E for Ecstasy by Nicholas Saunders
Chapter 5: Who takes Ecstasy?
How many people take Ecstasy?
No-one knows just how many people take Ecstasy, but there are some clues.
In 1993, British customs seized 554 kg, double the previous year's haul.(20)
That year E was in more plentiful supply than the year before, so the proportion
seized was probably less than usual. At 90 mg each, 554 kg is enough for
somewhat over 6 million doses. In spite of claims by customs that they intercept
10%, the true figure may be nearer 1%(195),
implying that several hundreds of millions of doses were imported, quite
apart from domestic production. This is no hard evidence, but does suggest
that there are several million British users. Seizures have increased each
year.(179) Another indication
is the growth in rave attendances to over a million per week and the ever-widespread
use of Ecstasy in clubs.(159,
The only British national survey on usage was conducted by Harris Opinion
Polls for the BBC Reportage programme in January 1992. Interviewers asked
questions about drug use to people on their way into clubs in the 11 largest
cities in Britain. The answers of 693 people aged between 16 and 25 covering
all social groups who were 'regular club goers' - i.e. said they attended
at least once a month - were analysed. Overall 31% said they had taken Ecstasy
regardless of social group. 33% said they had taken an illegal drug, but
67% said that their friends had done so.(23)
Andrew Thomson, a sociologist doing research among this age group (Appendix
5) believes that those who told the Harris interviewers that they did
not take drugs but that their friends did so were probably lying (because
the questions were asked in public), and that they actually took drugs themselves.
This would explain the discrepancy with his own impression, and that of
other observers, that the majority of this group use Ecstasy. The total
number of 16-25 year-olds in Britain is 7,444,300.(47)
Statistics to show how many of these are regular club goers are not available,
but Andrew Thomson believes that the figure is about 90% among those he
is studying. If that were the case, and 80% of the age group live within
reach of cities, then the national figure would be 3.5 million, or 1.7 million
if only those who openly admitted taking Ecstasy are included. Recently,
it has been suggested that there are just as many users living in the country
as in inner cities.(145)
A survey of school children across the whole of England found that 4.25%
of 14 year-olds had tried Ecstasy.(48)
This comes to 24,000. Another (regional) survey found that 6% of 14-15 year-olds
have taken Ecstasy.(49) If applied
nationally, that would come to 70,000.
Further statistics depend on guesswork. Ian Wardle of Lifeline, a Manchester
organisation concerned with young people who use illicit drugs(40),
estimated in 1992 that a million Es were consumed every week in Britain.
Other estimates are lower, for instance the number of people who have tried
Ecstasy at raves has been put at 750,000.(33)
There are a considerable number of users outside the 16-25 age group who
attend clubs, so the total number of people who have tried Ecstasy in Britain
probably lies between one and five million. The fact that six million doses
were seized without causing a shortage suggests the actual figure is at
the higher end.
In contrast, the number of American users is small. A survey of a similar
age group in 1991 found that only 0.2%, or one in 500, had used Ecstasy
in the previous 30 days; while 0.9% had used E in the previous year.(22)
These figures imply that Ecstasy use was far less among young people in
America than Britain that year, though that was before rave culture started
in the States. Though there was a shortage of E in California in 1993, by
1994 it was plentiful again.(165)
As for frequency of use, a study of 89 Ecstasy users in London found that
46 had used the drug more than 20 times; 23 more than 40 times and 5 more
than 100. About one third used it at least once a week, while a minority
'binged' on 10-20 over a weekend. Many took other drugs along with MDMA.(45,
What kind of people take Ecstasy?
MDMA is used by a wider variety of people than other illicit drugs, and
has been credited with bringing together types of people who would not mix
previously. Besides ravers, users include Hollywood stars(139),
New Agers(154), gays(175)
and psychotherapists. All over Europe and north America Ecstasy is found
in city dance clubs, and in Britain it has spread out to people living in
Young people are the most receptive to E. Among British schoolchildren,
Ecstasy is the drug most frequently encountered apart from cannabis, with
girls trying it earlier than boys.(181,
But Ecstasy has spread to some surprising quarters. Peter McDermott, editor
of The International Journal on Drug Policy, describes how it hit a group
in Liverpool: "I went down to the local pub, and some of the regular
four-pints-a-night drinkers were there - drinking orange juice and giggling:
they had discovered Ecstasy."
Another older group of users are those who used to take LSD in the sixties
and perhaps still smoke cannabis. An account is given below of how Ecstasy
was picked up by such people in a particular rural community, but a similar
trend has occurred all over the country. There are even some raves organised
by and for this age group, although the majority at those I attended were
in their twenties.
