How the media reports Ecstasy
I am often accused by the media of promoting Ecstasy and of distorting the
facts so as to make it appear less dangerous than it really is. But those
who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones!
On April 7th this year, The Sunday Telegraph ran a prominent story
Tests prove Ecstasy harm is permanent
by Rachel Sylvester
claiming that new research had established that Ecstasy causes "permanent
brain injury", based on an interview with the Californian researcher,
Charles Grob. The article said that Dr. Grob had found brain damage by using
high tech. brain scans on long term users. Two weeks later, the paper published
Dr. Grob's letter in which he denounced the article as: "a gross distortion
and misrepresentation of our research..."
On 12th May, The Sunday Times ran a major feature by Olga Craig called
E is for Agony, subtitled How many young people are clubbing themselves
to death on Ecstasy? illustrated by photos of teenagers captioned Killed
by the Drug Culture. The centre of the page displayed a quote in large
'Experiments detected profound effects on the brain, which were
confirmed by brain scans in long-term users'
The text revealed that this was based on the work of Dr. Charles Grob's
work on volunteers! The same article said that Mary Hartnoll (the senior
Scottish social worker widely condemned by the media for saying that the
dangers of Ecstasy had been exaggerated) 'has now backtracked, now saying
she believes the drug is "very risky"'. I wrote to Ms. Hartnoll
to ask whether she had changed her mind and if so why, and she replied:
"I have not changed my mind and restricted myself to clarifying what
I had said".
On 14th June, The Independent ran a feature by Glenda Cooper headed
Ecstasy users risking long term brain damage. In it she states that
"a study in the US, carried out for the Food and Drug Administration,
found 'profound' and 'permanent' effects on the brain which were confirmed
by brain scans on long term users". Her source was The Sunday Telegraph,
she told me, and blamed their cutting system rather than herself.
As it turns out, I had a pretty good idea what was coming. Rachel Sylvester
rang me a few days before the article appeared and said she wanted to paint
a more positive picture of Ecstasy, and got me chatting about Dr. Grob's
research in which I took part as a 'guinea pig'. (Perhaps talking to me
was her evidence for Ecstasy causing brain damage to long term users!).
In spite of her friendly come on, my suspicions were aroused when I heard
the clatter of her keyboard only when I mentioned something which
might be construed as negative.
Well, every profession has a few bad apples like Rachel Sylvester. But they
not only get away with it, what they say is repeated by other journalists
like Olga Craig and Glenda Cooper until the lie becomes 'fact'. This may
not matter in the rubbish press, but people do believe what they say in
the papers mentioned ­p; in fact, I have heard several people, including
Mr. Betts and social workers repeating the new 'evidence' on the BBC. I
would like to see such journalists blacklisted, unable to get work on any
respectable newspaper ever again.
More recently (15th June), the British Medical Journal published
an editorial entitled Ecstasy and Neurodegeneration which argued
that Ecstasy was probably more dangerous than generally realised. Although
the article impressively cited no less than 12 papers, the research results
referred to were all published well over a year ago: it contained nothing
new. However, it provided a dramatic example of the dangers of illicit drugs
by describing how a contaminated batch of a [different] street drug had
caused devastating symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.
The BBC news and nearly every paper reported the BMJ as publishing
"new evidence" about the dangers of Ecstasy; The Guardian's
medical correspondent warning that long term users may suffer from a kind
of Parkinson's disease! And on the highest authority; who would doubt the
word of the BMJ?
What was not reported anywhere in the media was that the drug fenfluramine
has recently been approved for long term daily use in the USA. This is significant
because the main researchers claiming that Ecstasy may cause long term brain
damage (on whose research the BMJ article was based), believe that
fenfluramine causes identical damage. Other researchers believe that neither
MDMA nor fenfluramine cause neurodegeneration, and the US Food and Drug
Administration expert committee took their view in approving fenfluramine.
In short, an overview of informed opinion could only conclude that Ecstasy
is probably less dangerous than previously realised.
©Nicholas Saunders 1996
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