Now that the illegal production of XTC is resulting in uncontrollable problems, many people are saying the drug should be legalised. Would that be a sensible idea? Ingmar Franken, Professor of Clinical Psychology and an expert on addiction, believes it would be: “I’m convinced that adults can deal with this in an adult manner.”
Ingmar Franken is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. He specialises in the psychology and neuropsychology of addiction and substance use.
Drug use has increased among EUR students; international students are greatest users
A survey of EM among 1584 EUR students shows almost a doubling in drug use compared to…
A recent survey of 1,584 students conducted by Erasmus Magazine showed that more than half of EUR students used drugs in the past twelve months. Were you shocked by that number?
“First and foremost, that sample probably wasn’t entirely representative. When you ask people about substance use, most of your respondents will be people with a greater-than-average interest in substance use. Having said that, I do think it’s obvious that the percentages are considerably higher now than they were a few years ago, when I conducted a similar student survey myself. As far as I’m concerned, there are no grounds for major worry. It seems most drugs are used recreationally and in small quantities.”
The most commonly used drugs are nitrous oxide, MDMA and cocaine. XTC tops the list. Is there a reason why this drug is so popular?
“Its popularity waxes and wanes. XTC, like cocaine, wasn’t cool for a while, but in the last few years we’ve seen a spike in its use. Among other reasons, this is due to the popularity of festivals and electronic dance music raves, where the drug is often used.”
An increase in the XTC use rate has been observed in the rest of the country, as well. Figures released by the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction show that 7.7 per cent of Dutch people over the age of 18 have taken XTC at some point in their lives. That’s a million people. Is this damaging our public health?
“I always distinguish between absolute and relative damage. In absolute terms, every substance you don’t need to keep your body healthy poses a risk, regardless of whether it’s legal or illegal. So it’s better not to use XTC. The next question, then, is how unhealthy XTC is in relation to other substances. Here we may list about three harmful effects. The pill may be impure. You may be hypersensitive to the active ingredient, which may also happen with a harmless substance such as paracetamol. And perhaps you don’t look after yourself properly while on the drug. As a result, you may take too much, or perhaps you’re not drinking enough water, causing you to become overheated or dehydrated.
“We know that people die [after taking XTC] every once in a while. But it has been estimated that only eight people die of XTC annually, which is nothing compared to the number of people who die due to the consumption of alcohol or tobacco. The British pharmacologist David Nutt drew up a ranking of the top-20 most dangerous substances. XTC was ranked 18th.”
And on top of that, the risk of addiction is negligible.
“That’s right. Both alcohol and cigarettes are very addictive. Addiction is largely characterised by an increasingly frequent consumption of the substance. For instance, alcoholics will start drinking alcohol every day. There is no such dependency when you take XTC, due to the drug’s mechanism of action. What happens [when you take XTC] is that all the serotonin in your body will be released at once. And the problem with serotonin – although perhaps it’s actually more of an advantage as far as this is concerned – is that it takes a while for one’s serotonin levels to be replenished. In other words, you can take a second pill soon after the first, but it won’t work.”
So, to sum up, XTC poses less of a health risk than legal substances such as alcohol, and compared with other drugs, it is hardly addictive, or not addictive at all. It sounds like this drug has nothing but benefits.
“Well, it does give some users considerable hangovers, the so-called ‘Tuesday dip’ experienced by many users because their serotonin has been depleted. If you regularly use XTC, or if you take too much of it, you may suffer depression, memory problems and loss of concentration.”
But these effects are temporary, right?
“Yes, but they may interfere with your work or studies if you don’t feel fit enough to do any work until Wednesday. This means you’re basically taking half a week to recover from your weekend. And we’re not quite sure about its long-term effects.”
Have you ever taken XTC yourself?
Why are you hesitating to answer the question?
“I don’t wish to set the wrong example, being a professor and an addiction expert and all that. But yes, I did take some, many years ago.”
I assume that you used the drug recreationally and that you knew what you were doing. Don’t you think that’s true for most people?
“I’m convinced that adults can deal with this in an adult manner, as they do with many substances. Just because our supermarkets sell alcohol doesn’t mean we are all wasted every weekend. Just because cannabis is semi-legal here doesn’t mean we spend all day in coffee shops. Although many foreigners are surprised to hear the latter.”
So why is XTC a banned substance?
“Most scientists are aware that whether or not a substance is banned has little to do with the health risks it poses. Some substances are accepted because they have been used for a long time, are part of our culture and are hard to eradicate, such as alcohol and tobacco. Other substances are declared dangerous pretty much as soon as they appear on the market. And then there are substances that are somewhere in between: substances that are legal, but must be prescribed by a doctor. Ritalin is basically some kind of amphetamine, and we are currently seeing huge problems with painkillers that are rather like heroin. In terms of their mechanism of action and the risks associated with them, these substances aren’t all that different from ‘drugs’, only the pharmaceutical industry makes an absolute fortune producing them. It’s almost random, the way some substances are banned while others aren’t.”
By now the costs of the fight against illegal drugs are spiralling out of control. A few weeks ago, Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach presented some calculations demonstrating that the War on Drugs, which was initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971, has cost the American government 20 billion dollars annually since that time, even though the number of drug addicts has not decreased in those forty years.
“On the contrary, the number of drug addicts is actually rising in the USA. The country is currently suffering an opioid epidemic, with entire villages being addicted to prescription drugs.”
At any rate, the War on Drugs is not having the right effect. The Netherlands, too, is having difficulty keeping the production of and trade in drugs in check. Wouldn’t society be better off if popular and relatively harmless substances such as XTC were legal?
“I’d support such a policy. It would allow us to control the whole thing, rather than finding jerry cans leaking chemical waste left over from the production of drugs all over the place. We’ve reached the point where we must weigh the costs of banning substances against the benefits.”
If we were to legalise XTC, how should we go about it?
“There should be a lower age limit. You can use substances sensibly when you’re thirty, but you can’t when you’re eighteen. Studies have shown that if people start using substances at a young age, there is a certain level of abandon. And the earlier people start using XTC, the sooner they move on to other drugs, as well. We know that the human brain keeps developing until age twenty-five, so perhaps that would be the right age. But politicians aren’t sure what to do with the subject, so they keep putting off the decision. In the meantime, our drug policy is being overtaken left, right and centre by other countries. Even in certain American states, cannabis is no longer illegal.”