What's On: Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial

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Jon Snow is in ecstasy in Channel Four’s new live drugs trial. Photography: Channel Four.

Jess Owen tunes in to Channel Four’s latest live offering this week to see if Drugs Live can possibly be all it is cracked up to be.

Trust zany Channel Four to initiate the (self-professed) ‘boldest project yet’ – a live drugs trial transmitted to the millions sitting comfortably behind their television screens. Naturally such an undertaking warranted mass controversy and undoubtedly massaged the ego of the renegade channel.

First thing’s first: it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. The ‘live’ drugs trial actually consists of a teasing pre-recorded consumption which, if not halted by legal-constraint, suggests they are unsure of their own game. Only complete footage of the hours the drug takes to work its rollercoaster-route through the emotions would ever get close to the live promise of ‘the reality behind the tiny, unassuming-looking pill. Without reality, the premise falls short.

Yet the very nature of this two-part documentary, which maps the effect of pure ecstasy on famous faces such as Keith Allen and Lionel Shriver in a ‘controlled’ environment, does pose some poignant and possibly disturbing questions. Primarily the central question is this: does the documentary work as a genuinely interesting, groundbreaking experiment or is it merely a ratings ploy advertising MDMA? Are the punters laughing all the way to their next gram?

A litany of drug-induced euphoria, self-possession and social bonding dominated the ‘trial’ of this particular drug. It proved a bizarre testament to love; even if those involved do hope that footage is burned in years to come. Arising too was a debate into the effects of MDMA on trust and faith; one guinea pig, a female vicar, although enjoying the experience, noted that she felt ‘very disconnected from God’ and others became aggressive and paranoid.  Whether MDMA is a ‘thug drug’ or a ‘hug drug’ seems to remain an inconclusive gamble.

The byline of the trial though intended to look past this mental-roulette and discover whether the effects of MDMA might endure a clinical translation, helping to treat mental illness such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Potentially the drug could allow access to negative memories whilst blocking the feeling of threat which fuels trauma. Noble indeed and Drugs Live remained faithful to its agenda, divorcing politics and propaganda. Well no, actually, it didn’t.

Professor Nutt, one of several psycho-pharmacologists joining Channel Four’s usual saviour Jon Snow, was dismissed from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs after brazenly stating that pill-popping was a safer pastime than horse-riding. Yes you are reading this correctly; apparently the adversary stats add up. Then, just in case you fancied another binge of politics, Snow releases a torrent of assault on MP Evan Harris about the legalization of drugs such as ecstasy. In comparison much of ecstasy-intelligencer Andy Parrott’s damning words of warning are ignored.

But there are moments of amusement. Of all participants, Keith Allen is a treasure to behold. He offered a fleeting taster of what we all secretly wished would happen: someone would get pill-faced and make a fool out of themselves on national television. It would be Big Brother at its best – Lily and Alfie Allen looking on in horror. But Allen vacillated between believing he had taken Ecstasy and believing he had taken the placebo pill used to confuse some participants. It was suggested that a lack of sensory cues – that Allen wasn’t in a tent in Glastonbury with the pound of dance music and the pretty spectacle of gurning – might be the cause, but he at least knew what gurning was.

The question at the fore then is should scientific experiments be conducted in a public arena? A public arena where apolitical science can and will become politicized. Perhaps it is a positive step to open up a subject that has previously been quarantined to peer- assessment and private performance. But equally it says as much about the evolution of reality TV and the crude, all-encompassing nature of our viewing habits.

Channel Four has brought us live pregnancy on One Born Every Minute, gory disease in Embarrassing Bodies and the crème de la crème of the ignorant, rowing British public in Big Brother. Now two million people tune in with the hope of seeing others get wrecked on live TV. Quite frankly that says more about our culture than the entire programme manages to.

Although Drugs Live had great intentions, it’s left lying in the gutter. Too much was promised, and the academic playing field is uneven and chaotic. It’s hard to deny a show whose premise, sincere or otherwise, is to investigate what we know so little about, but the confused message about the danger of the drug leaves you uncertain whether you should be cancelling your subscription to MDMA monthly or refusing to enter an equestrian centre ever again.


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