Pointless Deaths

The Economist

Originally appearing here.

AS PART of my work, I get a daily email from a charity, DrugScope, which collates a series of the most interesting stories in the international, national and local press about drugs and alcohol abuse. For a while now, I’ve noticed a trend: every few days, there is a story about somebody dying, or being close to death, after taking something that appears to be an ecstasy tablet.

The latest this morning: a 23-year-old man in Swindon who is in hospital in a critical condition after taking a green pill marked with a dollar sign. That follows Monday’s news: a 15-year-old girl in Oxford, who died of a heart attack after taking a pink tablet that she paid £3 for. That in turn follows seven deaths in Scotland linked with a single batch of green pills, this time stamped with a Rolex crown.

What ties these stories together is that in every case, the suspicion is that the victims took something that looked like an ecstasy tablet, but may not have been. Many are thought to have taken PMA tablets”a far stronger drug than MDMA, the usual ingredient in ecstasy”or something else entirely. PMA takes longer than MDMA to kick in and so users may chase the first pill with a second or third. When they are eventually ingested, the result is catastrophic.

Yet for young, healthy people, MDMA itself is relatively harmless. The lethal dose is far higher than anyone would ever want to take. In the late 1990s lots of scare stories filled the newspapers as young men danced themselves to death by dehydration in overheated nightclubs (which in turn led to a spike in deaths of young women who drank so much water that they poisoned themselves). But of late, clubbers seemed to have learned their lesson”drink sports drinks and take it easy”and deaths had dropped off. The number of deaths at least partly caused by ecstasy in England and Wales fell to just 13 in 2011, from a peak of 56 in 2001.

That number will surely jump again now, thanks to this influx of fake drugs. And yet after each death, the police issue a statement advising young people not to take any illegal drugs. “They are illegal and could contain a cocktail of toxic ingredients”, said one Scottish superintendent, apparently oblivious to the chain that connects those two facts.

According to government estimates, some 2.8m British people have tried ecstasy at least once. Some 179,000 people take it at least once a month. There isn’t much evidence that it is doing all that much long-term damage”no more than alcohol use anyway. A 2009 investigation into the drug by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that ecstasy should be downgraded to a Class B controlled drug.

Yet there is no safe way to take ecstasy, because it is only available in illegal markets. These days, sophisticated clubbers buy MDMA crystals instead of pills, because they are more likely to be pure. But crystals can be contaminated too. A legal, regulated market would solve many of these problems. But that needn’t be the only response. In the Netherlands, the authorities offer a service to test whether or not drugs are pure: that could easily be copied here.

I fear however that it won’t be. The tabloids would accuse the government of enabling drug users. And as every politician robotically answers, drugs are harmful, so they must be illegal. That they may be more harmful at least partly because they are illegal doesn’t enter into it.
The Economist explores how the criminalization of MDMA and other drugs is spurring the creation of new substances. The article makes a case that recent drug-related fatalities could be have been prevented if public health-oriented policies were implemented.