Here in the UK, one of very few scientific studies into the effects of MDMA (the active component in Ecstasy) has been carried out – and televised – this week. The fact this experiment has found its way to TV is a result of funding being supplied by Channel 4, which adds an odd extra layer to proceedings. Once the pill was taken (each volunteer was tested twice to allow for a placebo control), the participants were first loaded into an fMRI scanner for two hours and then interviewed and asked to take personality and trust tests – all while still high.
The show was mostly filled up with clips of interviews with participants while high, framed with live studio discussions. Small segments of the program were given to displaying the impurities mixed in with the ecstasy that is sold illegally via an interesting analysis of drugs seized at Glastonbury, but for such a high-profile show with such a wide audience, this potential source of danger was not extrapolated anywhere near enough for me. There were also a few debates between the two scientists running the experiment, who were very prepared to argue for certain uses and a few other scientists with opposing views. These got extremely lively and confused, perhaps reducing the impact of these sections – personally, I mentally tuned out at times.
The whole show took place in a very strange atmosphere, with a room full of users and ex-users being constantly asked for their opinion. This added a certain air of legitimacy to the whole idea of taking MDMA, which perhaps went too far and portrayed it as too OK on occasion. And while the possible long-term negative effects are another aspect that is almost unexplored by science, the emphasis to proceed with caution that should have been there was definitely absent.
It is undeniable that, with the exception of the ex-soldier, all the participants reported overall positive experiences. Recollections of positive memories in the fMRI scanner are enhanced, while the experiment appeared to suggest that negative memories are easier to handle, with a reduced emotional impact. The scientists running the experiment professed a belief that these conclusions provided an argument for use of MDMA to unlock traumatic memories while blocking the emotions that had previously hindered recall.
Personally speaking, I have become very open to the possible benefits of legalisation of some “drugs” over the last few years. I do believe there are significant flaws in the current approach, including the fact it encourages the addition of unknown and potentially dangerous components to the inevitably available pills. However, this show seemed to be deliberately taking as much context as possible out of the debate. While perhaps attempting to mimic the isolated scientific approach that the core experiment correctly took, I don’t think that is the correct approach for a show that has been so widely trailed and will have been very well watched.
More important than this TV show are the results of the published research – which has obviously not been released yet. While the fact that the experiment has gone ahead is a good thing, the TV show focusing on 6 of the 25 subjects is an example of the anecdote-based response that far too much of modern politics and legal policy is based on. A scientific method must be applied where possible and should be encouraged to leak into politics – sensationalist shows like this are not the way to go about promoting that approach.
Experiments like this are essential, and should be encouraged, with the results used to inform and educate at the highest level. This experiment could be the one that sparks more and it is important that they are funded to be carried out in a understated and effective way, without the attention that TV piles on.