Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 14:14 UK

Is ecstasy still a drug problem?

Leah Betts
Leah Betts died after taking an ecstasy pill in 1995

As the government's drugs advisory panel meets to discuss whether ecstasy should be downgraded, BBC News asks whether the debate has changed?

During the 1990s, ecstasy was rarely out of the headlines.

Who could forget the image of Leah Betts in hospital, connected to a life support machine, after she took an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party?

The Essex teenager's death became the cause celebre of the tabloids' war on ecstasy.

This decade has seen ecstasy replaced by cocaine and heroin in terms of column inches, but does that mean it is any more "safe"?

Harry Shapiro from DrugScope said ecstasy simply slipped off the radar when the rave scene lost its popularity.

"There was a time when every single ecstasy death made the front page and now they don't," he said.

"Everyone was talking about the dance scene, but inevitably anything to do with popular culture will have its day.

"Once ecstasy lost the association with a high-profile culture, it dropped off the radar in terms of public concern and attention."

Relative harm

The latest official figures show an estimated 567,000 people aged between 16-59 used ecstasy in 2006/07, and 272,000 of those were aged between 16-24.

Mr Shapiro believes usage has perhaps only slightly declined from the 1990s, while the price has dropped dramatically.

From a clinical point of view, we have never understood why ecstasy was classed as an A drug in the first place
Harry Shapiro, DrugScope

When the drug first hit the dance scene, it cost 25. Today, prices have fallen to as low as 5 or less, depending on quantity and quality.

In terms of ecstasy-related deaths there were 11 in 1998 and 17 in 1999. More recent figures show there were 246 deaths between 2003 and 2007.

But one thing that has not changed is the level of relative harm, according to Mr Shapiro.

"I don't think people would think ecstasy was as dangerous to individuals or the wider community as heroin or cocaine," he said.

"We support the idea that this drug should be in Class B. From a clinical point of view, we have never understood why ecstasy was classed as an A drug in the first place.

"It's not to say it is safe because it is clearly not but in a relative sense we have to have penalties that are proportionate to the risk and danger involved."

Firm stance

The government's drugs advisory panel is conducting a review of ecstasy and its harms, but previous comments suggest it will probably recommend it be downgraded from Class A to Class B.

Yet again, we watch as politics and science collide like protons in Cern
Mark Easton
BBC home editor

The incoming head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Prof David Nutt, has argued ecstasy is not as harmful as other Class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, and should be downgraded.

The ACMD has been meeting to hear from experts on how ecstasy, also known as MDMA, affects users, with the final report due to be published next year.

Senior police officers have written to the ACMD to say they would not support reclassification for ecstasy.

But even if the ACMD recommends reclassification, the ultimate decision rests with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, and the government has made it patently clear it will not change its mind whatever the evidence.

A Home Office spokesman said the government firmly believed ecstasy should remain a Class A drug.

"Ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably. There is no such thing as a 'safe dose'," he said.

More damaging

However, support for downgrading ecstasy has come from a few unlikely sources.

In January, North Wales Police chief constable Richard Brunstrom courted controversy when he suggested ecstasy was less dangerous than aspirin.

And in 2006, a group of MPs warned that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful to the nation's health than LSD and ecstasy.

MPs on the Commons science and technology select committee demanded an overhaul of the classification system to give the public a "better sense of the relative harms involved".

They commissioned medical experts to analyse 20 substances for their addictive qualities, social harm and physical damage.

Heroin and cocaine, both Class A drugs, topped the league table of harm, while alcohol was ranked fifth.

Alcohol, tobacco and solvents, which can all be bought legally, were judged more damaging than LSD (14th) and ecstasy (18th).

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