The Leah Betts story
In November 1995 the British media went to town over the death of Leah, a girl whose stepfather was once in the drug squad and whose stepmother goes round schools warning children about the dangers of drugs. The parents cooperated with the media to produce powerful emotive anti Ecstasy images of their unconscious daughter dying behind them as they were interviewed, with the noble aim of getting the message across that Ecstasy is highly dangerous and can kill. This was followed up by billboards showing her in intensive care with the caption "Sorted. Just one Ecstasy tablet killed Leah Betts".
It was not for two weeks that the cause of death was given as due to drinking too much water, and then only at the bottom of page 5 of The Times. Although the official inquest confirmed this, it was revealed that she had also had several strong alcoholic drinks and had smoked cannabis along with the Ecstasy. Later it emerged that Leah had taken Ecstasy at least four times before, and that she and her friends had planned in advance to take Ecstasy at her birthday party. The media preferred to keep the message simple: Leah died from taking a single tab of Ecstasy. To say she died from drinking water is not a good story, and the fact that she was a regular Ecstasy user might lead to the suspicion that her death was due to a panic reaction brought on by her parents being in the next room with their intolerant attitudes.
To say that a person died from Ecstasy is never the full story any more than saying that someone died of drink: like alcohol, Ecstasy can be used without any harmful effect. In both cases, death is due to the indirect effects which can be avoided if you are aware of the dangers and look after yourself. The difference is that the dangers of being drunk are well known and recognised, while the dangers resulting from Ecstasy use are far less known. Far from saving young people from harm, much of the so-called drugs education has confused users by trying to scare them, rather than explain the dangers and how to avoid them.
To my mind the worst attitude of the media was in relation to the dealer. Leah's stepfather could perhaps be forgiven, on the grounds of it being a thoughtless emotional response, for demanding that whoever supplied his daughter with the tablet that killed her should be charged with murder and deserved to be hanged. But most of the popular press joined in, even though the dealer had sold her a good quality product consisting of pure MDMA. He had not persuaded her to take it; on the contrary, Leah and her friends had decided they wanted to take E in advance and had gone out to find someone to sell it to them. In my judgment, he has not committed any offence whatsoever. It would be far more reasonable to accuse the many barmen of murder after serving people who subsequently killed innocent pedestrians driving home. The person who actually supplied Leah was her best friend, another teenager, but although she could face life imprisonment, she will probably not even be charged, presumably because she does not fit the image of the mythical drug peddler in dirty raincoat.
Drinking too much water is reported to have killed 3 people so far, all in the past year, presumably because 'harm prevention' advice has concentrated on drinking plenty of water. The point is that overheating is the main danger of taking Ecstasy; sweating is essential to avoid overheating and water is essential in order to sweat. However, water can be harmful if you drink more than you can get rid of by sweating or pissing. It may then dilute your blood, and diluted blood causes tissue cells to swell, but the brain cannot swell inside the skull and the pressure can build up to a dangerous level. There should be no problem if your you drink plenty of water and piss plenty of pale piss. Danger signs to look out for are compulsive drinking, not being able to piss or dark piss in spite of drinking lots of water.
There are several other dangers associated with Ecstasy use, but by knowing about and recognising the dangers, it is possible to reduce the risks to a minimum. The most important thing to be aware of is that Ecstasy masks discomfort and pain, so that you may feel OK and carry on doing something when you would normally feel awful and stop. Most Ecstasy-related deaths are due to overheating and dehydration from dancing: instead of rushing outside gasping for air and cold water, some people just carry on getting hotter until they reach a fatal temperature (which is only a few degrees above normal). Asthmatics have been known to die from attacks while on Ecstasy, and it may be that again the usual warning signals were not felt. Another effect of Ecstasy that can be dangerous is that it causes an increase in blood pressure, normally no problem but possibly fatal for someone with a weak heart. The same dangers also apply to amphetamine. Some bad reactions may also be due to allergies and interactions with other drugs such as inhalers used by asthmatics; this is an area that should be researched.
The fact is that everything we do is risky, and that it is possible to reduce the risk with knowledge, looking after yourself and being with friends who look after one another. This applies just as much to taking Ecstasy as to rock climbing.
In my book, I have shown that many 'respectable' activities are more dangerous than taking Ecstasy. Recently I have found statistics that show the risk is similar to fishing! If we assume that Ecstasy is taken on 25 million occasions a year (half a million a week), and that there are 5 Ecstasy-related deaths per year, then this compares favourably with 10 deaths related to fishing, which is done on 45 million occasions a year, and 12 deaths resulting from horse riding which is done on 40 million occasions. (Source: Government statistics in OPCS Monitor DH4 92/4).
Some people will argue that you cannot compare good healthy sporting activities with bad sleazy drug taking. Well, then let's compare drinking alcohol with illicit drugs. The Royal College of Physicians recently published a report called Alcohol and the Young, whose president (Professor Turnberg) was quoted in The Times: "The impact that drugs have on the young has received huge publicity. What is not so widely recognised is that alcohol causes ten times as much damage [to the same age group, 16 to 25] as drugs." I failed to find supporting data in the report, but if true and there is more than one illicit drug user to every ten drinkers under 25, then turning people away from drugs may result in them doing more harm to themselves by drinking instead.
Critics will say that all these figures are based on guessed statistics as regards drug use. True, but I have taken the lowest guess and use is very likely to be far greater than I have assumed, leading to the conclusion that Ecstasy use carries less risk than, for instance, fishing. But facts are hardly the issue: the situation could be compared to when Darwin produced evidence to show that humans are descended from animals: for many years he did not dare to publish his findings for fear of the reaction of the intolerant establishment and church.
©Nicholas Saunders, 12/95 (revised 2/96)