Thursday, February 11, 2010

New figures prove prohibition far more harmful than drugs

A new UK study shows just how relatively few deaths are caused by ecstasy. Published in the journal Neuropsychobiology, it looked at reported ecstasy-related deaths from 1997 to 2007, comparing them to amphetamine-related deaths. It reports 605 deaths using the widest definition of "ecstasy-related".

By comparison, 6,500 people were killed last year alone in Mexico's War on Drugs according to The New Scotsman. This is starkly illustrates that prohibition causes far more harm than the drugs it fails to control.

While any death is obviously a matter for concern, risks should be put into perspective. The UK study provides data that helps this. Looking at younger users who reportedly took only ecstasy (mono-intoxication), the Abstract says:

...However, mono-intoxication ecstasy fatalities per 100,000 16- to 24-year-old users were significantly more represented than AMP/METH fatalities (1.67 ± 0.52 vs. 0.8 ± 0.65; p = 0.0007). Conclusion: With respect to AMP/METH, ecstasy was here more typically identified in victims who were young, healthy, and less likely to be known as drug users. AMP/METH high mortality rates may be explained by users’ high levels of physical co-morbidity; excess ecstasy-related fatality rates in young users may be a reason for concern. Although the coroners’ response rate was of 90–95%, study limitations include both reporting inconsistency over time and lack of routine information on drug intake levels prior to death.
So we are talking about 1.67 'mono-intoxication ecstasy related' deaths per 100,000 users. That's a percentage of 0.0000167 (ignoring the error factor, and according to my calculator). That makes ecstasy one of the safest substances around -- and the percentage would be even lower if they compared casualties to the number of doses rather than users, given that most users take more than one dose in the drug-using period of their life.

From memory, a lot of the 'reporting inconsistency'  mentioned in the abstract introduced significant inaccuracy. Because these substances are illegal and unregulated, there is no guarantee that MDMA was even the active substance used. I wonder how many cases of the more dangerous GHB or PMA poisoning slipped into that percentage? Nor, of course, would the actual dose per tablet have been known, and nor were there instructions or warnings available on the non-existent packet they came in -- basic information that comes with a packet of Aspirin because it is legal and regulated, and which presumably prevents much 'excess intake'. Also, because MDMA is illegal, the buyers did not have to provide ID on purchase. Such a regime would to some extent reduce the drug's availability to the under-18s studied.

I wonder by how much that 0.0000167% might have been reduced had these safety factors, routinely applied to pharmaceuticals, existed under a legal, regulated and taxed regime.

And I wonder what the cost of prohibition enforcement is for each of those 1.67 deaths per 100,000 users, and whether there are more cost-effective ways of addressing drug abuse.

Meanwhile in Mexico:
...40 people died in firefights between police and army forces and the drug cartels. More than 6,500 fatalities will have occurred this year alone, topping last year's total, which was double that in 2007...

Of the 220,000 people arrested on drug charges since Mr Calderón took office, three-quarters have been released. Only 5 per cent of the remaining 60,000 or so have been tried and sentenced.
That was written by Jorge G Castañeda, former foreign minister of Mexico (2000-3), a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University, in The New Scotsman.

Even talking in absolute figures, and including multi-intoxication deaths, that's a total of 605 ecstasy-related deaths over ten years in the UK compared to 6,500 deaths in one year in Mexico.

Yet prohibitionists from Drug Free Australia have cited the UK study in their prohibitionist campaign. I have invited them to comment on the relative risks of ecstasy vs prohibition.

PS Another analysis of The Courier Mail recently hyping an ecstasy scare is found at The Australian Heroin Diaries. Do journalists learn this formula at some obscure trash tabloid school, or are they just born that way?

PPS As of 19 February, Drug Free Australia had not taken up my invitation to challenge the above analysis.

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