Complex reputation of ecstasy developed differently on radio than in newspapers

PhD defence Berrie van der Molen on 17 January

The public debate about ecstasy in the Netherlands since the 1980s has played out very differently on the radio than in newspapers. This is mainly due to a different way of dealing with the various connotations of the drug: from relatively innocent party drug to criminal merchandise. Berrie van der Molen describes this in his dissertation ‘Talking about XTC: Drug discourse in post-war Dutch newspaper and radio debates’, which he will defend on 17 January.

“Interestingly, the perspectives that now dominate the debate on ecstasy were already present in the first years of the drug’s popularity in the Netherlands,” says Van der Molen. He based his analysis of the first twenty years of ecstasy in the Netherlands on structural research of newspaper and radio debates. The latter is innovative, because until recently radio debates were not searchable on spoken word. Van der Molen developed a methodological approach to search and analyse debates in both media.

He collaborated intensively with data engineers from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, where the digitised radio heritage of the Netherlands is housed. “After reading so much about ecstasy in newspaper articles from the 80s and 90s, it was really special to hear stakeholders often heatedly discussing this rather controversial subject. It gave me a totally different perspective on the public debate,” says Van der Molen.

Contradictory meanings

Media debates about drugs and ecstasy are highly charged and complex. Often, several connotations coexist: ecstasy is a relatively harmless party drug, but also criminal merchandise, and according to others, a threat to young people. In newspapers, Van der Molen observed such different meanings often in separate articles, while on the radio there were strong discussions between stakeholders who were each convinced of their own perspective.

Hard drug with soft policy

Van der Molen also noticed a significant shift in public opinion over time. In the 1980s and early 1990s, ecstasy was often seen as a soft drug, even though the substance was almost immediately classified as a hard drug by law. In the media, there was great confidence in a harm reduction approach, a combination of tolerance policy and drug education. Towards the end of the 1990s, however, ecstasy was increasingly considered a hard drug, and there was a growing frustration about the Dutch tolerance policy, which was then considered too soft. A stronger preference for preventing use seemed to emerge, replacing the earlier focus on safety of ecstasy use.

Drug experts

“I found it fascinating to see how the reputation of ecstasy developed at its own pace, apparently only slightly influenced by changes in the legal framework or the views of drug experts,” says Van der Molen. “Current debates still show very divergent views on the matter. As far as I’m concerned, more attention should be paid to the views of drug and addiction experts.”