Sorted for E’s and Fuzz

5 January 2008

Before I start, Happy New Year to everyone, and with it a resolution to blog more in 2008.

Right, on to business. Via doctorvee‘s del.icio.us feed comes this sympathetic treatment of Richard Brumstrom by craigblog. Richard Brunstrom is the chief constable of North Wales police, and it was he who was lampooned by much of the press (and even called to quit) after his apparent claim that ecstasy is safer than aspirin.

Reading Craig’s post, I wondered if Chief Constable Brunstrom was if not misquoted, at least the victim of very bad editing. At which point the geek in me went “if only Chief Constable Brunstrom had his own blog”. I thought of writing a small blog post pointing out the advantages of having a blog as right of reply to possible misquotes in the press and as a means of getting his word across. In my research I found out this amazing fact:

Fuck me, he actually has his own blog. And he talks about the very issue on it.

CC Brunstrom’s words are interesting, as he affirms the very quote twice, but this time with the numbers involved:

As a fact then, and one which deserves to be more widely known, UK government figures from the Office of National Statistics show that between 1993 & 2006, ecstasy was ?mentioned? on death certificates in England and Wales 456 times (and mentioned on its own, without other drugs being present, less than half that number of times ? 234) , whereas aspirin was mentioned on 504 occasions (on 285 occasions in the absence of other drugs)?. So in the last 14 years, as a fact, aspirin has been formally associated by the government with the death of more people than has ecstasy. That?s why I said on the radio that ecstasy?s safer than aspirin. The picture is not that simple of course, not least because the word ?mentioned? does not mean that ecstasy actually caused the death, merely that a person died who had taken it.

As commenters on his blog point out (and kudos to him for being open to them), the case is not as clear as how CC Brunstrom lays it out. Let’s take the risk involved in taking a single tablet of aspirin, compared to that with that of ecstasy. Although aspirin may be associated with more deaths in the UK, there is the simple fact that more aspirin is taken in the UK than ecstasy and by a far wider demographic. According to this BMJ article, 12 million packs were sold in 2002 (a figure which stays roughly constant so let’s assume it’s about the same now), with an average of 25 tablets (as quoted in the article) that means 300 million tablets a year. While on the other hand, the estimate for the number of ecstasy tablets taken is anything between 500,000 and 2 million a week, which is anything between 25m and 100m a year. Once normalised for this, the numbers become a lot less favourable towards ecstasy.

But then it’s not so easy…. After all – aspirin is incredibly easy to buy and costs fuck-all, as do other off-the-shelf painkillers. I have dozens of packs of aspirin, paracetemol and ibuprofen lying around at home and at work, as I lose them easily and they typically cost less than a quid to replace, so I always buy over and keep some spare. As an estimate, I don’t consume anything close to half the pills I buy as the rest get lost, and I am sure I am not the only one. Whereas if you’ve got a couple of tablets off some scrote in a club or a new age hippie in a field at Glastonbury, you’re more likely to make the most of them.

Additionally, aspirin tends to be taken throughout the week while ecstasy-lovers are more likely to indulge in their leisure time – i.e. at the weekend, so the risk of an individual pill is not so much the factor as the total dosage in a night. There is of course, how much a factor in each death recorded above the relevant drug had. And don’t even get me started on the quality or variation in dosage of ecstasy tablets – not least because CC Brunstrom does it better:

Ecstasy is also not an entirely safe substance, but it can only be purchased in the UK from a criminal. Its production is not regulated and you therefore cannot be sure what you have bought. Is your pill contaminated, and if so with what? As importantly, ecstasy does not come with government approved instructions for use. What is a safe dose, and what should you do to deal with the side effects? Ecstasy itself is a relatively safe substance ? the very rare deaths seem to occur not from ecstasy toxicity, but usually from the user?s failure to take adequate steps to deal with its side effects – heatstroke, heart failure or excessive water intake. Much controversy remains over just how dangerous ecstasy really is; all that we can say with certainty at the moment is that it is demonstrably relatively safe compared to many other substances of abuse, both legal and illegal. There is no doubt, however, that alcohol, tobacco and barbiturates are far more harmful, even though legal. The position of ecstasy as a Class A drug is scientifically unsustainable but it?s still there, despite the evidence not because of it – the very opposite of the government?s oft-stated wish to work with evidence-based policy. Odd. You might like to ask your MP why.

