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[Chapter 4][Chapter 6]

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, 146, 175)

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, 182)

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 the country(145).

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, 182, 201) 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

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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.

Own Survey

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 to philosophical.

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 other.

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

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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 way."

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 and disappeared.

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.

Football Supporters

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 violent days.

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 to violence.

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 lads.

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)
[Chapter 4][Chapter 6]