The agony and the Ecstacy. Everyone's got a horror story. Heard the one about the guy at a London nightclub, who collapsed and died from necking that green capsule - or was it a blue one?
Heard about the Ibiza casualties, life and souls of the party a few years back, tripped and flipped out twelve months later? What about the girl whose ankle shattered walking home after dancing all night? And how about those dodgy white doves, snide lumps of methadone laced with embalming fluid, an innocent sparrow stamped on top?
Whatever the truth behind the tales circulating clubland, some facts are indisputable. Never before have there been so many people going to clubs, consuming drugs about which we know very little. There is not much even the most puritanical club runner can do about this.
No matter how rigorous the security searches are - and many doormen now check socks, shoes, cigarette packets - you can't strip search every customer, or stop them from swallowing a pill five minutes before going in. Closing clubs only moves the problem else where.
Whereas post-club comedowns were once full of the joys of spring, with people talking sh*t but loving life, lately there has been a strange shift in conversation. Talk now centers around ailments, gripes and groans about boils, back-ache, projectile vomit, and blackouts.
Everyone would agree there's nothing worse than sitting in a room with a group of self-obsessed junkies dissecting their abscesses and bowel movements, but the less savory stories which have emerged around E-culture seem to have been accepted as part and parcel of an ever expanding scene.
Ignorance is bliss. After more than 15 years of intense underground use and nearly a century since it was first synthesized, very little is known about Ecstacy. Most existing knowledge is based on hearsay, myth, and misinformation; media reports surrounding Ecstacy-related deaths are sensationalized and then silenced; and, apart from the occasional raid, the police are surprisingly ambivalent about the drug.
The Ecstacy market itself has an extremely uncertain character, which basically boils down to the fact that the dealers have little idea what they are selling.
What Ecstasy is and Where it Comes From
Ecstasy is MDMA or, to give it the full chemical name, '3,4 Methylene-dioxy-N-methylamphetamine', pronounced 'Three-Four Methylene Dioxy N Methyl Amphetamine'.
To a chemist the name describes what the molecule consists of. The word 'Methyl is sometimes abbreviated to 'Meth', and the letter 'N' and numbers '3,4' are often omitted, leaving the more usual 'Methylenedioxymethamphetamine'. (The 3,4 indicates the way in which the components of the molecule are joined together, as it is possible to produce an isomer which has all the same components joined differently).
Similarly, the initials are sometimes reduced to MDM (although this is old-fashioned) and of course there are the various popular names such as E, Adam, X and Empathy. Many people believe that the name implies a mixture of ingredients but this is wrong - just as water is not a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen although its molecule consists of oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Like water, MDMA is a compound, not a mixture. So, although the name contains the word 'amphetamine' and the law refers to MDMA as a 'psychedelic amphetamine', MDMA contains no amphetamine. The amphetamine-like effects may be related to dopamine release. (E for Ecstasy by Nicholas Saunders)
MDMA, Ecstacy, Adam, E - whatever you want to call it - reacts with, ignites and releases a chemical in the brain called Seratonin. Arno Adelaars, Dutch author of a book on Ecstacy based upon three years of intensive research and interviews, explains the process in plain English,
"There are around fifty chemical substances in your brain which hold neurotransmitters, and help relay messages. There are three neurotransmitters that drugs can affect: dopamine, Noradrenaline, and Seratonin. It's Seratonin which MDMA affects.
Seratonin is a low level nerve transmitter, which means it fires slow and steadily, rather like a metronome, and takes care of emotional stability. If you have a lot of Seratonin you are happy, alert and convivial, not enough and you become depressed - it's been discovered that people who commit suicide usually have low levels of Seratonin.
What MDMA does to Seratonin is boost it, make it fire more rapidly, which produces that euphoric feeling. But in the long term MDMA depletes the supply of Serotonin, which is why any existing literature about Ecstasy advises people not to take it on too regular a basis."
The brain eventually produces more Serotonin to replace the batch used, but this takes time, and the body needs to rest in order to replenish its stock. In the meantime, weekend bingers have to contend with the now - familiar midweek mood swing and spaced - out feeling.
As with all other drugs, the effects of Ecstasy are influenced by variables such as dose, contents, the number taken, the environment and, contrary to popular misconception, the mood you're in before getting on one. The general effects of Ecstasy are well known now.
Heart and pulse rates increase, body temperature rises, pupils dilate, you're prone to sudden sweats, and some people occasionally experience nausea/vomiting although this usually subsides after an hour. Unlike acid, E does not produce major hallucinations or confused thought.
If you get this, what you just necked ain't Ecstasy and although there are common traits among users, there are no hard and fast rules, as people's reactions to Ecstasy are individual and idiosyncratic because of the different levels of Serotonin in each person. This is why some people can feel moody and irritable the next couple of days after taking Ecstasy while others don't experience any hangover.
So little is known about how Ecstasy works in relation to brain and body mechanisms, I'd say that basically everybody is their own guinea pig.
