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Can ecstasy kill?

Is ecstasy really the killer drug it was reported to be back in the '90s? Recent studies rank it safer to use than some legal drugs, so what's the story? TheSite.org sorts the fact from the fiction.

The latest findings

According to the Home Office there have been over 200 reported ecstasy-related deaths in the UK since 1996, however other sources suggest that the drug is "far safer than aspirin." So what's the truth?

The 2008 BBC Horizon Programme Is alcohol worse than ecstasy? examined a call by experts to use modern knowledge to update the drug policies first put in place in 1971. "Recent research has analysed the link between the harmful effects of drugs relative to their current classification by law... Perhaps most startling of all is that alcohol, solvents and tobacco (all unclassified drugs) are rated more dangerous than ecstasy, 4-MTA and LSD (all class A drugs)," the programme reported.

In fact, ecstasy ranked 18th in the list of 20 drugs, with one being most harmful. It came just above Poppers (19) and Khat (20), which are both legal and have not caused any known deaths.

Is ecstasy safe?

There's evidently a lot of confusion about the safety of ecstasy, but do these findings mean that ecstasy is safe? According to Ruth Goldsmith, from the independent drug information and expertise centre DrugScope, the answer is no.

"Ecstasy can kill, and just because your mate is OK it doesn't guarantee that you will be. Over 200 otherwise healthy young people have died in the UK after using ecstasy since the 1990s."

Heatstroke and ecstasy

Most people who have died taking ecstasy experienced symptoms associated with severe heatstroke, because the drug messes with the mechanism that controls body heat. "Experts believe that ecstasy-related deaths often result from the combined effects of the drug and the exertion of dancing for long periods in hot places, such as nightclubs or raves, rather than from any toxic effects of the drug," explains Ruth.

Ecstasy stimulates the nervous system. In a club setting this can encourage users to dance for long periods of time, and if the place is hot and humid overheating problems can occur. If the body temperature exceeds 40 degrees there is a real risk of fatal respiratory collapse. MDMA, the active chemical in ecstasy, is believed to have some anti-coagulative properties (which means blood can't clot properly). Under such conditions, this can lead to internal and external bleeding in some people, and ultimately death.

Warning signs of heatstroke include:

  • Cramps in the limbs
  • Fatigue and faintness
  • Headaches and vomiting
  • Inability to pee even if you feel the need, which is more severe than usual on ecstasy

Other dangers

Ecstasy raises blood pressure and heart rate. In some cases, this can put a fatal strain on users who have a pre-existing or undiagnosed heart condition.

Dancing in a club

Avoid overheating and dehydration

Reducing the risks

"No one can tell you how high the risks of taking ecstasy are, and the only way to completely reduce the risk is not to use the drug at all," explains Ruth. "Research shows that in 2006, 16 people died after having used ecstasy alone; and a further 26 died having used ecstasy with other drugs.

"It's estimated that around 567,000 people used ecstasy in 2006/07. While the number of people who died compared to those who used the drug may seem small, the risk certainly exists. Unfortunately, each time you take ecstasy, you're journeying into the unknown."

If you are going to use ecstasy:

  • Do it with friends who know what you're taking and when you've taken it.
  • Clubbers can reduce the risk of overheating by replacing the fluid they've lost through sweating. Take regular breaks from the dancefloor, and sip at a pint of something non-alcoholic, like fruit juice, isotonic sports drinks or water every hour.
  • Don't drink too much fluid. It's believed that some victims misunderstood the importance of sipping a pint of non-alcoholic fluid every hour, and instead drank in excess. As ecstasy is thought to cause water retention in the body, especially in the brain cells, the resulting pressure can cause vital body functions to shut down. This was the cause of Leah Betts' high-profile death in 1995.
  • Don't mix your drugs - and that includes alcohol, which can increase your risk of dehydration, and any prescribed drugs you may be taking.
  • Don't drive while using drugs.
  • Don't buy drugs from people you don't know.

Long-term health risks of ecstasy

The jury is still out on the long-term effects of ecstasy use. Some people believe that using ecstasy can cause depression in later life. "We have not seen a significant body of evidence that supports this theory, but then again, most of those who were using ecstasy when it first became popular in the 1990s are only now reaching their late 30s and early 40s," explains Ruth.

"Ecstasy affects the way the brain uses and produces chemicals such as the neurotransmitter serotonin, linked to feelings of pleasure. That's where the drug's mind-altering capacity comes from, but we don't know whether ecstasy users are putting themselves at risk of longer-term impacts on the brain's ability to manage serotonin production normally."

With thanks to DrugScope for help compiling this article.

Updated: 13/04/2010

Written by Susie Wild


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