Arno Adelaars, a Dutchman who has written a book about Ecstasy(17),
says that extroverts and introverts use the drug differently. The extroverts
use it for entertainment, to open up and relate to strangers at parties,
while the introverts take it at home with a lover or a few close friends
to provide intellectual insights. Arno, who is familiar with the English
club scene, says that there is also a difference between the way E is taken
in Holland and in England. In Holland no-one likes to lose control, especially
in public, but in England people like to show that they are 'out of it'.
Trends among ravers
For more recent information on this topic and an article on Free Parties,
see my site ecstasy.org online in both North
America and Europe
When raving was new to Britain, ravers described it as one big happy family
and would feel at home at any event where people were using E. But over
the years, and particularly from 1993, the scene has divided up into distinct
subgroups - each with their own style of music and clothes, their own music
and drugs of choice. At one extreme are some younger Northerners who wave
white gloved hands and blow whistles, while at the other are the upwardly
mobile professionals who have absorbed Ecstasy and rave-type parties into
their lifestyle, dressing much as they would for an office party and starting
the evening with a few drinks.(146)
In 1993, alcohol made a comeback in Britain(174)
and other drugs such as poppers were more popular in some circles, probably
due to worsening reputation of drugs sold as E.(172)
But by 1994 the quality of Ecstasy improved and it became re-established
as the dance drug of choice.(197)
Amphetamines have always been used along with E in the north(40)
and are now frequently used in London too. Pure MDMA is seldom used as the
main drug, largely due to other drugs being sold as Ecstasy(172,
173), but also out of choice.
Along with these diversifications in consumption of drugs, the atmosphere
at events also varies widely and in general is less open-hearted. My impression
is that the key rave experience, as described in Chapter
2, occurs much less often. The rave parties that still manage to create
the atmosphere from the good old days are those organised by and for travellers.
Overall, it seems that, like all counter-cultures, raving has become mainstream
but in a diluted form. Rather than being the exception, it is now normal
to take E in a club, but the proportion of those on E is far smaller and
many of them have also had a few drinks. Clubs need E available to provide
a good atmosphere, so they encourage dealers on one hand while pretending
to try to keep them out.(175)
A new trend is commercialisation of chill out parties. Formerly, ravers
would invite others back to their homes for impromptu chill out parties.
This was very much part of the culture and still goes on, but now some clubs
cater for the same needs of somewhere to go while coming down off E with
comfort and ambient music. On Ibiza there is a club that opens daily at
6am for the purpose.
Having read the published reports of surveys concerning Ecstasy, I felt
that none had asked the most important question: "Has Ecstasy changed
your life, and if so, in what way?" During December 1992, I distributed
a dozen 4-page trial questionnaires and, as a result of the response, reduced
this to a 2-page questionnaire. During January and February 1993, I distributed
200 survey forms via various people with whom I was in contact through my
research. 46 were returned, though some respondents skipped several questions.
The sexes were roughly equally represented (20 men to 18 women). Half of
the respondents were under 25 and the majority of these were 20-23. Respondents
tended to be either heavy users who had taken the drug an average of 73
times, or light users averaging 5 experiences.
75% said they thought that taking Ecstasy had had an effect on their life.
The page of questions and answers on How your personality may have changed
as a result of taking Ecstasy is given opposite. The most pronounced change
was to enjoy dancing more. There was an increase in spirituality, being
more in touch with the spiritual side of oneself and closer to nature. Another
pronounced change was unexpected: an increase in caring about other people.
Seeing more friends, increased enthusiasm, increased happiness and self-esteem
were also frequently reported. Negative effects were less pronounced, the
most common being that Ecstasy had made ordinary life seem more boring.
Also reported by some were more depression and illness.
A question concerning paranoia produced the most surprising result. Although
several people felt much more paranoid as a result of taking Ecstasy, others
felt less paranoid. Four of those who felt much more paranoid were women
who had taken only half a dose or less. All had taken the drug previously.
Even more surprising was that none of these answered that Ecstasy had, overall,
been bad for her: three answered "good" and one "neutral".
Many people added a few lines about the effect they felt Ecstasy had had
on their life. Most implied that the drug had enhanced their social lives,
and mention was frequently made of profound experiences varying from intimate
So as to throw light on the theory of 'inappropriate bonding' versus the
theory that 'whatever you do on E will be right', I asked Have you ever
fallen in love on Ecstasy, and if so how did it turn out? There were 7 responses.
