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MAPS Bulletin Summer 2014: Research Edition
 
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September 20, 2012

MDMA TV: Turn on, Tune in, Do the Research

By: Graham Lawton

New Scientist

Graham Lawton discusses the controversy over Channel 4’s decision to broadcast MDMA research conducted by Professor David Nutt.  Lawton was a volunteer in the study and suggests that more debates about MDMA’s place in science are necessary.


Originally appearing here.

The recreational drug ecstasy is one of the most tightly controlled substances on Earth, widely prohibited and classified in the “most harmful” category. So you might expect that scientists have a pretty good idea of what it does to a human brain. But you would be wrong. Although they have studied the brains of long-term ecstasy users, nobody has ever taken healthy volunteers, given them pure MDMA and watched what happens to their brains.

Until now. An experiment is ongoing, though under somewhat controversial circumstances. The researchers running it invited a TV crew to film some of the subjects under the influence of MDMA; the resulting documentary and live debate will be shown on UK television next week. I took part in the study, along with a few celebrities, and will appear in the programmes (see “A real fMRI high: my ecstasy brain scan”).

Should the researchers have opened such a public window on the experiment? Some think not. News of the broadcast has generated predictable cries of indignation from certain quarters, concerned that the documentary will glamorise, sensationalise or trivialise drug taking. “This will achieve nothing. If anything it will celebritise the taking of illegal substances,” said Julia Manning of independent think-tank 2020health.

There are some real concerns about televising people taking psychoactive drugs - especially when the TV company is helping to fund the study, as Channel 4 did. Demands for drama and excitement could distort the experiment’s scientific goals. The use of celebrities with no relevant expertise lends an unwelcome reality-TV feel to proceedings.

But let’s not prejudge the film before anyone has seen it. Channel 4 says it aims to “cut through the emotional debate… and accurately inform the public about the effects and potential risks of MDMA”. I hope it succeeds, and will be very surprised if it glamorises, sensationalises or trivialises. To be sure, it will feature some relatively prominent people describing the pleasurable effects of MDMA - but that is part of telling the truth.

And let’s be clear: this is research that needs to be done, and a debate that needs to be had. Discussion of recreational drugs is too often polluted by prejudice, misinformation and fear. Politicians and advisers who call for a rational conversation are simply shouted down.

This in turn holds back research. One reason for inviting in the film crew was to cover costs. David Nutt of Imperial College London, one of the lead researchers on the project, claims it proved impossible to fund from conventional sources. He has also complained that research is held back by the difficulty of obtaining clearance to work on illegal drugs (New Scientist, 9 June, p 29).

If that is so - and the UK Home Office, which handles drug policy, disputes it - it is a scandal. One of the aims of the experiment is to add to research suggesting that MDMA could be a promising therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m proud to have been part of such a bold and potentially life-changing project.


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