Issue #46, December 1999
I recently was forwarded a sensational piece of journalism from the Fox News Archives entitled "Deadly Raves." The full multimedia version is available at www.foxnews.com in the Fox Files Archive, next to the story about burnt-out porn stars. There were a number of images that had been passed through distortion filters to make you feel like you're at a deadly rave and fearing for your life. Even the font was terrifying.
Needless to say, I was alarmed. Not in the way a fundamentalist or a prohibitionist would be alarmed, but quite the opposite. I wouldn't consider myself a "raver," but I have been to events that would qualify as "raves" and never felt anything like terror. The fact is I've never seen nor heard mention of anything that even came close to what was being reported.
As I read on, I learned that the drug ecstasy was the culprit. "Ecstasy use can have deadly results," one caption proclaimed. According to Fox, "Even short-term use of the illicit drug Ecstasy, or MDMA, can cause lasting damage to parts of the brain involved in memory and learning." Later they quote National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Dr. Alan Leshner, who echoes these warnings.
Scientific studies are referenced to back these assertions and to lend credibility to the aura of fear they attempt to create. "Previous research showed that humans who had taken Ecstasy scored lower on memory tests than people who had not." Fox's award-winning journalists have drastically oversimplified and misrepresented the "previous research."
A Novartis Foundation meeting on December 4, 1998 brought together leading researchers in the field of MDMA neurotoxicity to discuss their findings. Professor Andy Parrott made a presentation summarizing research on cognitive and behavioral changes in human MDMA users: "Several research groups have found that ecstasy users often display poor memory scores. These deficits are generally seen in those who have taken large amounts of ecstasy, rather than those who have taken it on just a few occasions."
He also pointed out that interpretation of these studies is difficult, because many of the ecstasy users studied had taken other illicit drugs that could have skewed the findings. There is no concrete scientific evidence that links occasional ecstasy use to impaired memory function, contrary to Fox's simplistic assertions.
The other study referenced by FOX was by Dr. George Ricaurte of Johns Hopkins University. He is known for his studies involving MDMA's neurotoxic effects on rats and monkeys. Fox refers to a study of his in which "six red squirrel monkeys were given MDMA twice a day for four days," which caused neurological damage that persisted for 7 years. Fox makes a point of telling us that "the amount given the monkeys was comparable to what some people at raves might take."
However, according to James P. O'Callaghan, Ph.D, Senior Science Advisor in the US Environmental Protection Agency's Neurotoxicology Division, the monkeys in Dr. Ricaurte's study were given at least 25 times the human dosage of MDMA. I might go home tonight and take 40 liters of vodka intravenously, but this would clearly reflect a problem with the individual, not with the substance being injected.
Also exaggerated is the risk of death associated with ecstasy use. On average, five to seven people per year die from using MDMA in the UK, where it is estimated that MDMA is used 500,000 times per week. Assuming these figures are accurate, the risk of dying as a result of taking MDMA is 1 in 5 million. One might note here that in the U.S., approximately 1,000 people per year die from acute salmonellosis, according to the Center for Disease Control, but there is no mass-media effort to shut down fast food restaurants, imprison chicken farmers, or veganize America! Ultimately, even horseback riding is statistically more deadly than MDMA, with the risk of death from a horseback riding accident estimated at 1 in 3 million.
The number of alcohol-induced deaths is a far bigger problem. Over 19,000 acholol-relate deaths occurred in 1997 in the U.S. alone. This figure is staggering when compared to the number of deaths caused by MDMA, and shows that alcohol is significantly more toxic than MDMA.
In fact, almost every fatality associated with MDMA has also involved alcohol or another drug. MDMA's toxicity increases greatly in conjunction with alcohol, because alcohol raises the body's temperature and causes dehydration. These factors help induce hyperthermia, which in turn has caused death in extremely rare cases. Death as a consequence of using MDMA has also occurred in individuals with underlying cardiac disease. However, it doesn't follow that we should all run out and take massive doses of ecstasy every weekend because the risks are so low. The risks are negligible only when MDMA is taken responsibly, in normal doses spread out over a sufficient length of time, and not in combination with other drugs.
Fox and NIDA are purposefully misinforming the public about the dangers of ecstasy. Dr. Alan Leshner, Director of NIDA, would have us believe that taking MDMA even just a few times puts one at risk of long term or permanent problems with learning and memory. Both Fox and NIDA have omitted that Dr. Ricaurte, whose study figures so prominently in their reports, has stated that "people could probably take normal amounts of MDMA three or four times a year without noticing any neuropsychiatric problems, but people who took seven or eight doses a night could be inviting problems."
NIDA isn't accidentally blowing MDMA's dangers out of proportion. The deceptions are quite deliberate and purposeful. On March 2, 1999, Dr. Leshner appeared before Congress to present the President's Request for a $10.3 million budget increase for NIDA. Three months later, Dr. Leshner testified before a congressional committee on drug policy. For both presentations, he used the same graphic images of ecstasy-induced brain damage. These images had the same impact as the egg-in-the-frying-pan commercials ("This is your brain on drugs! Any questions?"), and about as much scientific merit. What is frightening is that this misrepresentation is the information upon which our policymakers will base their decisions. Dr. Leshner shopped his pictures all over Capitol Hill, and NIDA's budget has grown accordingly.
Dr. Leshner may present his institute's findings in an apolitical, scientific-objective tone, but even a cursory glance below the surface reveals his profiteering objectives. The scandal-hungry media and the prohibitionists in the government depend on fear and ignorance in their campaign against MDMA. The facts reveal that MDMA is neither as dangerous nor as deadly as Fox and NIDA would have us believe. Their allegations are unwarranted and unfounded. The insidious reality is that fear and ignorance are often more profitable than truth, and Fox and NIDA are raking it in.
Joe McNeilly has a bachelors degree in screenwriting from Loyola Marymount University and is currently studying digital media. His first independent feature film, Wineland, is in preproduction and will soon grace the screens of theaters worldwide.1999 by Joe McNeilly