LEADING ARTICLE : The agony of Ecstasy

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The Independent Online
The drug Ecstasy can kill those who take it. That much now seems to be beyond dispute. One moment on Saturday night, Leah Bett was enjoying her 18th birthday party; the next, she had collapsed into a coma. However infrequently such events take place, no one any longer can regard this as simply a "happy drug" with no ill-effects.

But what should be done about Ecstasy? It is a class "A" drug, bracketed with heroin and cocaine. Suppliers face jail and anyone caught using it can expect a criminal record. Many people, horrified by this most recent tragedy, will now call for a crackdown, including longer prison sentences.

This is an understandable response. But it is not the answer. Ecstasy is the biggest recreational drug to have hit Britain since cannabis. Thousands of young people take it to get the high-energy effect that is so well- suited to dance culture. Most people who use it do so with no apparent side-effects.

They are not much influenced by the pleadings of parents or teachers. Leah Betts' stepmother had warned her against taking drugs. As a nurse, Mrs Betts is aware of the possible dangers, as is her husband, a retired police inspector. And their daughter may well have been conscious of the risks she was running. She was studying chemistry, biology and psychology, and so was no stranger to the effects of pharmaceuticals.

This case demonstrates that Ecstasy cannot be wished away. The authorities would catch a few people by raiding dance raves. But a clampdown would mean that the supply of Ecstasy would simply be driven further underground.

Such an outcome would only make matters worse, placing young people in even greater danger from unscrupulous dealers and the adulterated drugs they supply. Suppliers would continue selling tablets that are mixed with binding agents ranging from dog-worming drugs to aquarium cleaner.

Young people such as Leah Bett need to be protected. The way to do that is to understand what they are consuming and control its quality. Ecstasy must be brought within the law. That may mean making it a substance whose use is frowned upon, but not criminalised: like smoking or parking on double yellow lines.

Such an attitude would also make it easier to ensure that when people use Ecstasy they take it in as safe circumstances as possible. Since heat stress and dehydration are important factors in a number of tragedies, clubs where people take Ecstasy would, for example, have to be properly ventilated and offer a plentiful supply of cold water.

This is the sensible, thoughtful approach to saving lives threatened by drugs. Few politicians seem willing to put such proposals forward. But if they really care about the dangers drug users like Leah Betts face, they should be courageous and speak out.