Pubdate: Fri, 27 Mar 2009
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2009 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Colby Cosh
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)


  Warning: this column falls under the heading "Am I slowly going 
insane or is there more than meets the eye here?" Canada's press has 
been reporting this week on a heartbreaking incident that took place 
at the Paul First Nation 60 kilo-metres west of Edmonton. Several 
girls getting ready to attend a Sunday wedding reception took what 
they thought was MDMA, the popular club amphetamine known as ecstasy. 
Three or four of them fell ill, and two went into a coma and have 
since died. This is a confusing event, but the reaction has been even 
more confusing.

Many early news accounts uncritically described the sick girls as 
having fallen prey to an "overdose" of ecstasy. Now, as it happens, 
ecstasy "overdoses" are a lot less common than you might think. 
Earlier this month, a top drug-safety adviser to the U.K. government, 
David Nutt, caught hell for pointing out that if we redefined 
horseback riding as a behavioural addiction called "equasy," any 
rational harm scale would find it to be far more lethal than ecstasy. 
Nutt pegged the number of acute harm events from ecstasy use, for the 
purposes of contrived controversy, at no more than 1 per 10,000 exposures.

Yet even this is probably a massive exaggeration of the true amount 
of harm from ecstasy as such. Exact figures are hard to derive 
precisely because toxic reactions to ecstasy are so rare, and the 
drug does not even seem to have an established LD-50 (median lethal 
dosage) for humans. As pharmacologist Richard Green pointed out in a 
2004 article, "In the U. K., there are around 12-15 deaths a year in 
persons who have taken MDMA. Given the fact that around 500,000 young 
persons ingest the drug in a very uncontrolled way every week in this 
country, these figures do not indicate MDMA to be a particularly 
toxic compound." (The media, he added, was responsible for "much 
nonsense about MDMA being presented.")

And how many of those 12-15 deaths are actually the result of 
legitimate, uncomplicated overdoses, or of adverse reactions to 
ecstasy alone? Probably not many. A lot of "ecstasy deaths" turn out 
to be the result of hyperthermia and dehydration on hot, crowded 
dance floors. Others result from drug interactions. We might really 
be talking about roughly five genuine ecstasy deaths a year, against 
a U. K. background of about 25 million annual exposures to MDMA.

Those are long odds. Long enough to make it awfully suspicious that 
two girls in Western Canada should essentially drop dead at the same 
moment, without some common etiological element besides MDMA. Since 
the ill-fated girls weren't at a dance or rave, the obvious 
possibility that comes to mind is some impurity or adulteration in 
the batch of pills they took. If so, killer drugs may be circulating 
in the vicinity of Edmonton.

So far, there have been no other reports of adverse reactions to 
ecstasy. The RCMP is on the case, but for unclear reasons, they seem 
to find the "crazy coincidence" theory pretty satisfying. K Division 
spokesman Cpl. Wayne Oakes said that Stollery Children's Hospital 
staff found no evidence the girls had ingested anything but pure 
ecstasy, and he went out of his way to dismiss "rumours" that they 
had received a bad batch of pills. "It's not uncommon in a tragic 
situation like this for rumours of that nature to arise," he told CTV 
News, "because it's so devastating, it's so out of the norm, and 
they're looking for some extreme cause to rationalize a tragedy like this."

Well, yes. There are two dead girls who were alive last week; it is 
indeed natural to look for an "extreme cause." But it seems to me 
that the people who wondered about rat poison were basically showing 
good epidemiological instincts, and it's the RCMP's implicit 
explanation for the incident that should be regarded as the weird one.

The police, in general, are not known for their scientific literacy 
(or consistency or honesty) when it comes to illicit drugs. Like the 
media, they have a known susceptibility to unfounded claims and moral 
panics. And they are responsible for an abundant record of reported 
"ecstasy overdoses" that weren't. I am concerned that in this case, 
they may be accepting an account of events that fits the drug 
warrior's animistic world-view -- evil party drug kills innocent 
teenagers -- but that doesn't have much basis in fact.

It might be an idle question, were it not for the possible risk to 
other ecstasy users who have essentially been reassured by Cpl. Oakes 
that nobody's rave needs to be postponed just because of that downer 
on the rez. I appeal to the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta to 
exercise diligence in protecting the welfare of this region's 
hippies, burnouts, flakes and slackers.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom