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Is the government's drug policy doing more harm than good?

By Alexander Tyndall

Recent deaths linked to a new type of Ecstasy have led the former drugs policy adviser David Nutt to condemn the government’s current stance on drugs.

What is this new drug?

The substance is called PMMA. It is a more potent and toxic alternative to MDMA, which is the usual drug found in Ecstasy. This new substance is emerging in Ecstasy pills because of UN bans upon the base chemicals that produce MDMA. As a result, chemists have produced Ecstasy from chemically similar, but more toxic, base chemicals. The pills are most commonly of a red colour and bear the Superman logo.

The new drugs are up to ten times stronger than MDMA, but the effects are not felt as quickly. This means a drug user could take several doses thinking they have been sold weak pills – but when the drugs do kick in, the users have taken an overdose. Overdoses on PMMA result in a toxic body reaction that gives sufferers a dangerously, and sometimes lethally, elevated temperature. Four recent deaths, three in Suffolk, one in Telford, have been linked to a batch of such pills sold on British streets.

What is the debate?

David Nutt, a government drugs policy adviser until 2009 and professor at Imperial College London, has argued that the government’s current policy on drugs is to blame for the emergence of these new, more dangerous drugs. “The emergence of the more toxic PMMA following the so-called ‘success’ in reducing MDMA production is just one of many examples of how prohibition of one drug leads to greater harm from an alternative that is developed to overcome the block,” he writes.

Professor Nutt suggests that the deaths from the batch of Ecstasy pills are “a consequence of our current illogical and punitive drug policy.” Under current government legislation, producing, supplying or possessing illegal drugs can result in a lengthy prison sentence. This ranges from life imprisonment for the production or supply of so-called Class A drugs (the most dangerous prohibited substances), to sentences of up to two years for the possession of Class C drugs. Ecstasy is a Class A chemical, so anyone found in possession of it could receive up to seven years in prison.

What’s the proposed solution?

Professor Nutt suggests a number of measures to tackle the problem of drug-related deaths. He offers the example of The Netherlands, which offers the public facilities to test their drugs without fear of prosecution. With this, drug users know when they’ve bought something that isn’t what they thought it was, and the state is kept up to date on newer and potentially more dangerous recreational drugs.

Professor Nutt also proposes, more radically, making doses of chemically pure MDMA available to registered users through legal channels, which would allow the government more direct control over MDMA distribution.

Until these measures are realised, Nutt urges quicker seizure of Ecstasy tablets from the streets, then making information about the strength and contents of these seized pills available online. This, he argues, would let Ecstasy users check if they’re going to take something dangerous.

Questions for debate and discussion

  • What are the implications of a ban on MDMA?
  • Should certain party drugs be legalised? If so, which ones, and why?
  • Do you agree with Professor Nutt that the government’s drug policy is “punitive and illogical”?
  • What changes would you make to the current drugs policy?

Related resources 

A PMA death

This case study highlights the dangers of taking unidentified party drugs. 

Drug guidelines

A practical booklet, which advises young people how to behave in a drug-related emergency.

Drugs quiz

Test students’ knowledge of the different types and effects of drugs in this plenary.

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