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How the media reports Ecstasy


An essential part of democracy is for government policies to be questioned and criticised, a function normally undertaken by the media. However, the media fails to play this important role when it comes to illicit drug use. Instead of questioning policy and informing the public, the media supports government propaganda and suppresses contradictory views. The long term effect of this has been to disempower the public, making informed debate virtually impossible.
Deliberate misreporting is regarded as fair when it adds to propaganda against illicit drug use. When opinions differ on the dangers of illicit drugs, the media reports those which support the propaganda while ignoring opposing views, even of the most eminent scientists.
Research into drug use is also similarly biased through the grant application process. Funding to study negative effects of illicit drugs is available, while grants to study possible benefits are not. Publication of results is frequently biased, even respected journals reporting negative results of illicit drug use without evidence.
However, a new addition to the media is the Internet which is not subject to establishment pressures. This medium provides a platform for uncensored exchange of information and has become the most credible source of public knowledge on illicit drugs.
I am often accused by the media of promoting Ecstasy and of distorting the facts so as to make the drug appear less dangerous than it really is. However, the evidence I am about to present shows that the opposite is true: from respected medical journals to popular television, the media has consistently misrepresented Ecstasy through misreporting and selection of evidence so as to exaggerate its dangers.

At an international conference on Drugs and the Media(1), hosted by the British government in 1993, prominent personalities including TV presenters described how they believed illicit drug use should be handled. The emphasis was on discouraging drug use by emphasising harm rather than by providing unbiased information.

The accepted guideline for soaps on TV is that those using illicit drugs must be shown to regret their action through addiction, depression or even death. 'Balance' is taken to mean exaggerating negative aspects while ignoring the positive. Last year the government admitted that 'scare' campaigns did not work and announced that they would be replaced by information, but in fact the same policy applies. Propaganda is presented as education.

In October 1992, The Scottish Medical Journal published a paper entitled 'Ecstasy and Intracerebral Haemorrhage', which described how a 20 year old man had died "after his drink had been spiked with Ecstasy"(2). Since the symptoms described were unusual for MDMA, I asked the author how much Ecstasy and what other drugs were found in the patient. He replied: "Unfortunately, no assays for MDMA or related substances were made."

In spite of this remarkable failure, his paper was reprinted in the British Medical Journal and featured by the Glasgow Herald's medical correspondent under the headline 'Highlighting the dangers of Ecstasy'. Not only did this article state unequivocally that Ecstasy was the cause of death, but elaborated by adding that Ecstasy had been shown to cause serious brain damage and that patients were in psychiatric care as a result of the drug. Thus he combined three unrelated reports to produce a credible-sounding theory: research shows that Ecstasy damages the brain which is confirmed by this tragic death and has also made many others psychotic.

At this point I would like to summarise the evidence to date about neurotoxicity (often referred to as 'brain damage') due to Ecstasy. I am not stating that the drug is without dangers, but am confining myself to this one area as it is the most widely publicised and researched.

The widely publicised claim that Ecstasy causes neurodegeneration or brain damage (which might result in long term problems such as depression or even Parkinson's Disease) is based on animal experiments, most of them carried out by Ricaurte(3) and McCann(4). Since counting damaged neurons is impractical, they used indirect methods which are disputed by other experts, in particular O'Callaghan of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
O'Callaghan was given a $750,000 commission to find the most accurate method for assaying neurotoxicity in humans(5). He came up with a procedure called Reactive Gliosis which shows that Methamphetamine, Ecstasy and fenfluramine are not neurotoxic. His findings pleased the French drug company Servier who wanted to market fenfluramine in the USA, and this year the US Food and Drug Administration called both O'Callaghan and Ricaurte as expert witnesses to decide whether fenfluramine was safe. Ricaurte's research shows that both Ecstasy and fenfluramine are identically neurotoxic and therefore fenfluramine should not be released. But the expert committee took O'Callaghan's view and decided to grant unlimited use on the grounds that the benefits of fenfluramine outweigh the possible risks... It is a slimming pill.

O'Callaghan's view was again strengthened in June this year by the finding that, contrary to studies using Ricaurte's means of assay, chronic methamphetamine users' brains were not damaged when examined after they had died.6 The much-quoted evidence that "Ecstasy causes brain damage" has been severely undermined by these two events, yet the media has failed to mention either.

Now I would like to turn to a recent article in the British Medical Journal called 'Ecstasy and Neurodegeneration'(7) which argued that Ecstasy was more dangerous than generally realised. It was written by two scientists who are known and respected for their work on serotonin, and cited support from no less than 12 papers published in the scientific literature. To the doctor or medical correspondent on a newspaper, the article provided indisputable evidence that Ecstasy is extremely dangerous. However, all the supporting papers were published over a year previously while the recent evidence outlined above was ignored.

As an example of extreme damage that can be caused by illicit drugs, a large part of the article described how another street drug had caused symptoms similar to Parkinson's Disease, giving the impression to the casual reader that Ecstasy might also do so, although that possibility was investigated and dismissed in 1986(8).

As a result, The Guardian's medical correspondent warned that long term Ecstasy users may suffer from a kind of Parkinson's Disease. The paper was honest enough to admit their mistake by publishing my letter pointing out their mistake, but far more readers would have read the original warning than my letter, and be left with a false impression. Many other newspapers here and even in the USA reported the BMJ article as providing new evidence that Ecstasy is neurotoxic.
On April 7th this year, The Sunday Telegraph ran a prominent story entitled '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 claimed that Dr. Grob had found brain damage by using hi-tech brain scans on long term users. Two weeks later, the paper published Dr. Grob's response in which he denounced the article saying: "This is a gross distortion and misrepresentation of our research..."(9) The editor played down the rebuke by heading the letter: "Ecstasy: too soon to judge."

