Author of We Need to Talk About Kevin on Taking Drugs for Controversial Channel 4 Show

Originally appearing here. Last November I received an email which caught my attention. My publicist at Profile Books had added at the top in green caps, ‘MOST BIZARRE QUERY EVER’. An independent television production company was asking if I would please take ecstasy on camera. The experiment in which I’d be filmed participating was legal. At Hammersmith Hospital in London, doctors would put participants through psychological tests and chart neurological responses via MRI scanning, on MDMA (pure ecstasy) and a placebo. Conducted by Professor David Nutt, whose claim that taking ecstasy is less hazardous than riding a horse led to his dismissal from a Government advisory post, the study hoped to demonstrate the drug’s original therapeutic uses. Still, ecstasy has a reputation as a truth serum, and the prospect of unqualified candour on TV is terrifying. I had nightmarish premonitions of Lionel Shriver gushing about how she ‘luuuvs’ everybody on YouTube. So why on earth did I say yes? Especially after my husband nightly abjured: ‘Don’t do it.’ Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial doesn’t air on Channel 4 until Wednesday, and I may yet discover that my husband was right. Yet I’d defend my reasoning. In latter years, I’d been too set in my ways; I fancied shaking myself up, albeit legally under the watchful eyes of doctors. And I’m keen on any study or documentary that challenges the Western world’s disastrous drug policies, since I have long advocated the legalisation, regulation, and (best of all) taxation of recreational drugs. I – along with fellow participants including the actor Keith Allen – would be dosed and scanned twice, without knowing which time I’d get the placebo. Round one: I take a battery of mood tests. The doctors explain that in the MRI I’ll be shown adjectives on a screen, and I should click a button indicating whether this adjective applies sometimes to me, or sometimes to footballer Wayne Rooney. After popping a capsule, I exercise ‘hyper-vigilance’ (hey, Shrive, you feel funny? Any weird thoughts? What, you’re deciding what to fix for dinner?). Then I twig: this is the placebo. I’m more relaxed for the second scan, and looking forward to getting high as a kite for medical science. I take the mood tests again, scoring myself as highly ‘affable’. I pop the pill, and after half an hour I enter the penumbra (the interface between light and shadow) of MDMA onset. I strongly discourage any ravers from taking ecstasy in an MRI. Don’t waste a drug that enlivens sound, tactile sensitivity and colour on the equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank. This time, labelling some footballer ‘efficient’ or not seems conspicuously absurd. Time passes quickly. With gleeful perversity, when asked whether the word ‘good’ applies to me, I click ‘NO’. Prompted to recall my best and worst memories, I dutifully dredge up what I can, but most of the experiences are old, their rehearsal mild. That’s the adjective I reach for on exiting the MRI: ‘It’s totally mild!’ The dosage is cautious. I’ve got more off my head from a bad batch of sushi. When I take the mood tests again, I check the extremes of ‘resentful’ and ‘annoyed’. During the post-MRI interview with a doctor, when I’m presumably as out of my tree as I’m going to get, he asks how I feel about the future. I say I’m worried about impending fiscal catastrophe, especially in Europe. I may never live it down: give Shriver E and what does she go on about? The euro. Once back home, I labour through one bowl of popcorn (ecstasy suppresses appetite). Warned I’d feel gloomy, I arise the next morning to put in a productive workday. I feel fine. Debates about illegal drugs are booby-trapped. If you’ve never taken any, you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you admit to having taken them, your brain is probably fried, and any argument you advance for decriminalisation is tainted with self-interest. My underwhelming experience of MDMA in confined, clinical circumstances was a poor test of this drug’s merits. I’m not running for office, so I’ll come clean: I’ve taken it before, a handful of times a long time ago. As my soliloquy on the euro attested, the mind on ecstasy is clear, and it remains so at higher (and more enjoyable) dosages. If anything, you’re more lucid, with the fear-driven self-editing function switched off. You remain physically co-ordinated and in control. Most of all, the drug reduces anxiety over saying what you really feel, and is a promising tool for people with trouble communicating, like soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder or couples on the brink of divorce. E is the easy case. Yes, ecstasy results in a few deaths (27 in the UK annually), but these are dwarfed by deaths from alcohol (40,000 in the UK annually). Otherwise, MDMA brings out the best in people. It makes you warm, open and grateful to be alive. Decriminalising heroin, cocaine or crystal meth and the like is a harder sell. More people die from overdoses of these drugs; lives are ruined from addiction. Nevertheless, some of those deaths occur because of contaminated product on the street. Fatalities from Mexican cartel shoot-outs notwithstanding, drug use is a victimless crime – or rather, with criminalisation, the real victims are us. We squander costly, finite law enforcement on frisking for marijuana when those officers should be keeping us from getting robbed – not just by burglars, but our own banks. We overcrowd prisons with drug offenders; a quarter of America’s convicts are incarcerated for drugs. We deliver an industry worth, according to the UN, about one per cent of the world’s GDP into the hands of murderous dirtbags when we could be taxing it to the hilt. The ‘war on drugs’ is a war on weakness, on escapism, on curiosity. It does nothing to staunch demand. Maybe you’ve no idea why people would want to alter their consciousness, though in that case you never take a drink. Me, I can see the benefits of feeling peculiar from time to time, for enlightenment or entertainment. After all, fiction is a hallucinogen of sorts, making you see things that aren’t really there. Legalise drugs worldwide, and consumption might not go up much. Losing its frisson of naughtiness, drug taking might even go down. A hard core is going to get hopelessly, ceaselessly high on whatever, regardless of the law. Why not let them throw their lives away without breaking into our houses or wasting our taxes? There’s no rational justification for why folks who take the odd hit of E on the weekend should risk reputation and liberty, while their counterparts who vomit at bus stops are sobered up at our expense in A&E. Most people refrain from taking recreational drugs not because it’s illegal, but because they don’t want to. I wonder if that might now be true of me. Oh, I got a bit different on that MDMA, despite the gentle dose. But I can opine about the fate of the euro on weak tea. Author Lionel Shriver provides a wonderfully detailed report of her experience as a volunteer for Professor David Nutt’s MDMA research being funded by Channel 4. The research was filmed and will be presented on Sept. 26 and 27, 2012 on Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial.