E for Ecstasy by Nicholas Saunders
Chapter 8: Ecstasy and the media
For more recent information, see British Media Scare and Ecstasy Dangers
on my site ecstasy.org online in both North
America and Europe
At an international conference on drugs sponsored by the British government
in 1992, the TV and radio presenter Nick Ross was asked whether he thought
the media got the right type of message across to young people.(92)
It depends what you mean by the right type of message. I think it puts a
very antiseptic message across. I suppose if we were to tell the truth,
we would point out that many drugs are fun. They give you an extraordinary
sensation of exhilaration, of excitement, of energy, of capacity, calmness,
insight, escape, relief and pleasure - above all, pleasure. That's why so
many people take them. Again, if we take a less antiseptic approach we would
say that very, very, very, very, very few youngsters who get involved with
drugs will become addicted to them or have serious problems with them. Far
more of them will die or become seriously injured through road traffic accidents.
But you wouldn't allow us to say that. And I'm not sure that being honest
is really what society asks of the media. I think that what we are being
asked, under a rather fraudulent umbrella of being candid, is to carry a
PR message. My experience of doing programs in this area is that the closer
you get to the street and the more you talk to people who actually work
in the area, the less concerned they are to hear this PR message and the
more they want us to say the sort of things that, at the moment, I think
we fail on. We are not saying some of the true things.
Remember that the constituency of drug users is a very broad one. We are
not just talking to the one person who has one view of life. We are talking
to millions of people almost all of whom have dabbled with addictive substances.
Not only the substances that are illegal, but the substances which are legal.
This is the complexity of it. I'm not sure society wants us to talk about
it all that elaborately. It likes the simple message: 'Drugs are there,
they are bad, they are criminal and you shouldn't go near them'. I think
that we do that message pretty effectively.
It is easy to justify this position by saying that the government made Ecstasy
illegal to protect its citizens. The argument goes: 'We, the responsible
media, should not encourage people to break the law or harm themselves.
However, there is a lot of interest in the subject, so we must report it.
Therefore, we will edit our material so as to cut out anything that might
encourage people to break the law.' This may sound alright, but the fact
is that you cannot tell the truth when you leave out one side of a story.
Press scare stories
Even the 'quality' newspapers and medical journals do not report on Ecstasy
fairly. In October 1992, The Scottish Medical Journal (and later The British
Medical Journal) published an article entitled 'Ecstasy and Intracerebral
Haemorrhage', where a case is described in which a 20-year-old man died
after 'his drink was spiked with Ecstasy', and three others who had survived.(93)
As the symptoms appeared to me more typical of amphetamine than of MDMA,
I wrote to the author of the report asking how much MDMA was found in the
patient. He replied: "Unfortunately no assays for MDMA or related substances
were made in any of our cases." In other words, he had done no tests
and had no hard evidence that Ecstasy was involved at all.
Despite the lack of evidence that MDMA was involved, the case was picked
up by various newspapers including the Glasgow Herald, whose medical correspondent
reported under the headline "Highlighting the dangers of Ecstasy".
The article had an authoritative tone and stated unequivocally that the
cause of death was Ecstasy, while implying that the drug was known to cause
serious brain damage. The article mentioned an "epidemic of use"
and referred to patients in psychiatric care as a result of taking Ecstasy,
inferring that psychological damage was due to a similar physical cause.
In October 1992 The Times commissioned me to write a front page feature
on Ecstasy for the Saturday Weekend Times. I warned the editor that my conclusions
were likely to be far more positive than any that had so far been published,
and made it a condition that I would only go ahead if I could be sure that
the piece would not be edited in a way that altered the sense or made me
look silly, and the section editor, Jane Owen, agreed. I was very pleased
as I felt sure that a positive article in The Times would carry considerable
Eventually I was told that the editors were very pleased with the piece
I wrote. It was a serious article addressing the question of toxicity based
on references to the latest research, and concluded that the case against
the drug is not proven. Yet it was never published - the paper seemed more
concerned with not upsetting their establishment readers than publishing
Then, shortly after my article was due to appear, The Times included the
following piece by Dr. Thomas Stuttaford in the Medical Briefing column:
A thirst for Ecstasy
Ruthless rave promoters are allegedly restricting the supply of water to
dancers rendered overpoweringly thirsty by the drug Ecstasy, so that the
revellers may be persuaded to buy more costly drinks. At the same time,
it has been reported that several would-be nannies have been sacked from
the Norland Nursery Training College for experimenting with the drug.
Both ravers and emergent nannies should read the British Medical Journal
editorial by Dr. John Henry, consultant physician at Guy's, on the pharmacology
of Ecstasy, a drug first patented in 1913 as an appetite suppressant - and
rejected for this purpose. . .
This was particularly annoying as my article had contained the following:
Dr. Henry of the National Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital, London, the researcher
most quoted in alarmist reports, has been accused by one of his own sources
of a misrepresentation of the facts. In a recent article in the British
Medical Journal (MDMA and the Dance of Death), Dr. Henry claims that MDMA
has no therapeutic potential. To support his argument he refers to a study
by Dr. Greer where 29 volunteers were given the drug by psychotherapists
and "All 29 experienced undesirable physical symptoms. . ." including
nausea, stiffness and sweating.
In a letter in last month's BMJ, Dr. Greer accused Dr. Henry of omitting
the positive results of this study. "Eighteen of my subjects reported
positive changes in mood after their session; 23 reported improved attitudes
. . .
Subsequently, I offered the article to all the 'quality' national daily
papers, but each one refused it. Eventually, it was published in Druglink,
a 'trade' magazine for workers in the field. Though few people will have
read it there, I felt validated in that the editor satisfied himself of
its accuracy by checking up on the many references made in the article to
published scientific papers.
An idea of the attitudes of editors can be seen by the following correspondence
in March 1994:
To the Editor of Reader's Digest
Forthcoming article on Ecstasy
As author of the most popular book on Ecstasy, I was recently telephoned
by a researcher in connection with an article that you have commissioned
on the subject.
I saw the article you published last summer on Ecstasy. While the facts
may have been correct, the article was grossly misleading, giving the impression
that those who take the drug run a serious risk to themselves. Of course
all activities carry risk. But those who go skiing and horse riding run
a far greater risk to their life and health. The risk of taking Ecstasy
compares to that of going to a funfair, and is equivalent to that taken
on a short journey by car. Though only time will tell, evidence to date
indicates that Ecstasy users damage themselves less than those who drink
alcohol or smoke tobacco.
In fact, practically all of the deaths attributed to taking Ecstasy have
been due to overheating or mixing with other drugs (including alcohol).
Over the past year, while Ecstasy use has increased, the number of casualties
has declined markedly. This is due to information reaching users via leaflets
such as Lifeline's Peanut Pete series of comics, and Greater Manchester's
Safer Dancing Campaign which aims to save users from overheating - and to
a lesser extent, my own book.
I hope you will publish a more enlightened article, and one which contains
the information necessary for users to prevent damaging themselves. You
could well base it on the success of the Safer Dancing Campaign which has
undoubtedly saved several lives.
I suggest that you take note of the reasonable tone of the recent Newsweek
article (copy enclosed). I also suggest that you ask your researchers to
obtain a copy of the latest book on the subject written by a doctor and
a sociologist, just published this month. It is The Pursuit of Ecstasy by
Dr. Jerome Beck and Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum published by the State University
of New York Press, which gives an up to date overview of the topic.
I do not expect mention of my own book, but I would recommend that your
researcher reads a two-page feature on it in The Guardian 7/9/93.
Dear Mr. Saunders,
I have received your letter and I have no intention of publishing an article
along the lines you suggest. I stand by every word in our timely warning
in the article "A Deadly Kind of Ecstasy".
Russell Twisk, Editor-in-Chief.
When the first edition of this book came out I was rang up by a breakfast
TV show and invited to talk about it. I was ushered in to the studio and
sat on a couch next to the parents of a boy who had died, so they believed,
from taking Ecstasy. Although he had committed suicide which seemed most
unlikely to be caused by Ecstasy, I was their scapegoat. I was put in an
impossible position: I could hardly accuse grieving parents of unfairly
blaming their own failure on a drug, and had to put up with the father shouting
at me: "Have you ever held a warm, dead body of someone you loved from
taking Ecstasy? Then you don't know what you are talking about." There
was no doubt who was the baddy; I was set up.
Then I was interviewed for a BBC London radio programme. The interviewer
encouraged me to talk about all the positive aspects of the drug, and an
assistant congratulated me afterwards for coming out with the truth. Then
he said he wanted some background, and as I didn't know what he meant I
dithered and contradicted myself - and this was the only part of the interview
that they broadcast! As a result, I insisted on going live on the next interview
(with Radio Leeds). I wrote down answers to questions and, like a politician,
said them even if they didn't fit the question!
Tabloid newspapers said the book should be banned, and a Dublin newspaper
used its entire front page to say so. But some papers did support the book,
and when The Guardian published a two-page feature in favour I felt vindicated.