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Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Row over ecstasy 'downgrade'

By Jim Reed
Newsbeat reporter

Ecstasy use is linked to around 30 deaths a year in the UK

The government's top drug advisors have recommended that ecstasy should be downgraded from a Class A to a Class B substance.

The Home Office has told Newsbeat it is ignoring the advice, saying there is no such thing as a "safe dose" of the drug.

Ecstasy was placed in the top Class A bracket alongside heroin and cocaine back in the late 70s, before it was widely available.

It means anyone carrying the drug for personal use can get up to seven years in jail or an unlimited fine, while possession with intent to supply could mean a life sentence.

The 31 independent members of the government's advisory council on the misuse of drugs has recommended that it should be moved to Class B alongside speed and cannabis.

Most of the advisors reckon ecstasy is not as harmful as heroin or crack cocaine and causes far fewer deaths.

They found little evidence that use of the drug is linked to short term memory loss or criminal behaviour.

But the government, supported by some scientists, has criticised the recommendation, saying that ecstasy "can and does kill unpredictably."

Price plummets

Ecstasy is the third most popular illegal drug in the UK after cannabis and cocaine.

According to official government statistics, 470,000 people have taken MDMA pills or powder over the last year. Overall one in 10 of us has taken the drug in our lifetime.
The main problem is that because it is an artificial stimulant, the effects wear off with use
Andy Parrott from Swansea University

But use has been dipping since the start of the century as people have switched to cocaine and ketamine.

The street price of ecstasy has also fallen sharply since its peak back in the early 1990s.

A single pill now costs between 1 and 3.50, according to the charity DrugScope, while MDMA powder averages 39 per gram.

A single pill bought in Liverpool in 1992 reportedly cost between 15 and 20, although the actual active MDMA content was thought to be higher.

Health risks

The last official statistics from the government show ecstasy use is linked to around 30 deaths a year in the UK compared with 85 for cocaine and nearly 600 for heroin.

But specialists think most fatal accidents are not down to the direct toxic effects of the drug but the circumstances in which it is taken.

Ecstasy heats up the body and the brain, making users feel hot and thirsty. Some become confused and tend to drink too much, diluting the level of the mineral sodium in the body.

It is that condition, called hyponatremia, which can lead to sickness, fainting and, in extreme cases, death.
Pint of beer and cigarette
A recent study found alcohol and tobacco riskier than ecstasy

But drug charities and some scientists argue the health risks do not justify its Class A status.

A recent study ranked 20 substances by the risk to the user and society. Ecstasy came bottom behind both alcohol and tobacco.

The head of the government's drug advisory body, David Nutt, was forced to apologise this week after comparing ecstasy risks to the danger of horse-riding in an academic paper.

Memory problems

But other researchers reckon the dangers of taking ecstasy have been understated and there are signs the drug is more harmful than first thought.

Andy Parrott from Swansea University, who gave evidence to the council, reckons it is at least as powerful as cocaine.

He told Newsbeat that regular users can suffer a range of health issues from breathing difficulties to depression, memory problems and sexual dysfunction.

"The main problem is that because it is an artificial stimulant, the effects wear off with use," he said.

"You end up after two to three years not being able to get a hit and that makes you more susceptible to alcohol, cigarettes and harder drugs."

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