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Recreational use of ecstasy: The drug user's perspective

paper presented to the British Psychological Society's annual conference at Edinburgh 1997
by Nicholas Saunders

Although ecstasy in this country is associated with young people and the rave/dance scene, it is also valued by psychotherapists, seekers of spirituality and people involved with 'personal development'.
A study of the psychological effects of ecstasy was made by questioning psychiatrists while they were under the influence of the drug.1 The main benefits reported were "Increased ability to interact or be open with others, decreased defensiveness and fear, and decreased sense of separation or alienation from others".
Studies of female participants in the dance scene include Sheila Henderson's papers2, 3 based on interviews with women ravers in the North of England. They revealed that a key motivation was the freedom to enjoy warmth, closeness and even physical contact with strangers of both sexes without being a prelude to sex. This was valued as liberation from the sexual pressure experienced at alcohol-based clubs. "The atmosphere of the rave inspires confidence and independence, for instance it is common for women to mix outside their social group of friends. This has provided a way for young women to rise above being a visual/sexual object..."
In the same year, Russell Newcombe's paper The Use of Ecstasy and Dance Drugs4 identified the aim as the desire to partake in an altered state of group consciousness. This was greatly valued and not attainable without the use of drugs and dancing for long periods to music with a repetitive beat. Newcombe compares rave culture to trance dancing at tribal celebrations. "Raving can also be viewed as a transcendental mind altering experience providing psychic relief to alienated people in a secular repressive and materialistic society. Ecstasy and other drugs are the keys that unlock the doors to these desired states of consciousness... To describe the rave as a mass illusion is not to decry its value... It is a deeply desired escape from the constraints of the self and normal behaviour, just as holidays provide an accepted form of relief... Indeed the ecstatic state achieved by ravers is arguably an expression of a primaeval urge for group revelry..."
The group feelings of uplift induced by dancing on ecstasy have been compared to spiritual experiences, and the rave has also been compared to a religious service in several papers including an article by myself.5 "Last year I took a 70 year-old Zen monk to a rave party. He was curious enough to overcome his dislike of the music until his face lit up with a revelation. 'This is meditation!', he shouted above the noise. Later he explained that the walking meditation he taught involved being fully aware 'in the moment' without any internal dialogue separating actions from intentions, and that the same definition applied to the dancers all around him."
These reports show examples of the use of ecstasy to facilitate social intercourse, to be liberated from sexual pressure, to escape from social constraints and to fulfil spiritual needs. Why does our society impose restraints on such apparently healthy behaviour to the extent that a drug is required to overcome them?
1. Phenomenology and Sequelae of MDMA use by Dr. Mitchell Liester, Dr. Charles Grob et al., Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180/6 1992
2. Women, sexuality and Ecstasy Use ­p; The Final Report 1993, by Sheila Henderson, published by Lifeline, 101 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LW
3. Luvdup and DeElited, by Sheila Henderson, researcher for Lifeline, a non-statutory drug agency in Manchester. A paper given at South Bank Polytechnic 5/92
4. The Use of Ecstasy and Dance Drugs at Rave Parties and Clubs: Some Problems and Solutions, by Dr. Russell Newcombe, paper presented at a symposium on Ecstasy, Leeds, 11/92
5. Face to Faith by Nicholas Saunders, article in The Guardian, 29/7/95 index
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