Shock rise in ecstasy deaths to thwart drug law reformers

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For the second time in a week, ecstasy users have been given a stark warning of the risks they are taking with their health by indulging in the drug.

For the second time in a week, ecstasy users have been given a stark warning of the risks they are taking with their health by indulging in the drug.

Days after a survey showed a much higher incidence of mental disorders among clubbers, the main consumers of the pills, figures that were collated from coroners' inquests and released yesterday showed ecstasy deaths had risen by two-thirds in the past year.

The findings could stymie moves to soften the laws surrounding ecstasy, which has become the next target of reformers after the rules governing cannabis possession were relaxed last year.

The figures in the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths for 2000 showed a rise in deaths from recreational drugs like heroin and cocaine, but the jump in ecstasy-related mortalities was far more pronounced.

Those deaths included Robert Lowe, who collapsed and died of a heart attack on the dance floor of Birmingham's Pulse nightclub after celebrating his 21st birthday in January 2000.

Five weeks later, Julie Sumner, 28, died after collapsing at another Birmingham nightclub, Miss Moneypenny's, prompting the launch of a War on Ecstasy campaign by media and businesses in the city.

The drug accounts for only 27 fatalities or 2.2 per cent of drug-related deaths. But Dr Nek Oyefeso, a senior lecturer at St George's Hospital Medical School in London, who runs the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths and who compiled the figures, warned against changing the current legislation.

Just before the change in approach to cannabis was announced last October, the association of chief police officers said that reclassification of ecstasy would help focus resources on more dangerous class-A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

But Dr Oyefeso, whose conclusions are being passed to the Government, said: "The biological consequences are delayed and any relaxation of the laws at the moment would be folly."

His comments go against the increasingly favourable coverage of drug use in the media. Viv Craske, the senior editor of the dance culture magazine Mixmag, said soap opera scriptwriters were helping to challenge the drug's image. "The Independent Television Commission rules dictate that hard drugs can only be portrayed with negative consequences," he said. "But scriptwriters are pushing this to the limit."

He contrasted the portrayal of Martin Fowler's recent "funny turn" on ecstasy in EastEnders with Brookside's doom-laden approach to the subject several years ago.

Health experts also believe that anti-drug campaigns in newspapers have alienated young people and made them sceptical about health warnings surrounding the drug.

The prevailing concern among scientists investigating the impact of ecstasy consumption on health is that the drug might lead a generation of users to become "amotivational" – a psychiatric condition that completely disables the sufferer.

Tests on animals have found that ecstasy permanently reduces levels of serotonin, the chemical in the brain partly responsible for mood changes. Brain scans of human users have also revealed damaged serotonin terminals, while a raft of research indicates the class-A drug causes permanent memory loss.

Tests on the longer-term effects showed damaged nerve cells in laboratory rats given high doses of MDMA – ecstasy's chemical name. Other controversial research has claimed that the drug can exacerbate the effects of Alzheimer's Disease in old age.

Mixmag published a survey on ecstasy's effect on clubbers earlier this week, which revealed that one in four showed the symptoms of mental disorders as a result of taking it.

The drugs charity Drugscope said that while the numbers of deaths were relatively small, they were concerned that young people were not being educated about the risks.

The charity's chief executive, Roger Howard, said: "The danger is that young people are being put off by alarmist media coverage of ecstasy and this is distracting them from information about the long-term effects of the drug."

The research by St George's also showed a 16 per cent rise in the number of deaths officially recorded as being caused by cocaine.

Analysts from the hospital blamed the increasing supplies from Jamaica and said that cocaine had most frequently proved fatal when manufactured into crack.

Heroin was responsible for 551 deaths, the largest number caused by any class-A drug. The sharp rise – a 32 per cent increase on the previous year – could be traced to several cases of contaminated heroin in 2000, Drugscope said.

The total number of drug-related deaths in 2000 fell to 1,284 from 1,340 the previous year. This was largely due to stricter controls in dispensing antidepressants and morphine.

Dr Oyefeso said: "In previous years we have highlighted the dangers of taking morphine in unsupervised conditions, but the shift in policy to insisting addicts take the drug in hospitals and clinics has clearly worked."

A geographical analysis of the data showed the highest number of drug-related deaths was in the Brighton and Hove region, where there were 32 fatalities per 100,000.

Other areas that showed higher rates of death were Reading (up 8.8 to 14.1 per 100,000), Peterborough (up 4.1 to 13.1 per 100,000), Lincoln (7 to 10.2) and North Northumberland (5.7 to 11.4).

Meanwhile, figures from coroners' courts in England and Wales showed 401 people died from poisoning by analgesics – a third of all drug-related deaths. A new breed of "therapeutic addicts" has contributed to an 84 per cent increase in the number of Britons overdosing on painkillers.

Medical experts called for tighter controls surrounding analgesics available on prescription and over the counter.

The medical price of Ecstasy

Ecstasy, E or XTC are street terms for a range of illegally manufactured drugs that come in the form of small tablets or capsules.

When swallowed, or crushed and snorted, they have a combined stimulant and hallucinogenic effect that lasts for three to six hours. Users report profound feelings of love and empathy, elimination of anxiety and neurosis, extreme relaxation and an enhanced capacity to communicate.

Because it suppresses the need to eat, drink or sleep, clubbers can endure all-night parties or even raves lasting two to three days. It is rarely consumed with alcohol, which is believed to diminish its effects. But users report a variety of side-effects such as jaw-clenching, teeth grinding, sweating, chills increased heart rate, nausea and tremors.

There are claims that it causes Parkinson's disease or drains spinal fluid. But the long-term risks of ecstasy are just beginning to emerge. Scientists suspect it can cause damage in those parts of the brain critical to thought and memory. One study, in primates, showed that exposure for four days caused brain damage that was evident six to seven years later. The drug can sometimes cause toxic reactions in people with asthma, heart conditions, diabetes or mental illness. Users are advised to sip water regularly rather than drink lots of water at once. Several deaths have occurred from a condition where the brain swells from the excess fluid intake. Although ecstasy only became popular as a "club drug" in the late Eighties, it is not new. MDMA, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine, was first synthesised in 1912, possibly to be used as an appetite suppressant. But it was not used medically until the early Seventies, when therapists believed it could help to bring out people's feelings. It was banned in 1986.

By Lorna Duckworth

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