Tell the truth about drugs

Designer drugs are not a cause for panic, argues Jeremy Laurance
Click to follow
"A KILLER 33 times the strength of Ecstasy," screamed the Mirror's headline last week. Cue new panic over designer drugs which, reports in most papers said, had already killed three.

We are suckers for this kind of thing and we swallow the warnings every time. On this occasion, the deadly drugs were identified as DOB, a more powerful version of Ecstasy, and also known as Golden Eagle, and Flatliners, a substance said to trigger out-of-the-body experiences.

Never mind that these drugs have been around for at least 20 years: parents read these stories and quake, as they are supposed to do. But how do teenagers read them? How, in particular, do the estimated 500,000 who take Ecstasy of a weekend, react? They have a mind-blowing experience, discover what they swallowed was allegedly a dangerous poison, and react as anyone would - they don't believe it.

And they are right. The only drug powerful enough to kill a human being in a single tablet is cyanide. Professor John Henry, head of accident and emergency medicine at St Mary's Hospital, London, and former medical director of the National Poisons Information Service, made a lot of people unhappy when he pointed out this inconvenient fact at the time Leah Betts died. She, you may remember, collapsed after taking half an Ecstasy tablet on her 17th birthday in November 1995, which then triggered a huge campaign against the evils of the drug.

What killed Leah Betts was the huge quantity of water she drank to counteract the drug's effects. The water made her brain swell, causing loss of consciousness, coma and death. To claim that she died of Ecstasy is like saying that a person who fell asleep holding a lighted cigarette and set fire to his house died of smoking.

Young people who have taken Ecstasy and then danced all night in a crowded club with too little liquid to drink have died of overheating. The answer is to drink plenty of water, preferably with salt added. Leah, who had not been dancing, believed water was an antidote to Ecstasy. It is not: it is an antidote to dancing.

The truth about the latest panic emerged at Plymouth coroners court last Thursday. Private Steven Evans, 21, the soldier supposed to have been killed by the lethal new substance, Flatliners, had in fact binged on an enormous cocktail of drugs taken over a period of 48 hours. The post- mortem found evidence of alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methadone, cannabis, two types of ecstasy and the new drug called 4-MTA (Flatliners). His body finally gave out.

The panic about drugs is disportionate to the harm they cause. Drinking by young people causes 10 times more damage, yet its dangers are ignored. As the quantity drunk has been rising, the average age at which drinking begins has been falling. On average, boys aged 13 drink four pints of beer a week, or equivalent, and girls aged 13 drink three pints. Alcohol produces violent behaviour, is implicated in a third of male suicides and also leads to unprotected sex.

The hardest task for any parent of teenagers is to keep the lines of communication open (I know, I am one). To do that, maintaining credibility is critical. We have to tell the truth about drugs or we will not be believed. If we are not believed, we lose the only means we have to protect our children.