The Greasy Pole

Echolalia (part 1)
The war on drugs can’t be ended by logic, statistics or facts, because it’s not about drugs

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only a handful of hallucinogenic psychoactive substances known to humankind. By the end of the millennium there were hundreds. Most were discovered or rediscovered by the eccentric chemist Alexander Shulgin. Before he died at age 88, he had personally experienced the effects of these drugs thousands of times.

The drug that later became known as ecstasy wasn’t his favourite (that would be 2C-B), and he didn’t discover it. But for the man later known as the Godfather of Ecstasy, it remained a singular experience. “It caused this extraordinary, disinhibiting, honest response to self-image that I found to be unique,” he later said. “And I still believe it to be unique. I’ve found no other compound that has that exact family of properties.”

Shulgin thought this honesty would aid therapy, and passed the drug to an analyst friend. It proliferated, first among therapists, then made its way to universities and nightclubs. Shortly afterwards it was made illegal, but a huge natural experiment had begun. Millions upon millions of doses would be consumed in the coming decades.

The circumstances of the trial were less than ideal. The drug was now being manufactured by criminals, and disseminated in a contaminated form at uncertain doses. It was taken with other drugs, in environments like dance festivals, where consumers tended to either dehydrate, or overcompensate by hydrating excessively.

Despite this, adverse reactions were rare. The number of people to overdose on the actual substance was exceptionally low. By 2006, a study in the British Journal of Anesthesia reported that it was “clear that despite large-scale consumption of MDMA, serious acute illness remains relatively rare”.

Ecstasy wasn’t safe. But as a medication, it was safer than aspirin. As a risk, it was safer than horse-riding. And as a recreational substance it was cheaper, safer and better than its most prevalent competitor, binge-drinking. Public event police all over the world noted that it seemed to result in a marked decrease in violence.

You may have encountered some of this history before, indirectly or personally. You might also be aware that trying to table it as evidence in the “drugs debate” is not just a complete waste of time, but can destroy the careers of those who try.

That horse-riding comparison was made famous by the UK government advisor David Nutt. He was fired for it. When a police chief in Northern Wales made the comparison with aspirin, the Daily Mail called him “publicity mad”, and so on. One UK government figure said that Nutt’s “comments” meant he was clearly unfit to advise the government. Rationality was expressly forbidden.

Many doctors consume ecstasy, even toxicologists. One of the last people to die in Australia after taking a substance she believed to be ecstasy was a pharmacist. At the same series of festivals, Stereosonic, three police officers were found to have taken the drug.

What kind of information campaign can’t even convert those supposed to be enforcing it?

Most have undertaken a rational cost-benefit analysis. It is much more sensible from a risk point of view to take MDMA than to binge drink, for example. Professor Jake Najman, director of Queensland’s Alcohol and Drug Research Centre, has explicitly that that ecstasy is “a lesser evil” than binge-drinking, long a popular Australian pastime. It is “relatively benign if taken in small quantities”, he said. “When young people switch from a substantial amount of alcohol to a small amount of ecstasy … I don’t think that’s a bad trade at all. It is not likely that one pill on a Saturday night poses the same dangers as frequent binge drinking.”

Now those dangers seem to have increased. The deaths are still referred to as “ecstasy-related”, although in many cases the substances taken are unknown. Dr David Caldicott called it “the most dangerous season we’ve ever seen in Australia”, noting that there was a “a diversity of products on the market that not even drug nerds like myself know about”. New substances, many of which have never been in widespread circulation, are being beta-tested. On initial evidence, they seem to be less safe than MDMA. Most are being produced because of a minor success in the drug war – the destruction of an MDMA precursor agent, safrole, in South East Asia.

Despite years of ineffectiveness, the drug war in Australia has reverted to square one. Police have increased vigilance and penalties on “party-goers” found in possession of drugs, and have threatened to close down outdoor dance parties where drugs are taken. A Sydney magistrate has begun recording convictions for first-time drug possession, to “send a message” that he hopes will stop the deaths. The determination to learn nothing from a century of failed policies has been refreshed.


The second part of this article will run next week.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to the Monthly.

@rgcooke

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