Jesse Kline: Legalizing Ecstasy Would Save Lives

Originally appearing here. Tucked within industrial districts on the outskirts of downtown Vancouver lie innocuous-looking warehouses that, on any given weekend, play home to the city’s vibrant underground party scene. Inside an array of stimuli tingle the senses: The floors reverberate with the blare of electronic music; lights flash; and the air becomes sticky and pungent as a mass of people dance until the wee hours of the morning. One thing that distinguishes the underground scene from mainstream clubs is the distinct lack of alcohol at most events: It is often easier to buy ecstasy than it is to find beer. Unfortunately, consumers of that drug have no way of knowing what exactly they’re getting. “Most of the samples of what is passed off as MDMA [the original chemical used in ecstasy] on the street is of really unknown quality, unknown purity, unknown dose and is almost guaranteed to be contaminated with a variety of other drugs like PCP, ketamine or methamphetamines. So it’s potentially dangerous,” said Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer. Indeed, at least 16 people have died over the past year in Western Canada from a tainted batch of ecstasy that was laced with a deadly chemical known as PMMA. MDMA has been illegal in Canada since 1976, but that has hardly stopped people from using ecstasy. It even appears to be growing in popularity Dr. Kendall caused quite a stir when he was reported on Thursday as saying that taking ecstasy can be done in a safe manner, and that it should be legalized and distributed by the government. Later in the day, he told a TV news crew he was “not advocating for the legalization of ecstasy or its distribution from government liquor store-type outlets,” but that he does believe the drug is safe, when it’s not mixed with other substances. The assertions that MDMA — the entirely pure form of ecstasy — is relatively safe, are backed up by a growing body of evidence. A 2010 study published in The Lancet medical journal, written by David Nutt, the former chairman of the U.K. Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, found that pure ecstasy is much less harmful than many other narcotics. Out of 20 substances, alcohol was found to be the most harmful, while MDMA ranked 17th. Another study in the journal Addiction compared the cognitive functions of ecstasy users to non-users and “failed to demonstrate marked residual cognitive effects in ecstasy users.” Likewise, a study conducted by The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has given the drug to 58 people, without any serious health effects. Still, Canadian police blocking the import and manufacture of illegal MDMA and its ingredients means producers have had to resort to more dangerous ecstasy cocktails. And the problem for those attending after-hours parties in Vancouver, and other recreational drug users across the country, is they have no way of knowing if the pills they’re buying are the safe kind or the deadly kind. It’s too bad Dr. Kendall reversed his stance on legalization, because allowing the product to be produced and sold out in the open would be much safer than the current situation. Our experience with illegal narcotics mirrors many of the unintended consequences that were seen during the Prohibition era. During that time, alcohol became much more potent, too — why sell beer, when hard liquor is stronger, and the punishment is the same? — while many people ended up dying from bad batches of moonshine. (Those who didn’t just got really drunk.) Today, a majority of the harm that comes from illicit drugs is due to the fact that these substances remain illegal. Gang violence is a big problem in many Canadian cities, and the ecstasy-related deaths that have been in the news as of late never would have happened in a regulated environment. We don’t know where the tainted ecstasy that recently popped up, with deadly consequences, in Western Canada was originally produced When an outbreak of listeriosis was found at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in 2008, the company suffered a considerable loss of business. When it suspected another problem with its food in 2009, it promptly issued a voluntary recall of the product. These same free market forces do not work so well when the product in question is traded on the black market. We don’t know where the tainted ecstasy that recently popped up, with deadly consequences, in Western Canada was originally produced, because those who made it are forced to operate underground. Dealers often have no way of knowing whether the product they resell is dangerous, and customers cannot pick and choose from a variety of manufacturers to find the best, and safest, product. MDMA has been illegal in Canada since 1976, but that has hardly stopped people from using ecstasy. It even appears to be growing in popularity. Instead of imposing harsher restrictions on the substance, as the federal Tories have done, governments should think about the words of Dr. Kendall and look at ways to reduce harm by allowing the drug to be produced and sold in a safe, regulated environment. National Post details the current state of MDMA research, mentioning MDMA studies conducted by MAPS and providing a comprehensive insight into MDMA and its history in science and law.