Stupidest Drug Story of the Week: The Times on meth-laced ecstasy.

Media criticism.
Jan. 10 2008 6:57 PM

Stupidest Drug Story of the Week

The New York Times raves about meth-laced ecstasy.

Ecstasy Pills. Click image to expand.
Ecstasy pills

The nastiest thing you can say about a news story is that it reads in the spirit of the press release that spawned it. So, let's start there:

The New York Times' Jan. 9 story about the alleged avalanche of methamphetamine-laced MDMA (ecstasy) cascading down on the United States from Canada—"Rise Seen in Trafficking of Enhanced Ecstasy"—harmonizes, almost bar for bar, with the Jan. 3 press release from the office of White House "drug czar" John Walters.

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The "drug czar's" press release attempts to foist as news the frequent adulteration of MDMA with other drugs, and the Times article helps advance that notion. The "drug czar" would have you believe that the very MDMA-meth recipe is something new. Again, the Times lines up the official sources to make it appear so. Then the press release gets all hinky about the high percentage of ecstasy tablets seized last year that contained methamphetamine without asking the crucial question, "How much methamphetamine per tablet?" The Times does the same.

The only significant deviation comes when the Times declines to confirm the catastrophic public health threat that the "drug czar" posits. Sheepishly—if a news story can be sheepish—the paper reports that the MDMA-meth cocktail "has not been the source of emergency room admissions, overdoses or new clients in substance-abuse programs, according to experts on both the law enforcement and the treatment side."

Without a doubt, Canada has become a major exporter of ecstasy tablets to the United States. Without a doubt, much of that output contains methamphetamine. But the office of the "drug czar" is not a trustworthy place to begin the framing of this story.

You would think that if Canadians are exporting the adulterated stuff to their American cousins, they're consuming it, too. And you'd be right. Back on Oct. 26, 2002, the National Post reported from Vancouver, B.C., that most ecstasy pills are "tainted" with other drugs.

Citing a University of British Columbia and Royal Canadian Mounted Police study of confiscated pills purported to be ecstasy, the paper reported that "[l]ess than one-third of the tablets examined contained only one substance." One common additive was methamphetamine.

Another study of tablets seized at rave parties, this one by the RCMP and Health Canada and reported in the Nov. 18, 2004, Montreal Gazette, found methamphetamine in 23 percent of the 357 tablets tested. On Dec. 15, 2005, the National Post returned with another story datelined Vancouver that found methamphetamine in 95 of 125 tablets that also contained MDMA. About half of the tablets contained caffeine, and ephedrine and ketamine were detected in some.

Because Canadian authorities and journalists know all about ecstasy adulteration, they were perplexed by the urgency of "drug czar" Walters' media event. The Jan. 4, 2008, National Post reported:

Yesterday's release of the alert by the top American anti-drug official took a senior RCMP drug officer by surprise but he does not dispute the message.

"He is not wrong. But this is nothing new. We've been telling them this for years," said Superintendent Ron Allen, head of the RCMP's Drug Section for the Greater Toronto Area.

In the summer of 2006, for instance, Canadian police seized 10,000 pills sold as Ecstasy that were destined for New York, and a laboratory test found they contained 80 percent methamphetamine.

Ecstasy adulteration won't come as a surprise to anybody who has ever been ripped off in a drug deal, and certainly won't to anyone who visits EcstasyData.org, "an independent laboratory pill testing program." With the usual caveats about sample bias (most tabs were submitted by people who believe in harm-reduction) and the low number of submissions (1,565), the project's box scores over the past decade show methamphetamine to be a regular ecstasy additive. In 2006, it found methamphetamine in 36 percent of its submissions.

Why add meth to MDMA? "Drug czar" Walters would have you believe that drug chemists are "desperate" and are "dangerously altering a product" to develop their "client base." But the addition of methamphetamine to MDMA tablets makes pharmacological and economic sense. Methamphetamine, which is MDMA's chemical cousin, is a powerful stimulant. MDMA has a lesser stimulant effect. By adding meth to tablets, a pill maker can stretch his supplies of MDMA, a more difficult and costly drug to make.

Meth, as noted above, isn't the only cheaper adulterant makers add to their pills. According to the RCMP's 2006 illicit drug report, a 2006 bust of a Montreal ecstasy tableting operation uncovered "10 kilograms of pre-mixed MDMA powder prepared for final processing with caffeine, cellulose, methamphetamine, ketamine and colour dyes in an industrial-sized bakery mixer." Why caffeine? Because it's an even cheaper stimulant than methamphetamine. Why ketamine? It's PCP's chemical cousin, and in the indiscriminating user might mimic the trippier aspects of MDMA. (The discriminating user will probably catch on to the ketamine, but by then, it's too late.)

For all of Walters' scaremongering—he calls the combination "Extreme Ecstasy"—the meth-addiction potential of tainted tablets shouldn't really be assessed until the dose level is known. But the Times story doesn't ask how many milligrams of meth were in the seized Canadian pills. EcstasyData.org can't tell you, either, because the Drug Enforcement Administration prohibits quantitative tests of illicit drugs.

The 2005 National Post story answers the question. It reported that the "median amount of meth in the [ecstasy] tablets was eight milligrams, with 16 mg the high and four mg the low." How powerful is 16 mg? Consider prescription methamphetamine, which is used to treat  attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity in children and obesity. The manufacturer's recommendations (PDF) state that children 6 and older should take no more than 20 to 25 mg of the drug daily.

Obviously, putting meth and MDMA together creates an additive, and potentially adverse, effect. I intend no endorsement of ecstasy tablets by pointing out how little meth often appears in them, but there you are. But at least I'm giving it to you straight, something the Chicken Little "drug czar" and the Times didn't do this week.

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I wonder when we'll have a "drug czarina." Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.