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The End of Ecstasy
The Times of London
October 31 1998

Positron emission tomographic evidence of toxic effect of MDMA ('Ecstasy') on brain serotonin neurons in human beings,
by U. D. McCann; Z Szabo; U Scheffel; R.F. Dannals; G. A. Ricaurte
The Lancet Vol 352, Oct 31, 1998, 1437



The drug can seriously endanger your health. This morning, all over Britain, young people are coming home from nightclubs, undressing quickly and pulling their bedclothes up over their heads. They want to sleep. The effects of the drug Ecstasy which they took yesterday evening have almost worn away, though their eyes are still jittery and their hearts beating a bit fast. But a post-drug depression has not yet taken hold, and probably will not do so before this evening - when it will be time to "drop another E", anyway. This is the widespread reality of a weekend in clubland. In Britain, an estimated one million people between the ages of 17 and 35 take the designer drug Ecstasy every weekend. They are in search of the "high" that will dissolve their worries and give them the energy that they need to dance all night.

New research published in the latest edition of The Lancet should give these recreational drug users pause for serious thought. Scientists from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, have shown that Ecstasy causes long-term brain damage in those who take it frequently. Levels of the nerve transporter, serotonin, carrier of messages to different parts of the brain, have been found to be significantly lowered in Ecstasy takers - even those who have not indulged in the drug for several years. The capacity for thought, memory and emotion is impaired. As a youthful generation enters middle age, the legacy of this currently fashionable, but illegal, drug could be severe as past users find themselves suffering depression, anxiety, memory disturbance and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

After the death of Leah Betts in 1995, a national poster campaign was launched; its headline "Sorted" was intended to scare youngsters away from the little white "Disco Biscuit" which had killed her. It had, if anything, the opposite effect. For a daredevil few, the gamble of taking a potentially fatal tablet simply added to the thrill. More normally, users consoled themselves that fatalities are few, that the drug is not addictive, and that alcohol, the legal alternative, is just as dangerous, more expensive and rather less fun. Where alcohol can make a person aggressive and antisocial, Ecstasy, its users claimed, made them more articulate and outgoing. No Ecstasy- crazed madmen, they argued, smashed bottles in each other's faces at closing time. Until now, the only significant downside of this drug seemed to be the hangover which can leave users irritable, depressed and unable to concentrate for a day or two.

But the new research published in The Lancet, coming as it does as the latest in a line of admonitory articles, cannot be brushed aside. Ecstasy users can no longer afford to make allowances. They must face up to the consequences of their pleasure. The facts must be made starkly public. Campaigns should not rest on scaremongering tactics which, dabbling in the jargon of the drug-taking culture (as the headline "Sorted" did), only serve to encourage an anti-authoritarian drug-chic. With role models such as Kurt Cobain or River Phoenix, rebellious youth is dangerously seduced by the "live fast, die young" ethos. What it will find more hard to countenance is the prospect of self-imposed decay, the gradual addling of the brain, the debasing of feeling and emotion - the valued faculties which the drug Ecstasy was supposed to stimulate in the first place.