Every weekend people of all ages flock to the venues of the north’s vibrant and varied dance music scene, raving together in huge warehouse-style venues or small specialist nights in spaces commandeered or custom built for clubbers. Their focus is the mutual appreciation of music and the joy of movement to “a series of wholly repetitive beats”. When these venues close at around 4am or later, the party continues, with hundreds, maybe thousands of after-parties taking place. Since its emergence in the late 1980s, the UK’s dance music scene has grown into a multi-billion-pound global industry, bringing jobs and cultural kudos to our cities and towns.
What many know but rarely discuss is that this partying is fuelled by the class A drug MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy or simply MD, consumed in the form of pills, powders and crystal. When we do get to hear about this drug, it is mostly as the result of the loss of a young person’s life. MDMA-related deaths have risen over the last seven years, reaching an all-time high of 92 deaths in 2018-19 across England and Wales alone. Calls on the government to regulate the MDMA market, rather than leave it in the hands of organised criminal gangs and small-time social dealers, have long been ignored. We are also facing a new set of problems with the emergence of online drug markets.
MDMA in its pure form is relatively safe, having been administered in successful clinical trials as a therapeutic drug to help people with all manner of health conditions, from PTSD to alcohol addiction. Yet successive governments have actively blocked science-based policy change about MDMA for therapeutic use, preventing much-needed clinical research via the prohibitive costs and bureaucracy required to run clinical trials with Schedule 1 substances such as MDMA.
At the same time, government have spent decades undermining harm reduction efforts for recreational users – such as free drinking water and on-site drug checking – for the sake of appearing tough on drugs. As Professor David Nutt, esteemed neuro-psychopharmacologist and former chair of the government’s own Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) testifies, when faced with the ACMD’s recommendation to downgrade MDMA to a class B drug in the late 2000s to reflect its lesser harms, the then Home Secretary Jaqui Smith shouted down the phone and promptly sacked him.
This politically immature approach has led bereaved families to campaign for better protection of young people via the creation of a legally regulated market for MDMA products, as we outline in a new report, Roadmaps to Regulation: MDMA. “Had Martha taken something that was licensed, labelled with a list of ingredients and recommended dose, she would still be alive today,” says brave parent Anne-Marie Cockburn, who set up anyoneschild.org in response to the passing of her 15-year-old daughter Martha in 2013. With no age checks, no labelling of strength and purity, no information on safe dosage, nor tried-and-tested harm reduction measures, Martha died having consumed nearly five times the active dose of MDMA crystal purchased from an illicit internet site with a friend.
Banning MDMA has done nothing to reduce its use over the past 30 years. Yet there is another way. As our report highlights, we now need to introduce careful drug policy change, starting with the rescheduling of MDMA to enable clinical trials. After that, we need to decriminalise all drug possession to stop the pernicious effects of prohibition (including the criminalisation of millions of young adults who use MDMA). Finally we must introduce a strictly regulated market for MDMA.
We would start with what is known as the pharmacy mode, where adults can purchase legally-produced MDMA following an array of checks, including for pre-existing health conditions that may increase a person’s risk of having an adverse reaction to the drug. Tragic events, such as Martha’s death, could be reduced, or even prevented altogether. Having researched dance drugs and club cultures for nearly 20 years, including the past three years painstakingly reviewing scientific evidence about MDMA risks, harms and benefits, it is clear we need drug policies that do what they are supposed to do: safeguard vulnerable populations. Let’s not have another wasted decade of sensationalism, misinformation and inaction. Instead reschedule, decriminalise and regulate
for a safer future.
Dr Karenza Moore is lecturer in criminology and security, at Salford University, and co-author of Roadmaps to Regulation: MDMA, published by the Beckley Foundation, and available at beckleyfoundation.org/mdma-report