Review – Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial

Recruit volunteers. Give them drugs. Record what they do on live television. It seems like a recipe for disaster – or at least a sure-fire way to ensure a slew of angry letters from Anne Widdecombe fanatics.

However, what on paper might have sounded like a tacky publicity stunt on Channel 4’s part, a shock tactic to boost ratings, actually turned out to be highly intelligent, interesting and scientific affair.

The first programme, which aired last night and concludes this evening, essentially acted as a platform to raise public awareness and educate people about what an illicit substance, ecstasy, in this case, actually does to a person based on recent research.

Interviews with regular pill-poppers, videos of live drug-taking, anatomical models of brains and Twitter-fuelled Q&As with experts in the fields of pharmacology and drug addiction combined to produce a thought-provoking and comprehensive overview of the effects of MDMA on a person’s biological, social and emotional wellbeing.

The programme featured the effects of ectasy intake on various luminaries such as deputy editor of New Scientist Graham Lawton, bestselling author Lionel Shriver, and even a former MP. The effects seen were strange and myriad. Shriver’s rather poetic observation that it “changes your emotions, from being watercolours to being oils” seemed representative of the experiences of most participants. Intriguingly, however, she said this while on the drug, explaining later that she felt that the drug in no way impaired her ability to articulate her thoughts at the time.

However, you don’t get a the go-ahead to hand out Class A drugs to volunteers every day, and the show was not simply an excuse to broadcast people saying things “the pink door is incredibly pink” live on television. Rather, the driving force behind the programme was what has been touted as an ‘unprecedented study’ into the effects of MDMA on human beings.

This study was headed up by with two of the world’s leading experts on MDMA, controversial psychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London and colleague Professor Val Curran of University College London. The study was ethically approved by a research ethics committee, and actually had a real academic aim beyond communicating the effects of drug-taking to the nation.

The research studied and videotaped 25 volunteers in total, using a combination of qualitative techniques, psycho-social assessments, and fMRI brain scans to build a comprehensive picture of what the drugs actually did to the person on both the psychological and biochemical level; with one possible application of this data being the evaluation of MDMA as a potential therapeutic agent for use in psychiatric medicine.

The end result was an enlightening exploration of something we really know very little about, effortlessly orchestrated by the brilliant Jon Snow, and which further establishes Channel 4’s reputation as a broadcaster which pushes boundaries for entirely commendable reasons.

Part Two of Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial is broadcast tonight at 10pm on Channel 4.