I’d like to dedicate this post to Dr. Ben Goldacre who inspired me to begin this blog with his absolutely outstanding Bad Science Blog.

Ecstasy? I’m sorry, I thought it was Crystal Meth!

rb editors selection Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

Drug “education” pamphlets routinely state ecstasy causes “brain damage” and “Parkinson’s disease”. There is no valid evidence for the former in humans and the little evidence that exists regarding the latter actually suggests the precise opposite. The Parkinson’s claim is based on a study published by researchers at Johns Hopkins University which has been retracted. The reason for the retraction was that the monkeys who the study were based on were “accidentally” injected (yes, injected) with crystal meth  instead of ecstasy. These were not the only things wrong with this study…

thestupiditburnsmini Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

Due to our insane drug laws crystal meth and ecstasy could feasibly “get mixed up” on the street by an insane or idiotic drug dealer. In a lab however you’d have to be criminally incompetent to allow this mistake to happen, scientists don’t just have stacks of crystal meth and ecstacy lying around. Despite ecstasy being taken by millions every weekend the law makes it practically impossible for scientists to get their hands on it for research especially with humans. In this respect the use of non-humans is not unusual. No well controlled trials (let alone randomized controlled trials) have ever been done with humans on most illegal drugs.

monkeycage Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

Another odd thing about the Johns Hopkins study was that the monkeys were injected three times with intervals of three hours. Ricuarte, the author of the study himself conducted a study in 1988 that demonstrated that injecting doubles the toxicity of MDMA however this was not discussed in this study and the title of the study actually states “a common recreational dose”. It was also a strange conclusion for the scientists to suggest that ecstacy causes Parkinson’s without addressing their staggering finding that two of their ten monkeys dropped dead before they could be given their third dose. It’s as if they think that at raves its perfectly normal for one in five ecstasy users to inject themselves with ecstasy and then promptly drop dead.

crystal meth oops findings Bad Science: Idiots and EcstasyThe dosage in the study though high compared to recreational doses, isn’t however particularly out of the ordinary for animal MDMA research. The study cites a key study by the US National Institute for Drug Addiction (NIDA) that injected monkeys with twice the dose they used, noon and night for 4 consecutive days (based on their calculation of mg per kilo, the equivalent for a 75kg human would be six grams of pure MDMA over four days, taken at breakfast and bed time. Most MDMA users probably wouldn’t see that much MDMA in their lifetimes). This dosage and timespan is so nuts that the fact that all of the monkeys in the study didn’t drop dead immediately should suggest ecstasy is a pretty safe drug. Instead the NIDA study is one of the assortment of studies used to support the claim that ecstasy causes brain damage. Of course ecstasy causes damage to animals if you inject hideous amounts of it on a twice daily basis for days on end. Neither studies bother explaining why they are injecting the monkeys rather than using the normal method of oral administration.

monkeyeyes Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

These papers echo researchers in the US who famously blasted cannabis smoke at monkeys through gas masks every day for 90 days with so much smoke that many died from carbon monoxide poisoning or suffocation.

Smoking Monkey Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

You may wonder why these scientists behaved so appallingly. When the World Health Organisation (WHO) was commissioned to conduct the largest ever study of cocaine use it concluded that cocaine was safer than alcohol and tobacco and generally very useful. The US representative to WHO threatened to withdraw US funding for all their research projects and interventions unless the organisation “dissociated itself from the conclusions of the study” and cancelled the publication (leaked WHO report here). Professor Nutt, the UK head of the Government’s advisory council on drugs (ACMD) was sacked for saying the exact same thing about Ecstasy.

gagged science1 Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

When practically the entire ACMD resigned in outrage last year and the leaders of the medical and legal establishment came out in full support of the scientists, the Government’s reaction was to propose a bill that will remove from law any remaining remnants of their influence. The bill is currently in the final stages of becoming law. Professor Nutt’s replacement, war-on-drugs puppet Dr. Raabe was such a fruitcake that the Government had to remove him before his first day at work after after it emerged he was also at war with homosexuals, abortion, contraception and well basically everything.

