Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

B.C. doctor says ecstasy can be safe

'I am quite a strong critic of prohibition': chief health officer

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VANCOUVER -- B.C.'s top health official says pure ecstasy can be "safe" when consumed responsibly by adults, despite warnings by police in Alberta and British Columbia about the dangers of the street drug after a rash of deaths.

Dr. Perry Kendall asserted the risks of MDMA -- the pure substance originally synonymous with ecstasy -- are overblown, and its lethal dangers only arise when the man-made chemical is polluted by gangs who cook it up.

The chief provincial health officer is suggesting the risks of MDMA might be mitigated, for example, if it were legalized and potentially sold through licensed, government-run stores where the product is strictly regulated from assembly line to checkout.

He took issue with an earlier story by The Canadian Press that characterized him as advocating legalization.

"I am quite a strong critic of prohibition because I don't think it keeps drugs out of the hands of vulnerable people, and I don't think it does much to reduce harmful use, and I think it has other harmful effects, like putting billions of dollars into the hands of criminal enterprises," Kendall said in an interview Thursday.

However, he is not advocating legalization as the solution but, rather, there should be a discussion about ways of doing things other than the current losing war on drugs, he said.

"There's perhaps a subtle distinction here," he said at a news conference to clarify his views.

"I do think that we should be looking at that approach for current illicit psychoactive drugs, because I think we can come up with a better mechanism of control. What I did not say was that I was advocating for MDMA to be legalized at the present time and distributed through government stores. I said if it were to be legalized, then it should be strictly regulated and one way of doing that would be through strictly controlled government exits. There's a difference."

He posits that usage rates would decrease.

Kendall was asked whether ecstasy, after further study around correct dosage and in a setting involving strict controls, could be safe.

"Absolutely," he said.

At least 16 people from B.C. to Saskatchewan have died since July from a tainted batch of ecstasy cut with a toxin called PMMA. Police say an average of 20 British Columbians who consume street ecstasy die each year.

The RCMP in B.C. maintain no amount of the substance is safe.

"We would view ecstasy as extremely dangerous," said Sgt. Duncan Pound. "Not only given the fact that it's very hard to determine what might be in any given tablet, but the fact that there's such an individual reaction to those tablets."

Medical literature says MDMA -- 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine -- sends waves of serotonin flooding through the brain. The natural brain chemical makes people feel happy, social and intimate with others.

According to Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, MDMA carries a list of potential health effects that impact each user differently. They include teeth-grinding, sweating, increased blood pressure and heart rate, anxiety, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and convulsions, even at low doses.

The drug's letdown can include feelings of confusion, irritability, anxiety, paranoia and depression, and people may experience memory loss, sleep problems, jaundice or liver damage.

Deaths associated with street ecstasy, the centre's website says, usually result from dehydration and overheating when teens gulp a pill and dance the night away.

But the U.S. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has administered MDMA to more than 500 people in various FDA-approved clinical trials, and reports there has never been a serious adverse event.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2012 A18

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