Is Prohibition Doing More Harm Than Good?

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Photo: The panel of speakers at the recent Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in The Helix. 

Yet another drug related death occurred this past weekend. Once again most media outlets are missing the point completely. Daniel Kirby, is the Chairman of the DCU branch of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Here’s his take on how prohibition is making drug use immeasurably more dangerous.


Ana Hick’s death was a tragedy, but a preventable one. The toxicology reports aren’t in yet, so we can’t confirm the exact cause of death. But what we can do is talk about similar cases in the past and make some assumptions about what most likely happened. From what we can tell, Ana was one of the thousands of people in Ireland who chose to consume ecstasy last weekend.

For people not in the the know, ecstasy is the street name for MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine). When someone purchases ecstasy, they hope to receive a pill that contains MDMA as the active ingredient and they hope it is present in the normal quantity of about 100mg per pill.

Due to the fact that ecstasy production, dealing and consumption is illegal and therefore unregulated, this is almost always not the case. The reasons for this are many. The chemistry behind MDMA production can be quite complex, the raw materials can be hard to obtain without getting caught and there are motives to create copycat drugs that aren’t technically illegal.

This all leads to ecstasy pills being an incredibly varied mixture of different types of amphetamines and stimulants. The most talked about being MDMA and PMMA. According to Gardaí, PMMA has been responsible for at least ten deaths in Ireland as of May 2014 and many people suspect this could have been the case for Ana Hick.

PMMA has very similar effects to MDMA, is toxic at a far lower dose and takes a lot longer to take effect. This can lead the drug taker to mistakenly thinking they bought an ecstasy pill with a low dosage of MDMA. So they take another one. This is how most overdoses due to ecstasy occur. A person consumes a pill of unknown strength and purity, thinks it was a dud and so consumes more and overdoses as a result.

This case draws some very distinct parallels with two other cases of teenage girls dying after consuming ecstasy. Shelley Goldsmith was a 19 year old who died after consuming ecstasy at a music festival in the USA. She had all the hallmarks of being a bright young college student with her head on her shoulders. But she chose to take ecstasy and paid the ultimate price. Her parents very bravely came out and called for legalisation and regulation of ecstasy to prevent this happening again.

Martha Fernback was a 15 year old English girl who took half a gram of 91% pure MDMA and died as a result. This was a massive dose of MDMA for anyone, never mind a 15 year old girl. She had no idea how strong the drug she took was and her mother has also called for legalisation and regulation of ecstasy to take it out of the hands of criminals and to treat them like the pharmaceuticals they are.

If ecstasy production was regulated like alcohol then this would take the unknown element out of the equation completely. People could buy a pill of pure MDMA at a specific strength and know exactly what they were putting into their own bodies.

All drugs can be harmful. But ecstasy is made immeasurably more harmful by prohibition. Prohibition is the only reason that ecstasy contains anything other than MDMA and it is also the only reason that the amount of MDMA present is unknown.

Imagine walking into a pub and being handed a glass of mysterious alcoholic liquid. The barman doesn’t know how much alcohol is in it, if there are any contaminants in it and you are both afraid of getting caught so you buy it and consume it quickly.  There is nowhere else to get alcohol and you and your friends enjoy taking it, so you decide to take the risk. This is exactly what people who use ecstasy go through every time they use the drug.

Until we regulate the sale and supply of ecstasy, people will continue to dice with death every night of the week all around the world. People take ecstasy for a reason. They enjoy doing it and how it makes them feel and no amount of scaremongering will make it go away.

We have to realise this and enact harm reduction and educational policies to minimise the associated risks and prevent anything like last weekend’s case happening again. Until then, educational resources like and will have to suffice.

Take a look at Students For A Sensible Drug policy here and this earlier interview with one of their founders.  The next SSDP event Support! Don’t Punish! which will be taking place in 10 cities and towns around Ireland on June 26th.

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