Just say “know”

There are really only two things that are known about MDMA, the drug popularly known as ecstasy. One is that recreational use is skyrocketing and has doubled among teenagers during the past year. The other is that we know almost nothing about how it works, what the long-term effects are, or what to do about the fact that every weekend hundreds—if not thousands—of young people in the Sacramento area are taking it.

That’s frightening, since there are reasons to believe that ecstasy may be very harmful, and that’s why the federal government needs to begin a comprehensive research and education program regarding MDMA. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that we’re going to see the standard drug war tactics: mass arrests, draconian sentences, civil rights violations, scare tactics and “just say no” campaigns. Recent weeks have seen some states passing laws requiring mandatory, decades-long sentences for ecstasy sales, and others invoking federal “crack house” laws that allow the arrest of property owners who allow an event where MDMA is allegedly used to be held on their property. Meanwhile, an “educational” campaign is underway that is more frightening than informative, as MDMA is routinely referred to as “the new crack.”

There’s no reason to believe this nonsense will be any more effective now than it has been with any previous wave of substance abuse. America is well into its third decade of its war on drugs, and all we have to show for this $40 billion per year effort is a prison population that tops two million and includes 500,000 non-violent drug offenders. Drugs are cheaper, more pure and more widely available than at any other time in our history.

There are many reasons the standard approach has failed, but one key factor is that it does not deal with the demand for drugs. Education, not incarceration, is the key to reducing demand, which is the only way real progress will be made.

But education begins with accurate information, and that’s been in short supply when it comes to MDMA, largely because federal laws make it nearly impossible to do research with humans. One important animal study suggests that even one recreational dose of ecstasy may cause permanent brain damage, and that’s certainly cause for alarm. Yet that study has been widely criticized as inconclusive, and many experts maintain that we just don’t know what the risks are.

It should go without saying that the uncertainty about ecstasy should be enough to deter people from experimenting with it. But it’s going to be difficult to convince young people to “just say no” unless we know what the real risks are. Let’s find out.