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Press Article A worthless and potentially dangerous experiment, as anyone who has lost a child to drugs knows

Serena Harding was 16 years old in 2011 when she took her first and last ecstasy pill. She suffered a heart attack and died that night. The number of people dying from ecstasy, or MDMA to use its chemical name, reached a peak of 58 in 2005, with figures falling to about 30 deaths a year since then.

Like cannabis, ecstasy isn’t as lethal as other drugs, but the detrimental effects can be long-lasting.

The number of people who have used it in the past year has remained fairly steady in the UK at about 1.6 per cent of the population, the highest rate of use in Europe.

That is why a publicity-seeking programme such as David Nutt’s Drugs Live makes me deeply uneasy.

I cannot imagine how Serena’s parents, or others who have lost children to ecstasy, will feel watching well-known people take the drug in artificial and controlled conditions. 

I worry about the effect it will have on young people who might feel inclined to experiment with drugs.
MDMA is a form of methamphetamine and a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system.

The main reported positive effects include feelings of euphoria, intimacy and closeness.

But up to a quarter of people report feeling worse, experiencing increased anxiety and mental confusion.
Yet the feelings it engenders are not the problem with MDMA.

Both the immediate and longer-term physical and mental side-effects are the real dangers.

When anyone takes ecstasy they display some level of what is called ‘serotonin syndrome’.

Serotonin is an important chemical in the brain which regulates mood, sleeping and eating habits, as well as thinking and behaviour processes, sexual function and sensitivity to pain.

Ecstasy reduces levels of serotonin and the response can be anything from increased heart and breathing rates, shivering, sweating and blurred vision to high blood pressure, high temperature, muscle twitching and agitation. 

And that’s just for starters.

In the days after taking ecstasy, depression, disrupted sleep and fatigue are common.

Studies have shown that it can also result in  long-term memory loss, psychiatric problems and impairment to the immune system.

The trouble with Professor Nutt’s programme is that the viewer is presented with a small fragment of research which cannot give us any answers about medical applications, while implying there could be a valid use for ecstasy.

And because some of those featured are public faces who needed to have previously used ecstasy to take part (to avoid any embarrassing side-effects on the show, such as death presumably) this lends a dangerous air of acceptability to the drug.

Prof Nutt denies there is a moral issue with this programme because, in his view, morality has nothing to do with science.

By choosing a banned substance for his experiment, Prof Nutt (who is not the leading UK neuroscientist in MDMA) has secured funding, controversy and an audience.

He’s giving an illicit drug publicity, taking a reductionist approach to its impact and claiming this study could indicate a worthy use for it.

This is not responsible science.

Radio Five Live Interview - 18th September 2012

Five Live Drive host Peter Allen talks to Professor David Nutt and Julia Manning about the Channel 4 progamme "Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial".

David Nutt and Julia Manning: is it right to take ecstasy in a TV trial?

The Guardian 22nd September

Professor David Nutt plans to test ecstasy live on Channel 4 to study its effects on the brain. Health campaigner Julia Manning says he risks glamorising the drug.