Drug Law

The Los Angeles Times' Scare Article on Ecstasy

| by Reason Foundation

By Jacob Sullum

Nostalgic for the Clinton administration? Take a walk down memory lane by reading a classic Ecstasy scare story from the Los Angeles Times, headlined "Death at Electric Daisy Carnival Draws Attention to Connection Between Raves and Ecstasy." According to the subhead, "Officials, doctors and participants acknowledge that Ecstasy use is increasing and particularly widespread during events such as raves." A few excerpts:

 

The connection between drug use and raves—massive dance parties that feature electronic music and sometimes last 12 hours—is well-documented. Some who attend consider the use of Ecstasy integral to the experience....

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A police officer saw a young black couple drive by and pulled them over. What he did next left them stunned:

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Ecstasy is an illegal synthetic drug that law enforcement officials say is most often manufactured in foreign countries and smuggled into the United States. Although many users believe the drug is a safe alternative to more dangerous illicit drugs, Ecstasy can be deadly and cause lasting side effects, medical experts said.

Extreme thirst can be caused by Ecstasy use, said Dr. Marc Futernick, medical director of emergency services at California Hospital Medical Center. In response, a person may drink enough water to lower sodium levels so severely as to hamper the ability of neurons—nerve fibers in the brain and throughout the body—to transmit impulses that keep the body breathing and the brain thinking. As a result, a person may fall into a coma or have seizures.

"It's as if you turned the electricity off," Futernick said....

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has tracked an increase in methamphetamine being added to Ecstasy; and more recently, other types of chemicals, such as ketamine, primarily used as a horse tranquilizer, said DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen.

Similar to adrenaline, amphetamines can increase a user's heart rate so much that the heart fails. It can also cause body temperature to rise to 109 degrees—precipitating what Futernick compared to organs melting.

Scary stuff. But the really frightening thing about the story, in terms of what it says about the perennial eagerness of newspaper reporters to serve as prohibitionist propagandists, is that it appeared on Tuesday. Although national data indicate that Ecstasy use has been falling or flat since 2001, the Times claims it is on the rise in Los Angeles County:

In 2005, 4.5 of every 10,000 people entering treatment for substance abuse in Los Angeles County said Ecstasy was their primary drug of choice. By 2009, it was 33.6—more than seven times as many.

That's right: The prevalence of Ecstasy use among people entering treatment increased nearly 650 percent over five years, from 0.045 percent to 0.336 percent. It's an epidemic!

Still, if seizures, melting organs, and addiction were common among the millions of people who use Ecstasy each year, the drug's popularity among the kids today with their raves and their techno music would be hard to fathom. Notably, the two main hazards the article ties to Ecstasy use—unknown additives and excessive water consumption—are created or compounded by prohibition, which makes drug quality unreliable and impedes a culture of responsible use. Toward the end of the article, the Times implicitly acknowledges that safety depends on context:

Dr. Karen Miotto, a clinical psychiatry professor at UCLA and medical director of the UCLA Alcoholism Addiction Medical Service, said other events, such as the annual Burning Man held in the Nevada desert, have developed an organic, communal safety culture, where hundreds of people volunteer to provide medical services.

But at massive raves, Miotto said, the same community of volunteers promoting safety cannot be found.

"Everyone is doing it," Miotto said. "It's very available and acceptable in that context, because there's no grownups. This scale of young, vulnerable people is just a setup for drug dealers peddling marginal, bad, unsafe drugs."‬‪

I reflected on an earlier Ecstasy panic in a 2002 Reason article. In a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece, I warned that Joe Biden's anti-rave legislation would only compound the dangers associated with underground use of black-market drugs. That same year, Ron Bailey highlighted the scientific errors that led to headlines about the alleged connection between Ecstasy and brain damage.