Compared to his rash and unprovable comments about what is a “safer” “drug” – such a difficult claim to make at the best of times with multiple controlled studies, let alone a spreadsheet of figures – his blog post is actually quite a sensible one, trying to reflect on the complexity of the drugs debate while acknowledging the risks involved with all drugs, legal and illegal. The risks of consumption of ecstasy, just like the risks from alcohol or tobacco, or of driving fast or playing rugby or wanking with a plastic bag over your head, are nuanced and not merely a product of the substance of discussion, but a variety of mitigating factors.

Reading the blog post, it is measured and calm and for the most part keeps a level measured look at things. It’s reassuring that a leading law officer in this country understands this and wants a drugs policy not based on personal prejudice but on what is better for the public – much more so than a hysterical media all to easy to ring up sentimental red herrings and appeals to emotion (such as the terrible and senseless death of Leah Betts a decade ago, who died not from the ecstasy tablet she took, but from the toxic levels of water she ingested in the false belief it would mitigate ecstasy’s effects, no doubt encouraged by the dangerously misguided government advice at the time).

But then he lets himself open to ridicule by making a glib and difficult, and ultimately unsustainable claim about what is “safer” on the Today programme – a comparison as ultimately flawed and meaningless as saying apples are worse for you than oranges – and easy ammunition for his detractors. The result is, that the wise words and nuanced context he also wanted to get across are relegated to his blog and left to a much smaller audience, which for the most part are in far less need of clarity and education on the matter, than those who only ever see “THE MOST IDIOTIC POLICE CHIEF IN BRITAIN” headlines. So what gives? Why is an individual at least open-minded to give the facts his consideration at the same time so unsavvy he leaves himself only open to ridicule? He is no stranger to the controversial or downright silly, after all. Is he just a believer in the maxim that any publicity is good publicity? If so, which means the smart ones amongst us are left to scrape the barrel for dumb soundbites, it doesn’t bode well for the future of sane debate at all.

About the author: Chris Applegate is an occasional blogger and wannabe polymath. He has never taken ecstasy, in the most part due to the fact his friends are too tight to split their stash with him and he is incredibly bitter at this fact, hence the blogging.


5 Responses

Forgot “ecstasy” – it’s a product of prohibition and incomparable to aspirin. On a pharmacological level, it’s probably fair to say that MDMA is about as safe as aspirin. If they are both taken responsibly, there is little or no danger to the user.

Surely part of Brunstrom’s problem is the nature of the Today programme. The show (and, to an extent, the rest of the day’s news) is dependent on the presenters extracting soundbites from interviewees. Brunstrom fell into the trap of summarising a complex argument (reasonably argued at his blog) in a pithy memorable sentence, a sentence which was, unfortunately, manna from heaven for the Daily Mail. His right to reply via blog is, of course, hamstrung by the fact the Mail would accuse him of wasting police time (and taxpayers’ money! by blogging…

A couple of points; for a start, the Mail didn’t as far as I can see attempt to challenge Brunstrom’s facts, which should be far more worrying than any amount of ecstasy casualties as this implies they don’t believe that the reality matters, only that Brunstrom makes certain pseudo-religious statements. Secular prayers, as it were. If ecstasy is actually safer than aspirin, then it damn well shouldn’t be and should reorganise its pharmacology accordingly, and anyway nobody should be allowed to say so because it is TEH DRUGS. Back, waves, damn you!

Further, it is an interesting point that one of the leading whingers about government blogging “wasting taxpayers’ money” is Tim Worstall, esq, who hypocritically tends to spend the rest of his time whinging about insufficient public engagement, openness, &c.

I’ve heard reports of clinical trials of MDMA being conducted in the States, making it the first sanctioned research into psychedelics since Timothy Leary was banged up. This copper is eminently sensible. Your criticism seems a little harsh.

And your friends are too tight? You can pick up disco biscuits for the price of a couple of pints!

Ah, but that would him involve talking to scrotes and/or hippies.

Alex wins here: the point is not which is safer out of aspirin and E (and even on your figures Chris, the difference is a long way from substantial; you could certainly find another ‘harmless’ OTC drug with worse death stats than E), but that Brunstom would have faced *exactly the same reaction* had he been unequivocally 100% right rather than mostly right but a bit misleading…