I am an advocate for medicine that works, and am personally enormously grateful that my Rheumatoid Arthritis is now in remission due to the well-researched medication I have been prescribed. But I doubt that RA meds trials would attract the kind of sensation seeking headlines that The Ecstasy Trials achieved last week. In a society where we bemoan the attraction of illegal drugs to our eg teen population, Channel 4 uses this very sensationalist profile to up its ratings and contribute to both Channel 4’s identity and brand as being ground breaking, and Ecstasy’s as being worthy of the limelight.
Of course scientists want to achieve notoriety and fame, and TV is the perfect vehicle; Channel 4 wants to be seen as ground breaking and edgy, and scientists are the perfect companion to lend gravitas; and I’m sure all those involved will argue for these trials’ validity – possibly even ridiculing those who argue against. A bit like the ‘do you don’t you [take drugs]’ exchanges that happen everyday in school playgrounds around the country: its humiliating to say ‘no, I don’t’. The power of the drug culture and the desire to be in the ‘in crowd’ was replicated I think by the slight ridiculing that happened on the programme when scientists debated the issue and David Nutt seemed to adopt a supercilious sneer.
The fact remains, television is a construction: to be accurate these trials need to take place in controlled environments to limit the influence of other elements. Performing (and I choose that word deliberately) these trials on national television is not an appropriately controlled environment that would show with any certainty the effect of the drug only. Those taking part (including the scientists) are aware they are in front of millions of viewers, and researchers cannot be certain this has no effect. For example the argument for using a celebrity who would be comfortable in front of the camera was cancelled out as he sought to control his vulnerability on camera when the drug affected him. It was farcical and sadly, I believe, dangerous, as it brought Ecstasy into the limelight as something to experiment with, a play thing, despite the words of warning (to fulfill the requirement of a corporate disclaimer) by Channel 4 presenters advising ‘Do not try this at home’. Do you as I say, not as I do…
What is clear is that no one seems to know much about MDMA and its impact on the human brain. I’m no better informed after watching this programme either. Perhaps more serious trials could be undertaken, privately, responsibly and without sensation: submit the research through the normal channels and allow the process to take the time it needs for culture to adjust and Government to respond. This ‘quick fix’ approach that is so often represented by TV is not always positive, as ideas need time to germinate, and the ground to be primed so that growth and change is sustainable and well supported.