Ecstasy deaths warning as ministers poised to review drug classification system

Key points

• Review of drugs classification system expected shortly

• Grading to be based on drug's effect on society rather than individual

• Many argue current classification sends wrong messages to drug users

Key quote

"Ecstasy use is widespread among young people. My view is that the drug's class A rating devalues the serious risks associated with heroin and cocaine." - DAME RUTH RUNCIMAN, POLICE FEDERATION REPORT AUTHOR

Story in full DOWNGRADING Ecstasy could lead to an explosion in illegal drug-taking and more deaths among teenagers, according to drug experts, police superintendents and campaigners.

It is widely expected the government is on the verge of downgrading the substance as part of a root-and-branch review of the drugs classification system ordered by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary.

But Scotland's leading authority on narcotics abuse, Professor Neil McKeganey, told The Scotsman yesterday the move could lead to "much wider" use of the drug among young people. Police said it would send out the wrong message.

Ecstasy is currently a class A substance, carrying the highest penalties under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Britain has the third highest level of Ecstasy use in the world and the number of deaths from the drug in Scotland has risen sharply in recent years, from nine in 1996 to 17 in 2004.

Earlier this year, Mr Clarke took the controversial decision not to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug despite increasing evidence that users could suffer mental health problems.

Mr Clarke made it clear that other drugs, including Ecstasy, would be looked at as part of an overhaul of the classification scheme. He believes the system of classifying drugs as A, B or C depending on the potential for medical harm is too limited. Instead, he is seeking a system that considers their wider impact on society, details of which are expected within weeks.

It is understood that would leave heroin and cocaine, which account for the highest levels of crime and social disruption by addicts as well as the highest death rates, in the most dangerous category.

Prof McKeganey, of the drug misuse research unit at Glasgow University, said downgrading Ecstasy would be a mistake and any system of classifying drugs carried "symbolic significance" which policymakers should be acutely aware of.

"Unquestionably, Ecstasy is not as dangerous as heroin - it kills far fewer people - so you might say let's move Ecstasy down in the grading," he said. "However, many more people use Ecstasy than heroin so moving it down will give out the message that we shouldn't be as concerned about the drug as we used to be. Such a move might precipitate much wider use."

He added: "Some people look at the medical harm and say it should be downgraded. But if you look at the impact on society, Ecstasy should remain at the most serious end of the scale."

The professor said Ecstasy had been used by about 215,000 people in Scotland, 44,000 in the past 12 months. Its use is highest among 25-29-year-olds.

He added: "There have never been deaths associated with cannabis but there have been Ecstasy deaths. The fact is it has the potential to kill."

Tom Buchan, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said: "We have seen deaths from Ecstasy use and there is growing evidence it can cause psychiatric problems in later life. It is not something to be treated anything other than very seriously. Anything that is perceived as a downgrading of the drug would send out the wrong message."

Phyllis Woodlock, from Motherwell, whose 13-year-old son, Andrew, died after taking Ecstasy, said: "Changing the classification of Ecstasy would send out the wrong message. You don't know what's in it and one pill can kill."

However, Dame Ruth Runciman, who wrote a Police Foundation report in 2000 on illegal drugs which pre-empted the reclassification of cannabis, said keeping Ecstasy in the most serious category of illegal drugs encouraged young people to experiment with heroin and cocaine. She added: "Ecstasy use is widespread among young people. My view is that the drug's class A rating devalues the serious risks associated with heroin and cocaine."

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said the classification of drugs such as Ecstasy was "to some extent a red herring" as they were all illegal. Ministers acknowledged Ecstasy was "a dangerous drug" and the Executive's Know The Score campaign made the risks associated with taking it clear, he added.

One dose can cause brain swelling or death

THE chemical term for Ecstasy is MDMA, a form of amphetamine.

"Eccies" are often cut with a range of substances, including ketamine and added amphetamine (speed).

MDMA acts on a brain chemical called serotonin, engendering a feeling of euphoria and enhancing physical sensations.

Ecstasy is known to cause a range of health problems among users, including hepatitis, liver failure, paranoia and possibly long-term brain damage. MDMA can also prove fatal. A few people are particularly chemically sensitive to the drug and just one dose can kill them.

Some of those who have suffered liver failure have required liver transplants, but the transplants have not always been successful. Other fatalities associated with MDMA have been due to an overdose.

The most common cause of Ecstasy-related death, however, is due to the body overheating, leading to extreme heatstroke. While clubbers are advised to drink water to counter this effect, imbibing too much can itself be fatal, causing a swelling of the brain.

Up to 80 per cent of the MDMA consumed worldwide originates in illicit laboratories in the Netherlands and Belgium, the main sources of Ecstasy found in the UK.

Some of these laboratories are understood to have relocated to eastern European countries, such as Romania.

Surveys indicate that Britain is one of the largest markets for Ecstasy. It is estimated that between 500,000 and two million tablets are consumed in the UK each week.

Criminals have been known to use security staff at clubs and pubs to control the sale of Ecstasy by determining who can distribute them on the premises. The price of the drug has roughly halved in the last decade and today can be purchased for as little as 3 a pill.

• Gavin Smith, 17, died from acute Ecstasy poisoning after his brother gave him tablets in May 2004 at his girlfriend's home in Stranraer.

• Scott McSephney, 20, died when his best friend gave him free Ecstasy at a party in Dalmellington, Ayrshire, in December 2003.

• Julia Dawes, 18, a fitness instructor from a wealthy Perthshire family, died in 1998 after taking Ecstasy at a friend's party.

• Andrew Woodlock, 13, became Scotland's youngest person to die from the drug in 1997. He was found slumped in a field near his Lanarkshire home six years ago after taking Ecstasy and died five days later.

• Michelle Paul, 15, from Aberdeen, died of liver failure after taking a half-tablet of Ecstasy at a rave in 1995.