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Monday, 2 September, 2002, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Row erupts over ecstasy dangers
The price of an ecstasy tablet ranges from 4 to 20
Two British psychologists are at the centre of a row over the safety of ecstasy, claiming the drug may not be dangerous in the long-term.

University of Liverpool scientists Dr John Cole and Harry Sumnall, working with an American psychologist, have criticised animal and human studies which say the drug causes long-term brain damage and mental problems.

But their comments have provoked outrage from anti-drugs charities groups and parents of children who have died from taking ecstasy.

Other scientists have insisted the harmful effects of the drug are undeniable.

Ecstasy is a dance drug which causes euphoria
Writing in the magazine The Psychologist, published by the British Psychological Society, the pair said reported adverse effects of ecstasy could even be imaginary - due to the widespread belief that the drug causes long-term harm.

They believe much of the existing research into ecstasy damage is flawed and that some experts are guilty of bias.

Ecstasy is said to affect cells in the brain which produce the nerve message transmitter serotonin, known to influence mood.

But the changes observed involved the degeneration of nerve fibres, which can be regrown, and not the cell bodies themselves, say Dr Cole and his colleagues - including Professor Charles Grob, Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California.

'10% have tried drug'

Dr Cole and his team were highly critical of studies of the effects of ecstasy on young people, claiming many psychological problems begin in adolescence and could not be exclusively blamed on effects of the drug.

Other studies failed to find a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between ecstasy use and associated problems.

They even suggest the damaging effects of ecstasy may be all in the mind because "researchers and the media are discussing a hypothesised cause-and-effect relationship as if it were fact".

Paul Betts, whose 18-year-old daughter Leah died after taking the drug in 1995, described the article as "despicable" and said there was a hidden motive behind the article.

Ecstasy haul
An estimated two million ecstasy tablets are consumed in the UK weekly
"Whenever someone tries to say a drug is not as bad as people think it is there's an ulterior motive, and, mark my words, the same is true even in this case.

"It has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that every single ecstasy tabled destroys parts of the brain. The main thing it destroys is serotonin, and depression follows on from serotonin depletion."

Surveys indicate that about 10% of young UK adults aged 15 to 29 have tried ecstasy.

That figure jumps to about 90% for young people regularly attending outdoor raves or nightclubs.

Between 1993 and 1997 there were 72 deaths in the UK attributed to ecstasy.

Dangers 'very real'

During the same period there were 158 deaths caused by amphetamine or "speed", another popular dance drug.

Roger Howard, chief executive of DrugScope said: "This underlines previous studies that have said much of the evidence around Ecstasy is not as reliable as it could be.

"This reinforces the need for the Home Secretary David Blunkett to refer the classification of Ecstasy to the experts on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, so that we can have an evidence based drugs policy that we can all trust."

But Dr Michael Morgan, senior lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, said he had found "overwhelming evidence" that regular ecstasy use caused impulsive behaviour and impaired verbal memory.

Professor Andy Parrot, an addiction expert from the University of East London who has also studied the effects of ecstasy, said: "The deficits are very real and cannot be explained away as artefacts."

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"This report has created controversy"
Dr Jon Cole, report author
"We need to be careful that what we tell people is accurate"
DrugScope chief executive John Howard
"This report is in tune with comments made recently by other scientists"
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