2 said they were still in a relationship started on Ecstasy; 2 said they
were already involved but became much more in love with their partners;
one had a 3-day blissful romance that ended abruptly with a bump; one said
she had made several wrong choices on Ecstasy and one described how both
partners were embarrassed the next day about what they had said to each
The sample was too small and self-selected to draw conclusions from, but
it does appear that many users experience changes well beyond the immediate
effect of the drug. However, a major obstacle to drawing conclusions from
such a survey is indicated by one comment, "I can't tell you what changes
are due to Ecstasy, as my life has changed so much anyway". To overcome
this would require comparison with an equivalent sample not taking Ecstasy.
I hope that this will encourage some further research on what I perceive
as the most fascinating and important aspect of the widespread use of Ecstasy:
How does it affect people's lives?
Raves in Northern Ireland
For more recent information on this topic, see my site ecstasy.org
online in both North America and Europe
There have been a number of anecdotes about Catholic and Protestant kids,
brought up to hate one another, taking E together at raves and ending up
hugging.(150) Just possibly this
breakthrough from hatred to affection may extend to relationships outside
the rave, and could just spell the end of hostilities.
I have been told that the IRA used to keep drugs out of Ireland by kneecapping
suspected dealers - a far more effective method than the law! But in 1993,
they dropped this policy with the result that Ireland enjoyed a freshness
of new-found Ecstasy experience long since lost in England.
E hits a rural community
In 1990 Ecstasy arrived at the Pennine town of Garston Bridge, midway between
Carlisle and Newcastle. This is one of those rural communities that was
deserted by farmers in the fifties in favour of better paid jobs in the
cities, leaving their old stone houses, barns and even schools to be sold
at rock bottom prices to ex-city dwellers in the sixties and seventies -
mostly ex-hippies in their late twenties settling down to start a family.
Typically these people got jobs or started their own businesses and lost
interest in drugs, apart from hash, until Ecstasy arrived. Their children
are now teenagers who, having been to school with the local farmers' children,
mix more with the indigenous population than the parents do. There is plenty
of social life since people think nothing of driving 30 miles to a party,
and the generations mix freely - at any party you can find all ages from
5 to 50.
Although country dwellers, these people kept up strong ties with their city
backgrounds, mostly in London, so they were not far behind when raves became
popular. At first these were mini-raves in their houses or larger raves
of up to 500 people in barns or marquees, usually far enough away from other
houses to avoid disturbing neighbours who might call the police. Even though
the harsh 'Tribal-techno' style of music was unpopular at first, a core
group of 20 or so enthusiasts quickly developed, who would fix up a party
every week or two where they would take E and dance all night. Daniel, one
of the rave organisers and a long-standing member of the community, told
me: "There's a great atmosphere, you could say euphoria even, the ultimate
party. The raves provide a safe environment where you can be your true self
and realise that you're OK. I always have a fabulous time in a non-egotistical
Between parties, people would meet more often than before and communicate
more wholeheartedly. "Although we had known each other for so long,
it took Ecstasy to break through the very British taboo about hugging one
another," Daniel said. But the new closeness also caused crises in
couples' relationships. "We became more open and truthful. If couples
had stayed together through habit, then it came out". Life was taken
more seriously and heartfelt: honest expression was valued more than easy,
superficial encounters. "Some people went too far and let go of the
framework of their lives. At one time there was a myth that everyone involved
would lose their jobs," Daniel said. But people would support each
other through crises and there was usually someone who understood the problem
well enough to be of help.
Up till then, this community had been strictly non-religious. But Ecstasy
brought about spiritual development in many of the individuals. "It
brought me closer to God", claimed one woman, and "I began to
see myself as the source of love" said another, while Daniel remarked
that "Being able to transcend the ego leads to self knowledge".
When looking back over the early days of Ecstasy use, people in the community
commonly said that the emotional agony of one member had been felt by everyone
else, as if it were their own. The community became very intimate: people
who had known each other as neighbours for 10 or twenty years felt suddenly
bonded in a far deeper way through the weekend raves. For most people the
raves were a joyful celebration, but some people did experience paranoia
and one man who took a lot of E and LSD smashed up his own house. Others
took some fairly drastic decisions during this period: a long-term couple
split up with the man giving away everything he owned to "free himself
of material things" so as to be able to develop his "inner self".
He was last heard of cleaning trains in Gothenburg. A single parent, a woman
in her mid thirties, felt that she had glimpsed her true destiny and had
to follow it. She left her two children with their grand parents, said goodbye
Daniel said that some new serious relationships had formed, but these were
unlike the casual affairs that were the pattern before. "You can't
seduce, cheat or lie on E," he explained. The great majority of couples
did stay together and developed much closer bonds; even single people felt
that their quality of life was improved. The few outsiders who attended
became like old friends overnight - two men who had never met before spent
the next week travelling together.
