Sunday, February 8, 2009

Arguing About Ecstasy

U.K. professor says “E” no riskier than horseback riding.

Professor David Nutt of Bristol University and Imperial College, London, stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy last week when he compared the dangers of the club drug Ecstasy (MDMA) to people’s addiction to horse riding. In an article titled "Equasy: An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms,” published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Professor Nutt wrote: "Drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life. There is not much difference between horse-riding and ecstasy."

What makes all of this interesting is that Professor Nutt serves as the chairperson of the Home Office's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which will rule next week on whether ecstasy should be downgraded to a Class B drug in the British drug classification system. Drug treatment activists and government ministers immediately called for his resignation, saying Nutt was on a "personal crusade" to decriminalize the drug.

The BBC News Service reported that a Home Office spokesperson said recently that the government believed ecstasy should remain a Class A drug. "Ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably. There is no such thing as a 'safe dose'," he said.

Horse-riding accounts for 100 deaths or serious accidents a year in the U.K., according to Nutt. “Making riding illegal would completely prevent all these harms and would be, in practice, very easy to do.” In contrast, recent figures indicate about 30 deaths attributed to ecstasy use in the U.K. last year. “This attitude raises the critical question of why society tolerates - indeed encourages - certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use," Nutt wrote.

In an article by Christopher Hope in the Daily Telegraph, Nutt said: "The point was to get people to understand that drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life.” He cited other risky activities such as “base jumping, climbing, bungee jumping, hang-gliding, motorcycling," which, he said, were more dangerous than illicit drugs.

An ACMD spokesperson said: "Prof Nutt's academic research does not prejudice the work that he conducts as chair of the ACMD."

According to the Telegraph article, there are 500,000 regular users and between 30 million and 60 million ecstasy pills in circulation in the U.K.

In a letter published by the Journal of Psychopharmacology two years earlier, Professor Nutt used a more apt comparison to make the same point:

The fact that alcohol is legal and ecstasy not is merely an historical accident, not a science-based decision. Alcohol undoubtedly kills thousands more people each year than ecstasy.... Many relatively ill-informed and indeed innocent young people will continue to die and many more will end up with the destructive consequences of alcohol dependence or physical damage. If the same effort currently used to deter ecstasy use was put toward reducing alcohol misuse the situation might improve.”

Photo Credit: Foundation Antidote

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