raabe Bad Science: Idiots and Ecstasy

Only one randomised controlled trial of ecstasy has ever been conducted. Last year 15 PTSD patients who were extremely resistant to psychotherapy and existing medications were treated with MDMA. The study concluded that ecstasy was not only safe but extremely effective for this purpose. There has been one vaguely controlled study of ecstacy users. It was completed a month ago, independently with a $1.8m NIDA grant. It demonstrated absolutely no cognitive impairment even in heavy ecstasy users. It is still completely free and open access so get it while it’s hot. It’s important to remember however that the sample sizes in these studies are tiny, until a controlled study is conducted with a decent sample size it will be impossible to say definitively how safe ecstasy is.

Fun fact: No scientist in recorded history has EVER suggested ecstasy drains spinal fluid. A number of ecstasy studies involved draining spinal fluid of users in search of evidence of harm. Leaking spinal fluids isn’t caused by ecstasy, it’s caused by spinal taps. So will the anti-drug organisations please recall their bullshit pamphlets. This pamphlet by the Australian Federal Police for example reads like a comedy of errors written by a chimp. Ecstasy probably doesn’t kill if pure and used properly. Misinformation definitely kills. Good day.

Edit: If you think the botched Johns Hopkins paper is no longer relevant, I’d like to point out that the authors of this study are the only scientists cited to support the claim that ecstasy causes brain damage on the US Government (2010) Ecstasy “fact sheet”. The paper is an incredibly biased and uncritical review of what is mostly their own research (they cite 10 of their own papers), the review was published the year before the botched study.

Click here to read last week’s article on why a multi-billion dollar industry is paying advertising agencies  to spread misinformation about drugs.

Key References

Ricaurte, G. (2002). Severe Dopaminergic Neurotoxicity in Primates After a Common Recreational Dose Regimen of MDMA (“Ecstasy”) Science, 297 (5590), 2260-2263 DOI: 10.1126/science.1074501

Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome I, & Doblin R (2010). The safety and efficacy of {+/-}3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomized controlled pilot study. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) PMID: 20643699

Halpern JH, Sherwood AR, Hudson JI, Gruber S, Kozin D, & Pope HG Jr (2011). Residual neurocognitive features of long-term ecstasy users with minimal exposure to other drugs. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 106 (4), 777-86 PMID: 21205042

Insel TR, Battaglia G, Johannessen JN, Marra S, & De Souza EB (1989). 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“ecstasy”) selectively destroys brain serotonin terminals in rhesus monkeys. The Journal of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, 249 (3), 713-20 PMID: 2471824

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  • Hymie

    I’m sure getting a monkey to take a pill isn’t any easier than getting your dog to swallow a pill. And if you’re doing a scientific study injections eliminate several variables such as, I imagine, vomiting or differences in digestion.

    • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

      Frankly, pills are irrelevant. The monkeys were obviously injected with solution not pills and that solution could more easily be mixed with food or water than injected.

      The route of administration is extremely important. In humans drugs are many times more powerful when injected for a number of reasons. A study actually conducted by the authors of the Johns Hopkins study in 1988 actually proved that in primates MDMA is twice as lethal when injected.
      See my note below and consider if the lethal dose is halved when injected it makes a lot of sense that injecting would reduce the neurotoxic dose to an even greater degree.

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  • Soulmekanik

    I agree that its sad bias is being used to promote bad science and scare people into thinking Ecstasy is harmful.

    Used in a controlled setting with a pure source, it can be healing and very safe and I’m speaking from personal experience. I also agree more accurate and complete testing needs to be done but not the kind of crap research John Hopkins University did.

    • http://darwinianmind.blogspot.com/2011/03/i-defend-these-poppy-burning-vile-human.html Tom


      “it can be healing and very safe and I’m speaking from personal experience”

      Speaking of Bad Science…personal experience counts for very little. Unless you have personal experiance of a research study you have been involved in which shows results to this effect?