The first ravers were of the parents' generation, but they were later joined
by their teenage children and the children's friends and, after a year or
so, by some younger members of the indigenous community. As more people
joined, the raves became less intense but instead began to be accepted by
the wider community, though the original group still set the style. A series
of raves were held in village halls until the police clamped down and one
was stopped by a court order. Since then they have been held in farm buildings
without being publicly advertised; tickets have been sold at cost price
- #5 to friends through the grapevine.
At least three quarters of the people at these parties take Ecstasy and
sometimes virtually everyone takes the drug. The most common dose is a single
E, but a half E is common and a few people take several Es at a time. Many
also smoke dope right through the night, but hardly anyone drinks alcohol
or takes amphetamine. In fact most have stopped social drinking because,
as Daniel put it, "Alcohol doesn't get you there, but E does".
These people don't use Ecstasy outside parties. "It isn't just the
drug, it's a package: Ecstasy, the company, the music, the lights, the dancing.
It's a tribal sort of experience, a ritual that depends on all of these
things combined," Daniel explained.
The police don't try to stop the parties but sometimes search people on
their way in, so some ravers cautiously swallow their tablet just before
they arrive. When on a couple of occasions people were found with cannabis,
they were taken down to the police station, cautioned and returned to the
party by police car. It seems that, in view of their limited resources,
the police regard the new rave scene as something to be tolerated. There
has been no shortage of good E via the old established connections for scoring
dope - friends club together to send someone to the city who buys in bulk
and covers his or her costs and own E consumption rather than making a profit.
The conversion of Garston Bridge to Ecstasy was seen as overwhelmingly positive
by the people involved, but as destructive by observers in another community
some miles away. There the drug was enthusiastically taken up by some while
others saw it as shallow and negative, even dividing some couples. Those
in favour would point to the new sense of caring between people, while the
others pointed to the break up of long-standing relationships that they
felt were imperative for the welfare of the children. Nevertheless, Ecstasy
spread to this and other neighbouring communities, albeit in a less intense
way: parties typically have a few people taking E while others drink or
smoke hash, with some people doing a bit of all three. A man who does not
take E described how the 'openness and honesty' seem paper-thin to him:
"It's over the top, all this display of affection and free expression.
It doesn't feel real to an observer and actually alienates people, especially
if, like me, you happen to have been on the receiving end of some pretty
hurtful remarks". This view is supported by an experienced doctor who
believes that openness and honesty only apply to new users.(161)
Looking back, it was commonly felt that Ecstasy had caused the biggest upheaval
in Garston Bridge since the arrival of the first freak settlers. "I
see it as middle-age crisis on a group level. We needed something to fill
our lives as our children had done, and along came E," Daniel said.
Mark Gilman, a researcher who works for Lifeline, a non-statutory drug agency
in Manchester, is conducting a study of drug use among young football supporters.
Mark is using ethnographic methods, which involve socialising with the football
supporters, and he witnessed at first hand their conversion from drinking
alcohol to taking Ecstasy. His own account is included below.
The derby football matches, in which two teams from the same city play each
other, are notorious for generating violent incidents. The Manchester derby
is no exception. There is a long tradition of encounters between Manchester
United fans and supporters of Manchester City resulting in trouble. Even
when they are not playing each other there have been some fights when the
two groups meet in the city centre. If United have been playing at home,
the 'lads' will meet up in a city centre bar to drink Saturday night away.
If City have been playing away, their 'lads' will also make their way back
to the centre of Manchester for a drink. It often happens that, sometime
in the course of the night, the two groups clash and trouble follows. This
occurs even though some of the men come from the same areas and are known
to each other during the week. Saturdays are a special time when normal
rules of behaviour are suspended.
The first derby game of 1989, which took place at Manchester City's ground
in the late summer, was eagerly awaited by both sets of supporters, because
Manchester City had been out of the first division for some time. Manchester
United's lads met in a pub early on Saturday morning and proceeded to get
'steamed up' on alcohol in preparation for the events to follow. After several
false alerts the United fans finally moved off from the pub at about 2.30
pm. By this time they numbered several hundred. Standing on a bridge that
the United fans pass over on their way to the City ground, I looked back
at the approaching horde. Their demeanour and presence was similar to those
pictures you see of American GI's in Vietnam: they were moving at a semi-trot
and psyching each other up for violence. When they reached City's ground,
the United fans infiltrated the City end and the game was held up as police
moved in to sort things out. Several arrests followed. After the game, sporadic
fights broke out on the road to the city centre and in and around city centre
pubs. All in all, it was a particularly violent day in a long history of
The corresponding fixture took place on a Saturday in February 1990. During
the day a similar sequence of events took place, but this time the violence
intensified, culminating in a running battle between United and City fans,
which went on late into the night. During the battle, several pubs were
smashed up and one young man was very seriously injured. An even more violent
day in a long history of violent days.
