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E for Ecstasy
by Nicholas Saunders

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Chapter 8: Ecstasy and the media For more recent information, see British Media Scare and Ecstasy Dangers on my site 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.

The Times 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 influence.

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 the truth.

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

Dear Sir,

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.

Yours faithfully,

Nicholas Saunders

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".

Yours sincerely

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.