There's no mistaking the warning signs. Reporting so gullible you giggle. Inaccuracies so gross you groan out loud. Sourcing so hysterical you ask if it's a put-on. You look away and tell yourself, never mind, it's only a thousand-word story on Page B2 of the "Metro" section that few will read.
But you force yourself to look at the page again, and you think of your professional duty. This is your mind. This is your morning newspaper. This is the Washington Post on drugs.
More precisely, this is the Washington Post on MDMA--a k a "Ecstasy," "e," and "XTC." Steven Gray's Aug. 26 story, "Md. Mobilizes Against Use of Ecstasy; Drug's Rampant Growth Has Officials Rushing to Warn Teens, Parents and Police," deserves a prominent place in a forthcoming anthology of erroneous drug reporting. Have the societal taboos against illicit drugs become so pervasive and so corrosive of the truth that reporters like Gray have nothing to lose--not their jobs, not the respect of their peers, not even their pride--by publishing the most ridiculous exaggerations about dope?
A new state of Maryland study is the hook for Gray's story: Police seizures of Ecstasy during the past two years are up. In Montgomery County alone, the number of doses seized by police "grew from 20 in all of 1998 to more than 6,600 in the first six months of this year." Similar increases are noted in Fairfax County. Could the dramatic increases have something to do with stepped-up enforcement? Gray doesn't ask.
"I just keep hearing about 'Ecstasy, Ecstasy, Ecstasy,' " a teacher named Sally Eller at a "teen substance abuse recovery facility in Gaithersburg" tells Gray. MDMA use among the young set has reached "epidemic proportions," Eller says, adding that 60 percent of her students reported using the drug in the last six months. What's the big surprise here? That kids in a drug-abuse-recovery facility love to talk about drugs and love to take them?
Despite Gray's hype, the evidence of a growing MDMA "epidemic" among teen-agers remains scant. A federal government study shows that MDMA use among high-school seniors has seesawed in the late '90s. In 1996, 6.1 percent of all 12th-graders said they had tried MDMA at least once. In 1997, the number rose to 6.9 percent, then dipped to 5.8 percent in 1997, before going up to 8 percent in 1999. As John Cloud wrote in his excellent June 5 Time magazine cover story, "Ecstasy remains a niche drug. The number of people who use it once a month remains so small--less than 1 percent of the population--that ecstasy use doesn't register in the government's drug survey."
Gray next turns to unnamed Maryland drug officials, who report that Ecstasy "pills are sometimes laced with methadone, cocaine, heroin, LSD and other unknown substances." Those reports conflict with the findings from a Drug Enforcement Administration conference on Ecstasy and "club drugs" held earlier this summer in Washington, D.C. According to this report from the conference, the DEA's David Gavin told the gathering that, yes, some Ecstasy tablets analyzed by the government contained other controlled substances such as MDEA and MDA--MDMA's chemical cousins--as well as amphetamine, methamphetamine, and ketamine. But Gavin said nothing about methadone, cocaine, heroin, or LSD. You can be assured that if the DEA ever detected those substances in purported Ecstasy pills, it would be happy to share the news.
Another speaker, Dr. Mark Gold, a professor at the University of Florida's Brain Institute, characterized the rumors that some MDMA contains heroin as an urban myth. The DEA's drug database has never turned up a pill that contained both MDMA and heroin, he told the gathering.
Added Gavin, "Less than 1 percent of all analyzed samples by [DEA], are bogus. They contained caffeine, ephedrine, dextromethorphan, caffeine-ephedrine, ephedrine plus dextromethorphan, or even over the counter antihistamine Benadryl."
(A word to the wise: Dextromethorphan [DXM] is one particularly dangerous drug masquerading as Ecstasy. For more information on DXM, see the DanceSafe fact sheet. To order a test kit to identify bogus or adulterated Ecstasy tablets, go here. And for the 1999 results from DanceSafe's Ecstasy Laboratory Pill Analysis Project click here.)
As Gray's story winds down, he offers an anecdote so outlandish that it must be another urban myth: "One characteristic of Ecstasy users is that they grind their teeth," he writes, which is absolutely true. "One substance abuse counselor told the story of a 16-year-old girl who had used the drug so much, she ground down her teeth to the point that she needed dentures." Until verified, this denture story belongs with the tale of the LSD users who went blind looking at the sun.
Gray concludes his piece with this lamentation from Beth Kane-Davidson, the program director at a Bethesda, Md., treatment center: "If you want to know what the problem is, it's that the kids have their own information about Ecstasy."
But with the Washington Post and the drug-abuse industrial-complex peddling such transparent disinformation, who can blame kids for seeking their own sources?