 4’s upcoming special, Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial.