Source: Observer
Date: 18 April 2004

Ecstasy loses its risk-free allure

Research shows that clubbers' drug can lead
to long-term dependence, reports Jamie Doward

Ecstacy in barely 20 years, has become the drug of choice for a nation of clubbers and is taken by up to 700,000 people in Britain every week. It's seen as a no-risk, hangover-free designer drug for people who party hard at weekends but suffer no obvious comedown in the week. As supply has soared and demand increased among 15- to 24-year-olds, the price of the 'happy pill' has fallen to as little as £3.

However, research unveiled at a scientific conference yesterday links ecstasy to mental health problems that are prompting long-term users to give it up.

Three separate reports, published at the British Psychological Society's meeting this weekend, tell of a drug that restricts mental ability, causes long-term sleep disturbance and encourages psychological dependence. The reports are likely to be seized on by those scientists who have insisted for years that ecstasy is harmful but who failed to win the PR war when it came to backing up their claims.

They were dealt a severe blow last September, when US scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland retracted claims linking ecstasy use to brain damage, admitting that their research was flawed. The US team confessed they had mistakenly fed monkeys amphetamine rather than ecstasy.

Now the new research is likely to provoke calls for further investigation into the side-effects of a drug that was linked to the deaths of 72 people in the UK in 2002, the latest figures available.

'In America, users seem to be more aware that there are dangers with ecstasy. But in the UK, especially among 15- to 24-year-old users who take it quite a lot, there is a lack of awareness of what it may result in later,' said Lynn Taurah, a psychology researcher at London Metropolitan University.

Taurah was part of a team that studied the effects of a range of drugs on sleep patterns. About 1,000 people were divided into different groups - non-drug-takers; those who drank and smoked; users of a number of drugs; those who took just ecstasy; and former ecstasy users.

Participants filled in a questionnaire that produced a picture of their sleep patterns and came up with a score of one to 21: the higher the figure, the more disturbed the sleep. The control's score was four. Ecstasy users registered between 11 and 12, significantly higher than the other groups.

Former ecstasy users - some of whom hadn't touched the drug for seven years - registered 9.5, suggesting to the researchers that 'the effects of the drug on sleep are long-lasting'.

The links between sleep disturbance and ecstasy had not been documented before, so that the findings will provide counsellors with ammunition to warn users about the dangers of taking the drug.

'Many users have reported disrupted sleeping patterns from drugs such as cocaine, crack cocaine and amphetamine in particular, but we have no data clearly relating ecstasy use to sleeping disorders such as insomnia,' said Peter Martin, chief executive of the drug and alcohol treatment charity, Addaction. 'All new research data on this is welcome, of course, because we need to ensure we are responding with correct treatment,' Martin added.

The results appear to corroborate earlier studies of monkeys, which found that primates experienced chronic sleep disturbance when subjected to four days of consecutive ecstasy injections.

Taurah said she hoped the study's findings would act as a wake-up call. 'Sleep is a fundamental part of life. Its disturbance has an effect on concentration and has been shown to increase accidents on the road, in the home and at work. There are also clear links between sleep disturbance and depression,' Taurah said.

A separate study by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University tried to gauge the effects of ecstasy on mental ability. A group of users and another of non-users were asked to perform a range of tasks such as writing down all the four-letter words beginning with the letter C that they could think of in five minutes.

The scientists found that those who took ecstasy could recall an average of 10 words, while those who did not came up with 16. 'These differences are statistically significant,' said Dr Phillip Murphy, who presented the paper. 'In all tests, we found that users did not perform as well as non-users.'

Murphy also interviewed more than 300 ecstasy users to gauge whether their opinion of the drug had changed as they continued to use it. His research found that long-term users constantly weighed the pros and cons and that, after two years, its appeal started to wane.

Of the 328 people surveyed, only 20 who had been using the drug for seven years or more believed that the pluses outweighed the minuses. Nevertheless, the study found that, even after two years, the majority of users still felt sufficiently positive about the drug's effects to keep using it.

'It is likely that some users come to prefer the person they are, and the world they experience, under the influence of the drug. This may be seen as a form of psychological dependence, even though they are not physically addicted to it,' Murphy said.

David McCandless

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