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Professor David Nutt is the brains behind Channel 4's new documentary Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, during which volunteers take MDMA as part of a scientific study. It's something of a television first and sure to spark debate about the potential positive uses of MDMA. A former MP (Evan Harris), a famous actor (Keith Allen) and a bestselling novelist (Lionel Shriver) all took part in the programme, which airs in two parts on Channel 4 on Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 September. It's presented by the one and only John Snow (pictured below) and Dr Christian Jessen.
Mixmag met Professor Nutt to talk about the programme and why MDMA is so much more than a party drug.
Do you think ecstasy is misunderstood?
Completely, the drug was vilified. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to Drugs Live. You can argue that the misinformation about ecstasy may be greater than any other drug. The drug was being used quite comfortably, no one was worrying about it. Then it became popular in rave culture and there was a systematic attempt by the media to get the drug and the rave culture banned. There was never any sensible discussion about the benefits at the time and I know, because I was part of the process of evaluating the drug. We got it wrong. We got a distorted analysis.
We’re seriously shooting ourselves in the feet, and the arms, and the head, in terms of therapy by banning drugs just because people take them. 300 people a year in the UK die from paracetamol poisoning. Maybe 30 die of MDMA. Why don’t we ban paracetamol? We don’t ban it because it’s a utility and we haven’t been allowed to see the utility of MDMA. But if it turns out to be a utility then we shouldn’t be treating it as a Class A drug.
If more people die of paracetmol than MDMA, why can’t people go into a chemist and pick up some ecstasy?
There have been ideas like that. The drugs that people want to use recreationally could be provided in pure form in a safe amount in things like pharmacies. I’m not against that at all. I think it’s certainly worth considering. One of the saddest things of course is people dying because they don’t know what they’re taking and that is completely preventable.
How would those deaths be prevented?
People have the right to know what they are taking. If you think you’re taking E but you actually take PMMA and you take the same dose, you might die. That shouldn’t happen.
You recently said that “no one has found out what ecstasy does in the brain… What makes kids want to use it.” Why is that important to you?
It’s a remarkable drug. It’s the only drug, as far as we know, that produces empathy and tolerance and loving for other people. It seems to me there may be considerable therapeutic potential in this drug and understanding how it works could be a way of developing new treatments for things like depression.
So it would be beneficial to unlock those feelings of empathy and love?
The psycho-therapeutic experiences with MDMA was very much that it helped people overcome anger and hatred, particularly in marriages. If people can dampen those feelings down with MDMA then people can get to the real self of the person they’ve engaged with and begin to deal with the practical issues of their relationship and that would be a phenomenally powerful tool in medicine.
Are we anywhere near close to a point where that would be allowed to happen?
Well that’s one of my major goals in the next five years or so, I’m trying to get the law relating to the control of these drugs made a bit more rational so doctors can use them for science, then trials and then hopefully for therapy.
You seem to be using Drugs Live as the starting point for making your case in favor of the medicinal use of MDMA.
This is a remarkable drug. Most people who use it find that it does have very profound effects. It makes them feel warmer and more loving to other people. That’s very important scientifically. But also, I feel very strongly that there may well be therapeutic values. The results so far suggest that the changes that MDMA produces in the brain are exactly congruous to what you would want in therapy.
What can we expect from the programme?
We’re going to get people into the brain. We’re going to explain to them what the brain is, how it works, what chemicals in the brain do. It’s going to be a sophisticated insight. And then we’re also going to talk to individuals who have been part of the scientific process, who are prepared to talk about how they experience the drug and we’re going to show you how their brain produces the effects that they describe. We’ve got a number of really important scientific findings, this is a landmark study.