On 12th May, The Sunday Times ran a major feature by Olga Craig called E is for Agony: '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 type: '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! The same article also claimed 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"(10).

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". She admitted to me that her source was The Sunday Telegraph.

I wrote a letter to the editor pointing out the error, but he did not respond. So I took my complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, a supposedly independent arbitrator set up to adjudicate in such cases. Eventually I received their judgement: "The Commission ... did not believe that the short reference to it [i.e., what I have quoted above] in an article primarily about the beliefs of other scientists, would mislead readers. We regret that, in the circumstances, we are unable to help you further." Last year the Press Complaints Commission dealt with over 2,500 complaints and upheld 28. It is funded entirely by the press(11).

The success of the government propaganda campaign can be seen by comparing public attitudes towards Ecstasy and alcohol. An objective comparison of the harm caused by the two drugs would undoubtedly favour Ecstasy, yet public perception is the opposite. TV guidelines insist that anyone seen to use illicit drugs is bound to suffer as a direct result. By contrast, people may be seen to drink alcohol regularly and not regret it; in fact alcohol is often associated with a healthy lifestyle. This is indoctrination: if your life experience of the effects of illicit drugs is television, as it is for the great majority, then you will 'know' that they are bad. Illicit drug users have been made scapegoats for social problems, just as Nazi government propaganda made scapegoats of the Jews.

There are several results of this. The first is that intended: to put some people off using illicit drugs. But this perceived benefit is at the expense of a serious erosion of democracy, and this has undermined the credibility of the establishment. Millions of young people have lost respect for the law and politicians, who they see as hypocrites, and have turned their backs on the political process itself.

There is also a strange symbiotic relationship between Ecstasy users and the press. People who have a bad time on Ecstasy, as some certainly do, like to blame it on the chemical instead of accepting that the drug may have released feelings that were inside them anyway. This provides horror stories for the media and at the same time gives people excuses not to take responsibility for themselves ­p; a double loss, as Ecstasy can provide useful insights.

The classic urban myth concerning Ecstasy is that it is often spiked with heroin, a rumour widespread among E users and loved by the media to add a bit more horror. In fact, active quantities of Heroin have never been found in tests of pills sold as Ecstasy. This is hardly surprising since heroin is more expensive. In fact, positive feelings from small amounts taken orally are likely to be masked by Ecstasy, while those unused to heroin tend to feel drowsy and nauseous.
In 1993 Time Out ran a two page article claiming that "Ecstasy has turned to agony for thousands of E users as dealers spike tablets and capsules with heroin, LSD, rat poison and crushed glass"(12). The author and those mentioned refused to give me their source of information, nor could they provide any supporting evidence. I checked with the National Poisons Unit, and there had been no recent cases of poisoning from ground glass or rat poison. Yet when I reported my findings to the editor, he refused to publish my letter of correction on the grounds that he stood by his reporter, although a recent issue of Time Out declared that heroin in E was an urban myth(13).

There may well be more sinister commercial reasons for giving Ecstasy a bad press. The drinks industry commissioned a report that warned: "Raves have grown in popularity while the number of young people going to pubs has fallen by 11%... The parties tend to be alcohol free... They pose a significant threat to spending for sectors such as licensed drink retailers and drinks companies"(14).

However, Ecstasy's bad press may be partly attributed to the public liking to see things in simple terms, good guys and bad guys. Ecstasy is a scapegoat, everyone knows its bad. Its so much easier to see things that way than in their true but complicated perspective.

Lastly, a new addition to the media in the form of the Internet has provided a truly free source of information and discussion on illicit drug use. A number of newsgroups exist where people can post reports of their experiences and ask questions which others answer. My first book E for Ecstasy has been online for over two years where it is still consulted 400 times a day, and my site is a world-recognised source of information on Ecstasy.

©Nicholas Saunders 1996

1. Drugs and the Media: a seminar held in London as part of European Drug Prevention Week hosted by Emma Freud November 1992
2. Ecstasy and Intracerebral Haemorrhage by JP Harries and R de Silva, Scottish Medical Journal October 1992
3. Hallucinogenic Amphetamine Selectively Destroys Brain Serotonin Nerve Terminals by G Ricaurte et al, Science 229 986-988 (1985)
4. MDMA ('Ecstasy'): A Controlled Study in Humans by U McCann et al, Neuropsychopharmacology 10: 129-138 (1994)
5. Assessing Neurotoxicity of Drugs of Abuse by J O'Callaghan, NIDA monograph 1993
6. Striatal Dopamine Nerve Terminal markers in Human Chronic Methamphetamine Users by JM Wilson et al, Nature Medicine 2: 699-703 (1996)
7. Ecstasy and Neurodegeneration by AR Green et al, British Medical Journal 312: 1493-4 (1996)
8. Designer drug confusion: a focus on MDMA by J Beck et al, Journal of Drug Education 16: 267-82 (1986)
9. Ecstasy: too soon to judge by C Grob, The Sunday Telegraph 21st April 1996
10. Personal communication, 25th June 1996
11. Personal communications on and subsequent to 16th August 1996
12. Bitter Pills by P Flanagan, p.12, October 27 1993
13. Medicated Followers of Fashion by M Collin, Time Out, p. 13 November 13 1996
14. Raves Threaten Jobs in Drinks Trade by A Pierce, The Times October 4 1993 index
E for Ecstasy contents
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