Editorial: Is Ecstasy a Dangerous Drug?

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David Borden
South Australian Member of Parliament Sandra Kanck aroused some ire in her country, including from Democratic colleagues, when she told her fellow parliamentarians that "ecstasy is not a dangerous drug." This month she went on to say that she had attended a "rave" and that she felt much safer there than if she had been out at a bar. Again fellow politicos were neither enraptured nor amused.

Is ecstasy a dangerous drug? Certainly a lot of people say it is. Are they giving us the "straight dope" on that issue?

One way to decide this question is to look at the numbers. When former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman called for new mandatory minimum sentences for the drug in summer 2000, I took a look at the statistics, and was stunned to find that only eight deaths had been attributed to it by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) during 1998, the latest year for which the statistics were yet available. That was a national statistic, not New Jersey, and it was not clear in every case that ecstasy was the cause as opposed to just being present in the situation.

Compared this with the well over a hundred thousand dying each year from alcohol and the hundreds of thousands from nicotine -- well, I'm not sure what to say about it. Any preventable death is a tragedy. But is such a relatively miniscule number enough to justify calling ecstasy is a dangerous drug in the grand scheme of things? A study in the British Medical Journal made a similar finding, 81 deaths related to the drug between 1997 and 2000, 20 per year.

Certainly the numbers are larger now, as the drug's popularity has increased. But still we are looking at pretty small numbers. The DAWN mortality report for 2003 said that "clubs drugs were reported infrequently." Ecstasy is just one of the club drugs, so it was even less frequent when looking at ecstasy alone. Even adjusting for the larger number of users of those drugs, it is still night and day. And those numbers could be further reduced by ending prohibition of ecstasy to insure its purity and that users will know its potency, and by pill testing, safety information and other harm reduction programs operating in places like raves as Kanck suggested. Since neither ecstasy nor raves are likely to go away anytime soon, instituting those measures widely would be a good move. DanceSafe's web site is a good place to get information about that topic.

I would hesitate to say that any drug is completely safe, and the mortality numbers are greater than zero -- using ecstasy should by no means be done lightly without aforethought -- but the numbers also seem to say that ecstasy's dangers are radically less than many other widely used substances. So I would likewise hesitate to say that ecstasy is truly "dangerous," in the sense that most people think when hearing that word used.

Certainly the moves to enact draconian criminal sentences for ecstasy seem kind of bizarre in that light. In that light I would say that politicians are much more dangerous than ecstasy. The good Ms. Kanck and like-minded ones excepted, of course.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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