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Stop Calling Ecstasy-Related Deaths Overdoses

Inaccurate terminology and reporting can actually be dangerous.

by Anna Codrea-Rado
Apr 30 2017, 2:10pm

On a Saturday night two weeks ago in Toronto, a 24-year-old woman died after collapsing in a nightclub in the city. Four other people were also hospitalized that same night after they were all taken ill—one in the same venue, and three in a different one. The local papers reported that woman who died and the people who wound up in hospital were all the victims of suspected drug overdoses involving MDMA. The press also reported that these incidents were likely caused by "a bad batch of street level drugs."

This description of events is fairly typical whenever there's a drug fatality in the nightlife scene, and is true of Canada just as much it is of the UK and US. Ecstasy deaths are often immediately reported as overdoses, before toxicology reports are available, and attributed to super-strength tablets that have been laced with toxic substances and are infiltrating nightclubs.

There is a big problem with this narrative: it's usually inaccurate at best and gives the public a superficial view of the actual dangers of taking ecstasy and how to mitigate them.

Ecstasy fatalities grab a lot of attention, despite being one of the rarest types of drug deaths. The most recently available from the Center for Disease Control showed that 52,404 people in the US died of drug-related causes in 2015. Opioids (prescription and illicit) were the main driver, contributing to 33,091 of those deaths. While the CDC doesn't record ecstasy deaths, a 2009 study estimated about 50 occur a year. How drug deaths are reported on in the media—and in turn how they are discussed in common parlance—is often misleading and sensationalized, loaded with prejudice about drug users and perpetuating potentially dangerous urban legends. Even the term "overdose," when used to describe the fatal results of taking MDMA, is often imprecise.

"The word overdose is misleading in a lot of situations, but particularly with MDMA," Henry Fischer, policy director at drug policy think tank VolteFace told THUMP. Fischer said the term is generally unhelpful when talking about deaths caused by illicit substances because an overdose is the ingestion of more than the recommended amount of a drug, and there aren't "doses" of illegal drugs, as such. "If you've taken more than you should have to enjoy the effects, if you've had an unpleasant time, is that an overdose?"

Read the full story at Thump.