Scientists are ignored in ecstasy debate

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The Independent Online
It is almost certain that Michael Morgan, John Henry and Val Curran know more about the effects of ecstasy than Oasis star Noel Gallagher or any of the MPs who have lined up to criticise him. But while the latter have enjoyed a high media profile in the past few days, none of the others has occupied a moment of airtime or a word of newsprint.

The reason? They are scientists who have performed research into ecstasy - and so, in the strange world of the drugs debate, their knowledge, which might inform the present arguments, is quietly overlooked.

However, all feel strongly that there is too little research going on to study the effects of long-term use of the drug, and that the media's constant attention, allied to the drug's outlaw status, makes it almost impossible to carry out useful work in the UK.

Unlike the debate over a possible link between mad cow disease, BSE, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, in which scientists were thrust into the limelight, the ecstasy debate has almost ignored them. Unlike CJD or BSE, there is no government money for studies into its effects. "I think it's because BSE was the Government's fault," said one researcher yesterday, "whereas ecstasy is self-inflicted. They can wash their hands of it."

There are only a handful of UK studies involving animals or humans and ecstasy. British research is a small fraction of that published worldwide into the effects of the drug. The Medical Research Council has funded only one project into it, and that ended three years ago.

Dr Morgan, at the department of psychology at the University of Swansea, recently completed a study which suggests that regular users suffer damage to their problem-solving abilities and their short-term memory. But he has chosen to submit his work not to a UK publisher, but to the American Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. "The problem with doing human research here is that the smallest thing gets blown out of proportion. My aim in submitting it in the US was to keep it in the scientific world, rather than the media."

Dr Henry, at the National Poisons Information Unit at Guy's Hospital, is the only scientist in the country with a licence to provide pure ecstasy. But he also feels that the polarisation of the debate is holding back research. "It's a very important subject which deserves study. If we have anywhere between 50,000 and 500,000 people taking it every weekend, there's a need to know what it does in the majority of cases."

The focus on the few tragic short-term cases is skewing the public's notion of the important issues, he believes. "Ten or 20 deaths now is nothing, compared to the the possibility of epidemic depressive illness as these people grow up - with the attendant suicides that follow," he says.

Dr Curran, a senior lecturer at University College, London, has also completed a study - due to be published later this year - showing a "midweek dip" of depression among regular ecstasy users. "There's certainly not enough research going on," she said. "But it is very difficult to do because it's illicit.

"The media attention may have helped because it brings the subject to the minds of the committees who fund research. But the money on that level is going towards BSE."