Sophie Morris: Can we calm down about Ecstasy

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The Independent Online

The 50,000 people who spent last weekend expanding their minds and sensory perceptions on ecstasy will probably have missed the news that the drug might soon be reclassified from A down to B. The fact that it is officially considered one of the most dangerous drugs on the streets of Britain has most likely escaped them too, for if the after-effects of a night taking ecstasy gave even a hint to users that it should be ranked alongside heroin, they would probably have stuck to the vodka and tonics.

Those convicted of possession of ecstasy face up to seven years' imprisonment and dealing could confer a life sentence; the point of the archaic classification system being to match the punishment with the harm caused by the drug, something it fails to do. "Harm" here means the harm caused to the person taking that drug, not those around them.

The charity DrugScope says that, "after taking ecstasy users may feel very tired and low and need a long period of sleep to recover" and that regular use could lead to sleep problems, lack of energy, dietary problems, depression and anxiety. There are also fears that we are sitting on a timebomb generation of potential Parkinson's sufferers, yet the acid house crew are pushing on a bit now, and there is little evidence that they are unravelling.

Ecstasy is not an addictive drug and it is already eight years since a Police Foundation inquiry found it to be several thousand times less dangerous than heroin and to play a part in fewer than 10 deaths per year. Ever since the tragic death of Leah Betts in 1995, though, it has been difficult to shake ecstasy's reputation as a killer.

The dangers of ecstasy should not be underestimated. It can lead both directly and indirectly to death, and the associated and cumulative negative effects it can have on the health of users are potentially serious. Yet they pale in comparison with the consequences of alcohol and tobacco abuse. When he was chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Professor Colin Blakemore said ecstasy was "at the bottom of the scale of harm", a view which has since been corroborated by other leading experts in science, medicine and the police service.

In concentrating on the health fall-out of drugs, Home Office classifications short-sightedly ignore the social impact of drug use (though ministers are pushing for such consequences to be considered), rendering the system as arbitrary as when it was introduced under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Does anyone remember the one about the clubber who was so blissed out on ecstasy that he started a fight on a bus and stabbed an innocent bystander? What about the group of lads who each necked a handful of pills and gang raped a fellow raver? Or the party-goer who stands accused of date rape and is using the fact that he took ecstasy with his accuser as a defence? Then there's the woman who broke into her own parents home and stole and pawned her mother's jewellery to fund her ecstasy habit.

Of course you haven't heard any such tales, because ecstasy does not lead to the sort of violent and aggressive behaviour that alcohol does, nor does it develop into a dependency which users turn to crime to fund.

Professor David Nutt, the incoming chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has admitted that young people know that ecstasy is "relatively" safe. Pretending any different undermines having any classification system at all, where one is much needed.

s.morris@independent.co.uk

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