Dealing with Ecstacy

What a difference an ocean makes. On this side of the Atlantic, users of the increasingly popular drug MDMA (ecstasy) face increased federal prison sentences, with several states also increasing penalties and others moving to do so. Club owners have been indicted and authorities across the nation are involved in a multi-front war to smash the rave culture. By contrast, in Europe authorities have taken a more peaceful approach. The Dutch response to ecstasy use is particularly interesting, and now much of the rest of Europe is following the Dutch lead in emphasizing harm reduction over repression.

Pill-testing to determine whether tablets thought to be ecstasy actually are -- and not potentially lethal substitutes such as PMA -- has taken off in Europe. According to a report last week from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (, "many users still think ecstasy is fairly safe. On-the-spot pill testing is one of the few ways in which groups can connect with people in this scene and tell them in their own language that what they're buying, and the amount they're taking, might not be as safe as they think." The report also warned that "pill testing mustn't be used as a 'bait' to attract people to 'don't-do-drugs' propaganda. It has to be seen as an end in itself, protecting people's health, even lives."

The EMCDDA report, produced by the Vienna-based harm reduction group based CheckIt! (, found that pill-testing done by people who are part of the scene plays a vital role in reaching users and others who do not pay much heed to anti-drug warnings. Such efforts can boost users' awareness of the real risks involved in ecstasy use. Such projects are underway in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Although only the Dutch embrace pill-testing and other harm reduction measures for ecstasy as part of official drug policy, other European countries may soon come on board. According to the British newspaper the Observer, pill-testing programs in Spain are beginning to receive official funding now.

One group that would benefit from Spanish government largesse is Energy Control (, a Barcelona-based ecstasy testing and harm reduction group. Energy Control members set up testing stands at raves and clubs throughout Spain. According to the EMCDDA report, Energy Control members have tested up to 75 pills per rave, and they have done so without any interference from the police.

Meanwhile, in yet another outbreak of harm reduction, Irish ravers are now able to consult a website ( that contains detailed drug information and harm reduction advice, including such suggestions as telling first-time users to try taking half a pill instead of a whole one. The web site, created by Merchant's Quay Ireland, a volunteer organization working with Irish drug users, was developed because there was little accurate information for ravers who are interested in harm reduction, its director of services, Tony Geoghegan, told the Irish Times.

The EMCDDA report noted that pill-testing groups are important for taking the lead in defining the needs and problems of the music and dance scene by "providing pleasant and healthy spaces within techno events, clubs or festivals," and they speak the message of youth, making it easier to communicate key harm reduction concepts. Other activities by such groups include giving out condoms, fruit or drinking water.

None of this sits well with US drug warriors. In a letter to the New York Times this week, acting drug czar Edward Jurith attacked not just pill-testing but the entire concept of harm reduction. "Harm reduction is a political movement, not sound policy based on science," wrote Jurith, who instead suggested that "saying no will be a much simpler decision."

Listing all of the alleged harms from ecstasy that NIDA's billions have been able to dredge up, Jurith wrote that "so-called harm reduction programs only obfuscate the truth."

The drug czar stand-in added that, "At best, harm reduction is an approach that concedes drug abuse prevention is impossible. Pretending harmful activity will be reduced if it is passively condoned is irresponsible," he wrote. "Increasing help for those dependent on drugs is better than decreasing harm."

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