The following season the kick off to the first derby game was brought forward
to 12 noon. Despite an early drinking start this seemed to cut down on the
trouble. By the time of the second derby, United had qualified for the European
Cup Winners' Cup Final to be played in Rotterdam and nobody wanted to miss
that by being arrested at the derby game, so it passed off fairly peacefully.
The timing of the season's games largely neutralised the supporters' inclination
The first derby game in the 1991/92 season fell on a Saturday, but by this
time something quite remarkable had happened. Many of the hard-core lads
from both United and City had spent most of the summer dancing the weekends
away to the sounds of house music at raves fuelled by the drug Ecstasy.
They had done this together! They had got into a routine of meeting up at
rave clubs and taking Ecstasy in groups comprising both United and City
On the night of Friday November 15, 'derby eve', another traditional time
for preliminary skirmishing, a group of United's lads were preparing for
the game not with the traditional pub crawl followed by a visit to a beery
night club but by attending a low key rave at a smallish club in a nearby
town and taking Ecstasy. Having swallowed their tablets and gone into the
club, the United lads grouped in a corner of the bar. There were about a
dozen of them. As they sipped their drinks waiting to 'come up' on their
Ecstasy tablets, they noticed a small group of City lads with whom they
had crossed many a sword.
One young man who was very new to the Ecstasy/rave scene, but something
of a veteran of derby match violence, said that a shiver went down his back
at the thought of what he expected to happen. "I thought - Oh no! -
I don't believe this! Here I am, I've just necked an E; I'm just about to
have the time of my life and it's going to go off [there's going to be a
fight] with City," he said. "I'd only had E a couple of times
then and I just couldn't imagine fighting off it - no way! Anyhow, X [one
of the City lads] comes over and the last time I saw him he wanted to kill
me and everybody like me. I thought, 'Hello, here we go,' and he just stands
at the bar at the side of me and says; 'Well who'd have thought that we
would be stood side by side the night before a derby game and there's no
trouble in any of us. It's weird innit? It could never have happened before
E'. Well I thought to myself, 'Thank Christ for that,' and I had a can of
Red Stripe to get back into it. It wasn't a great night as nights on 'E'
go, the DJ was shit and the club was only half full and most of them were
bits of kids, but it was sound enough. The best part was when I went to
the toilet to get a drink and cool down. I'm stood at the sink pouring water
over my head from a pint glass and looking at the size of my eyes and up
behind me comes X [the City lad] and he's buzzing his tits off [on Ecstasy]
and he says; 'This is better mate. This is better!' And he was dead right
it was better, much better. They even came back to this house where we go
for a smoke [of hash] after the raves. I went home to bed about 5 am. and,
as I lay there waiting to get to sleep, I couldn't stop thinking how right
he was this could never have happened before E."
The next day the United fans met up around 9 am. as usual for the derby
game. Obviously, some of them had had very little sleep. In fact some hadn't
had any. They had just gone home for something to eat; a bath and a change
of clothes. Although drinking alcohol was again prominent in the pre-match
build up, it was challenged by, or combined with, taking hash and amphetamines.
As United's fans moved off, there were, as usual, several hundred of them.
But from the vantage point of the same bridge I had stood on two seasons
earlier, I could hardly believe that this group was largely made up of those
same young men who had looked like they were about to go to war. This time
they looked more like they were going to Glastonbury festival! Despite the
protestations of some of the beer monsters who tried to drum up enthusiasm
for trouble, this was a loose passive grouping; a rag-taggle army of Ecstasy-taking
hedonists. They were looking forward to the night's Ecstasy. The match went
off with hardly any trouble and afterwards United and City's lads once again
danced the night away on, and in, Ecstasy. Just as the City lad said, it
could never have happened without E.
In early 1993 Mark told me that the latest trend for this group of people
is back to alcohol and, for the first time, cocaine ("You can hear
the chopping in the toilets"). He believes this is partly due to the
poor quality Ecstasy on sale [much contains no MDMA] which has put many
users off the drug, and also because of overuse resulting in less empathic
experiences. "E's mellow, there's genuine communion taking place, but
coke's a selfish drug and alcohol goes with violence." That good atmosphere
has been lost, but so many people miss it and hope it will return one day.
In fact, the level of soccer hooliganism dropped to its lowest level for
five years that year.(50)