The Peter Jennings MDMA special was, without a doubt, the most favorable account about an illegal drug ever to appear on network television.
The basic story line was: Here’s a drug with wonderful effects (and some risks, of course), invented and distributed by a bunch of smart, decent, creative, open-minded people, and banned and then lied about by a bunch of dishonest killjoys from the Federal government (with the collaboration of some truly whorish and incompetent scientists). But the efforts of the Bad Guys have completely failed to prevent the spread of the drug and have damaged the government’s credibility in the process.
Now, that’s a more accurate story than the war-on-drugs MDMA-rots-your-brain party line, which has been the staple of mass-media coverage of MDMA, but it’s certainly not the whole story. It’s not entirely accurate, and it’s far from complete.
First and perhaps most annoying, though certainly not most important, Michael Clegg, who developed the multi-level-marketing scheme that made “E” a mass-market drug in the mid-1980s and then got it banned, was hardly a philanthropist. He was a cynical businessman, who gave the drug the name “Ecstasy” — which is actually a rather poor description of its typical effects — because the more descriptive “Empathy” didn’t sound like a big seller. When warned that his methods would get the drug banned, Clegg is said to have replied, “Yes, and then I’m going to get very rich.” Clegg is to MDMA as Leary is to LSD — with insensate greed thrown in on top of the spiritual arrogance — and neither is anything like a hero in my book.
Second, the claim that the ban and the subsequent campaign had no efficacy is almost certainly wrong. Yes, MDMA spread like wildfire in the mid-1990s, but that was a decade after the ban. If it had continued on the exponential growth curve generated by Clegg’s Amway scheme, it would have spread much further much faster. And the Peter Jennings report — mostly shot last summer — missed the data that came out in December showing a collapse in rates of MDMA use among high-school students.
It’s quite possible that MDMA will maintain its position as the second-most-widely used illicitly produced drug behind marijuana — it’s even possible that the reduction in use levels will prove to have been temporary, and that MDMA use in the future will exceed what now look like the peak levels of 2001 and 2002 — but it’s also possible that the drop in use will be as rapid as the increase, leaving people like me looking rather silly for thinking that a big new endemic (as opposed to epidemic) drug had suddenly appeared on the scene. (The 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows initiations down a little bit from 2001; it will be interesting to see if that trend continues when the 2003 data are released.)
Third, while it’s certainly true that NIDA under Alan Leshner disgraced itself by funding and hyping bad science, it’s also true that it was Leshner’s replacement, Nora Volkow, who started to purge the anti-MDMA b.s. from the NIDA website (and cancelled the hilariously fraudulent “Your Brain on Ecstasy” postcard campaign). Volkow also pressed Ricaurte to do the checking that eventually forced him to retract his “Parkinson’s” study and two others.
So the anti-government tone of the story was, while far from baseless, something less than balanced. (And I’m sad to say that the Democratic friend who emailed me with the comment “How come I’m not surprised that the government of George W. would be promoting phony drug data?” had it backwards: it was Clinton’s NIDA Director who did the dirty work, and Bush’s that tried to undo it.)
And the Peter Jennings report entirely ignored the responsibility of the journals, including Science, that published the (in some cases obviously) bad science and the media outlets (including ABC News that uncritically gobbled it up.
Fourth, the risks, though acknolwedged, were fairly heavily downplayed. No mention was made of the tendency of the drug’s pleasurable effects to go away with repeated use in a non-time-reversible, non-dose-reversible fashion, which does sound a great deal like something permanent is being changed at the cell-and-tissue level somewhere in the brain. The midweek depresssion Valerie Curran found in a substantial proportion of her sample of London weekend ravers also went unmentioned.
Still, not a bad job, all things considered. When you have 60 minutes minus 18 minutes of commercials to tell a complicated story, something’s going to get left out.
And I’m pleased to report that my 15 minutes of fame remain largely unused.
Here’s a tape of the show without the commercials (except for a rather hilarious ad for a pro-marijuana bookstore in Vancouver spliced on to the beginning.)