Legalizing Ecstasy?

With the news that two people died from taking the illicit drug molly, a close relative of ecstasy, at the Electric Zoo festival in New York City on Labor Day weekend, it is a good time to take a critical look at calls for ecstasy legalization.  We have seen recent propositions to legalize ecstasy in Canada, Australia, and Colombia, often calling for the drug to be sold in pure form like alcohol.  This represents part of a long string of bizarre policy advocations being made by the medical establishment in Western democracies over the past decade, and which has also led to the predictable outpouring of support from the drug legalization lobby.

Proponents generally claim that "legalizing ecstasy would save lives," and that "a majority of the harm that comes from illicit drugs is due to the fact that these substances remain illegal," so "[i]nstead of imposing harsher restrictions on the substance ... governments should ... look at ways to reduce harm by allowing the drug to be produced and sold in a safe, regulated environment."

In contrast to what these proponents claim, there is absolutely no scientifically credible evidence that legalizing ecstasy would save lives, and there is an equal lack of evidence that "allowing the drug to be produced and sold in a safe, regulated environment" would lead to net harm reduction across society.  We must further wonder what kind of negative policy precedent it sets when the government feels the responsibility -- and then acts -- to reduce the harm to those engaged in illegal activities?  We should instead focus on harm-reduction efforts targeted solely toward law abiding members of society.  The criminals can assume sole responsibility for their choices.

Yes, a number of ecstasy-related deaths arise from a poor-quality product.  Namely, there may be acutely toxic impurities in the drug that an ecstasy user consumes.  Yes, a so-called legal source of ecstasy from a reputable government-approved supplier may eliminate such impurities and reduce the rate of deaths from impurities for users of the approved source.  But a government approved legal source of ecstasy may still sell for a higher price than a corresponding black-market version (we won't know the answer to this hypothetical unless we perform an ecstasy legalization experiment), in which case a black market will continue to exist that may occasionally sell "bad batches" of lethal ecstasy.  And who will pay for the regulation of legalized ecstasy?  Hopefully just the users -- which may be quite a small market.  If such is the case, the costs of legalized pure ecstasy could be significantly higher than a riskier black market source, in which case some users may continue to frequent the black market for their ecstasy needs.

Despite being controversial, there are some societal benefits arising from ecstasy-related deaths.  Users who consumed "bad batches" of lethal ecstasy were doing so with the reasonably foreseeable knowledge that consumption of the drug is illegal and that the quality of the drug is unknown.  Caveat emptor applies.

The publicity from the resulting deaths serves as a grim, but likely effective, deterrence for many potential ecstasy users.  How many potential ecstasy users do such publicized "bad batch" deaths deter?  We do not know (and likely will never know), but the number could be sufficiently high as to make the deterrence components non-trivial.  Of course, in an ideal world, no deaths from ecstasy use would occur, but we must acknowledge the positive deterrence aspect of such events.  As is commonly repeated in our complex society (even by law enforcement agencies), occasionally some good can come from a bad event.

Legalization will almost certainly increase the rate and extent of use.  We can consider the three options available when an illegal activity is legalized -- the rate and extent of occurrence (1) declines, (2) stays the same, or (3) increases.

How likely is it that the rate and extent of occurrence of an illegal activity will significantly decline upon legalization?  Exceedingly low, as this would imply that many individuals were partaking in the illegal activity because it was illegal, and not because they derived any real benefit from the activities (beyond the apparent satisfaction of knowing they were purposefully engaging in an illegal activity).  This scenario also assumes that the deterrence component of the criminal penalties was near zero.

How likely is it that the rate and extent of occurrence of an illegal activity will not significantly change upon legalization?  Again, effectively zero.  Why? T his scenario is largely premised on the assumption that the deterrence component of the criminal penalties was near zero, which is simply not realistic.  Even modest penalties are a deterrence to some individuals who would otherwise engage in the activity.

So we are left with the likely proposition that if it is legalized, the rate and extent of ecstasy use will increase.

Is ecstasy (and more specifically, its primary active ingredient, MDMA [3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine]) a benign substance?  The proponents would lead you to believe that it is, or at least that it is sufficiently benign to warrant legalization.  More knowledgeable sources tell a different story, and they highlight the dangerous acute and chronic health risks from this compound.  Indeed, one of the ecstasy deaths at the Electric Zoo festival occurred via acute intoxication after the user took pure MDMA, a powder form of the drug called "molly."

What the ecstasy legalization proponents' simplistic analyses also fail to consider are the (unspecified) deaths that may result from the increased use of the drug following legalization.  Furthermore, health problems may arise from use of the legalized drug, which will increase public and private health care costs (possibly more than offsetting any "savings" from potentially fewer users of low-quality black-market versions of the drug).  There are also social costs to be paid from having a greater portion of the population using such drugs.  As with similar substances, long-term use of ecstasy can ruin lives -- which can be equated to a "death" in terms of net socioeconomic impacts.  Increased addiction rates may lead to criminal activities in order to pay for continued access to the substance (be the access legal or illegal), and such crimes may lead to increased ecstasy-related (i.e., indirect) injuries, deaths, and/or social costs compared to the present situation.

How do we quantify whether or not legalizing ecstasy will save lives?  In short, we cannot, and we never will be able to reliably do so.  We would need to be able to run control and treatment studies on large regional (ideally, national) populations who cannot interact in any way (in order to avoid "legal ecstasy" transfer and other communications between the two study groups), all the while perfectly controlling for all other societal variables (i.e., the only socio-economic and environmental difference between the two groups being that ecstasy is legally available for one society, and illegal for the other society).  These conditions are impossible to meet, thereby precluding reliable estimates of whether ecstasy legalization will save lives.  Such actions may save lives, or may cost us many more lives.  We do not know, and the risk of the latter appears too high in relation to the minimal benefits from the former.

Proponents of drug legalization often point to the socio-economic and health problems related to legalized alcohol production, distribution, sale, and consumption (i.e., the "alcohol is legal and isn't perfect, so why shouldn't my drug du jour be legal, too?" argument).  Those who propose to legalize ecstasy on the grounds that it offers no greater societal damage than the already legal "drug" that is alcohol are not making a compelling intellectual case.

As a first step toward rational policies surrounding mind-altering substances with no nutritional value, we should consider the commission of crimes while under the influence of such mind-altering non-nutritional substances (which includes alcohol, ecstasy, and almost all other so-called "drugs") to be an aggravating factor, not a potential mitigating factor.  In other words, the punishment for criminal activity should be higher for those "acting under the influence" of such substances than for the equivalent criminal actions by those in a purportedly "normal" state of mind.  Criminal sanctions of this nature would serve the purposes of promoting greater personal responsibility (since one is generally more likely to engage in criminal activity when "under the influence," all other aspects being equal) and deterring the excessive use of mind-altering non-nutritional substances (a desirable policy goal in its own right).

Issues such as these nicely illustrate the intellectual follies of many drug legalization proponents.  The proponents' arguments far too often are simplistic, ignore both positive and negative feedbacks from various possible courses of action, and generally fail to consider externalities.  When a more complete analysis is conducted, the near-infantile just-do-it solutions typically do not appear as clearly positive as the proponents would have us believe.

Dr. Sierra Rayne writes regularly on environment, energy, and national security topics.  He can be found on Twitter at @rayne_sierra.