An “ecstasy shop” has opened in Utrecht in the Netherlands. If you head down the high street there you’ll walk along a tree-lined canal, past a McDonald’s and an ice cream parlour, before arriving at De XTC Winkel, or The Ecstasy Shop.
There’s just one catch: they don’t actually sell the drug. It’s an interactive exhibition from the drugs museum Poppi, a mock shop distributing dummy “ecstasy” to visitors as a way of inviting them to consider if it was legally regulated, how the drug could be sold. After all, a post-prohibition society wouldn’t involve buying psychoactive substances from someone in a bucket hat, lingering around the peripheral of a rave mouthing “ket, MDMA?”
Three ways in which MDMA could be sold if it was legal are presented and guests are invited to consider which one might be best.
“It’s quite striking as a shop front,” says Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, who was involved in advising the project. “The debate on this is moving on, and there is broad agreement now that MDMA prohibition isn’t working. What they wanted to do here is take the debate beyond ‘should we regulate MDMA?’ to ‘what would be the best way to do that?’”
So what happens when you visit The Ecstasy Shop? “They’ve set up a shop with three separate retail models inside which you can go in and interact with,” Rolles explains.
“The first one is a commercial candy shop with over-the-top bright colours and cartoonish design – like those American candy stores on Oxford Street.” In this part of the exhibition, the “ecstasy” is freely distributed from a towering candy dispenser without any checks on the user or advice on how to use the product.
“It’s quite outrageous and deliberately so,” Rolles says. “The marketing paints MDMA as a cool, aspirational product. So we can all agree that would be a really irresponsible way.”
The second retail model explored is located in a mini pop-up nightclub in the basement. Under this model, you fill out information on an iPad, then go to a condom-style vending machine to receive the goods (60mg pills, 120mg pills and 180mg ones which are “sold out”). The second the vending machine spits out your pills, a tune drops and a nightclub lighting show kicks in – like someone had just won the biggest ever jackpot at a bingo hall.
“The final one was kind of modelled on some proposals in our regulation book and is basically more like a pharmacy,” Rolles says. “It’s all very clean and clinical.” This would be a shop that mimics a pharmacy customer experience; the product would be packaged like a pharmaceutical prescription drug and you would be explained the risks from a medical professional. A user would have to disclose their weight and experience with MDMA so a safer dose could be established. The medical professional will make sure the user understands the risks involved and they would signpost drug and mental health services when appropriate.
“It goes through the kinds of questions that you’d be asked if you were purchasing a drug in a pharmacy,” Rolles says. Just, in this case, it’s a recreational drug. “You would interact with a pharmacist, and you would get something that looked like a medical product. There would be no promotional marketing. You’d get a product that was tailored to you so that the guides and dose can be tweaked for your body weight and experience.”
The case for legalising MDMA is strong: no drug is totally safe to use, but ecstasy is one of the safer recreational drugs. It’s been scientifically proven to be less harmful than many illegal drugs (like coke, G, speed, ket, meth, etc.) and legal ones (like alcohol and tobacco).
And, actually, a lot of the harms associated with MDMA are caused by the substance being illegal. Accidental overdose, for example, arises as a result of pills which wildly fluctuate in strength and purity – you don’t know what you’re taking as there’s no regulated production. And testing services are severely limited by the drug’s legal status. Harms to society from the drug, like criminal gangs involved in the supply using violence and environmental issues caused by manufacturers dumping toxic waste, would also be eliminated if it was legal.
“What we need is to have a responsible, quasi-medicalised dispensary system,” Rolles concludes. “Where you can interact with someone and get information on risk, harm reduction and safety. And get rid of all the commercialised marketing side of it.”
It’s hard to disagree with; if shops like this popped up all over the world countless lives would be saved, violence in society would decrease, and the planet would be destroyed less.
Remind me of the argument to keep MDMA illegal again?
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