      Can be healing? Interesting claim. Please provide evidence.

      • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

        Oh oh can I answer this one!

        Very good point Tom. As I said in the article there has never been any properly controlled research on humans with ecstasy, therefore personal experience is of high importance. The USA Federal court hearings are a very good source however. Here are some relevant findings:

        Dozens of Psychiatrists submitted tens of hundreds of glowing case studies, many of which purported MDMA to have powerful and wide ranging benefits for Psychiatric practice. Uses range from treating PTSD to severe depression. They are all available for review here:

        A very important fact noted here is the therapeutic index. This is the factor of difference between the LD50, the dose required to kill half of animals to the ED50, the therapeutic dose in humans.

        According the the FDA report:
        LD50: 325mg/kg in rats.
        ED50: 2mg/kg (humans)

        The FDA concluded that the therapeutic index for MDMA is extremely high (160x). The FDA paper compare this to the fact that many commonly prescribed anaesthetics have a therapeutic index of just 2x.
        http://www.maps.org/dea-mdma/pdf/0112.PDF (pg.46)

        The presiding judge declared MDMA must be removed from schedule 1 due to this extensive evidence. This actually happened, MDMA was removed from schedule 1 for over a year before FDA officials arbitrarily overturned the judges decision.

        FYI It is not even disputed that the ED50 for MDMA is under 2mg/kg by the Johns Hopkins study authors. Therefore neurotoxicity studies that administer doses of up to 50mg/kg are at best irrelevant and at worst fulfil the political agenda of preventing research in humans ever being allowed to confirm the extensive evidence of the safety and efficacy of MDMA for treatment.

        • http://darwinianmind.blogspot.com/2011/03/i-defend-these-poppy-burning-vile-human.html Tom

          Thankyou for a perfect reply!

          If only all of my comments recieved such answers…

          Tis very interesting sir!

  • Paul

    “Professor Nutt, the UK the head of the Government’s advisory council on drugs (ACMD) was sacked for saying the exact same thing about Ecstasy.”

    headline: “Nutt sacked!”

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  • http://meatspin.com blood sweat and urine

    nice paper interesting how misinformation on drugs spread.

  • Anonymous

    Way to dredge up a decade old mistake….

    • Josh

      This mistake is still being used to claim that MDMA causes brain damage which it indeed does not.

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  • Naomi

    It’s ‘poison’ not ‘poision’. Otherwise good article!

  • Anonymous

    While I find your article informative and amusing, I can’t help but point out that the correct name of the university is Johns Hopkins…Johns, with an s at the end. That is all.

  • cavillor

    You under-emphasize the frequency with which meth and other “speed” is pressed into pills which are marketed as “Ecstasy.” So, considering the state of the drug black market, a study on the effects of methamphetamine abuse would unfortunately be relevant to an examination of long-term effects of “Ecstasy.”

    My friend from California tells me that even though “pure Molly” (MDMA) is frequently available, people often opt to buy “Ecstasy” tablets instead. He surmises, “People like speed, but don’t like to admit that they’re taking speed. So they call it Ecstasy.”

    ALL the Ecstasy around here that I’ve come across is straight speed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/toby.idler Toby Idler

      Based on that argument they could inject the monkeys with any old filth they want and claim that they are testing the effects of ecstasy.

  • Ben

    You’re clearly not a scientist, you should probably leave criticism OF science to someone who is well equipped to criticize it. Furthermore, a calm and collected dissection of methods and results, pointing out flaws and potential methodological errors would do tremendously more for your argument than kneejerk screaming, cursing and crying like a child. Learn to argue.

  • bob

    I’m convinced. Ecstasy is healthy and everyone should do it.

    Also, it’s Johns Hopkins not John Hopkins.

  • A.

    I remember the similar study happened about using acid. they killed some monkeys with amphetamine and then passed a law agains using acid! same scenario, silent majority of scientist!
    how many scientist is in house of rep or congress??

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