Despite the general feeling of paranoia and unease about the fatalities surrounding Ecstasy, there have actually been relatively few MDMA-related deaths reported, although plugging through indecipherable medical journals there are many cases of temporary psychosis, emotional disturbances and anorexia.
Although deaths from taking Ecstacy are rare, it is possible to overdose or have an extreme allergic reaction to it - which is what happened to Claire Leighton, the sixteen year old who collapsed and died at the Hacienda in 1989 that started the Ecstacy hysteria in the English press.
While heavily drinking, the effects of the drug may seem weak and lead people to take more.
Ecstacy is not physically addictive, and there are no withdrawal symptoms for those who stop taking it, although prolonged use can lead to confusion, paranoia, or distorted body perception.
Naturally if the drug is used repeatedly over a few days, these effects are experienced more acutely, tolerance levels develop, and inevitably you become cabbaged, in a weaker mental and physical condition.
Of the few brief surveys that have been conducted, very little has been revealed about the nature of the drug when consumed by your average Joe.
"In America," reveals Arno Adelaars, "experiments have been conducted upon animals to test MDMA, an it has been found that massive doses can lead to brain damage - but then you're talking about injecting the equivalent of fifty Es into one rat at one time, which is a lot different from swallowing one tab.
I saw one research proposal where they were looking for volunteers who would take the drug and have a Lumbar puncture afterwards-naturally, that project did not even get off the ground."
MDMA was first synthesized in 1898, and was patented by a German drug company in 1914 as an appetite suppressant. It was then dropped when strange side effects were noted. Rediscovered in the acid haze of the sixties, it was eventually made illegal in Britain in 1977, after an illicit drugs laboratory was raided in the Midlands and untold quantities were discovered. In the US, Ecstacy was legal until July of 1985.
In Britain the maximum sentence for possession is seven years plus fines. For supplying-which includes handing out freebies to friends-the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. "The policy of this government is creating its own problematic users," opines Adelaars, "By refusing to acknowledge the Ecstacy phenomenon, they are creating massive problems, the illegal situation prevents research and encourages the flood of impostor drugs."
"The problem with the illegalities of the drug is that it has ruled any research right out of the court," says Peter McDermott. "The change in law has not only made possession and consumption illegal, it made research impossible because you only get money for drug research to prove that a drug is harmful. Nobody is quite sure about MDMA.
It's terrible that no proper scientific information exists, and the little that does is so ambivalent. It's very difficult to apply. All the information surrounding Ecstacy is all 'it might be like this' or 'you'll probably experience that.' There are no hard facts, but there are certain recommendations you can give people determined to continue taking E, that will minimize any risks.
The basic guidelines are that people should avoid Ecstacy if they suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, epilepsy, asthma or are in poor mental/physical condition.
Women with a history of genital-urinary tract infections should avoid the drug as it will activate any latent infections. And it's worth remembering the variables which affect Ecstacy. For example, being stuffed inside a steaming club is far more likely to provoke extreme reactions, that taking part of your trip outdoors would ameliorate.
Non-alcoholic drinks are vital to replace body fluids as alcohol only serves to deplete the body more, but be very careful not to over hydrate, as this can lead to a deadly reduction of electrolytes in your bloodstream.
Clubs need to shoulder some of the responsibility and consumers need to put their own house in order. Offering free water at the bar will encourage people to stay longer, and have a better time, avoiding the dehydration, hypothermia, and heat exhaustion that come with the territory.
"Let common sense prevail," McDermott suggests, "Where possible score off of friends, and avoid those you don't know, especially in a club or place you cannot see what you are buying.
One of the main problems lies with the identification of Ecstacy - it's difficult to establish which kinds of drugs are associated with what problems, because people are knowingly or unknowingly using more than one type of drug. When Es are mixed, problems partly or wholly might be caused by other factors."
Nowadays, the possibility of buying impostor drugs and dodgy combinations marketed as Ecstacy are much greater.
Because Ecstacy is made and sold illegally, there is no quality control, no money back guarantee, and you can never be sure what it is that you may be taking. People are being ripped off, sold duds, or potentially dangerous combinations. This is not a recent phenomena, just an ongoing saga, with a greater number of players involved.
In October The Face magazine in London obtained and analyzed samples of MDMA. Of the five tested only two were pure MDMA, while the rest were a combination of amphetamines and acid. One sample included a substance known as DOB, one of the most powerfully hallucinogenic amphetamines known, which is capable of producing severe reactions.
Although the ingredients are relatively easy to obtain, Ecstacy is actually extremely difficult to manufacture. It's painstaking process requires thousands of dollars worth of equipment and meticulous preparations.
"Ecstacy is a member of a group of drugs called Phenylethylamines," explains Mr. Adelaars. "Because of the molecular structure of this group, it is easy to produce a large number of derivatives with varying degrees of effect."
Potential problems arise from the fact that MDMA is only one of a large number of derivatives of MDA, some of which can be lethal, especially when it is cut with all kinds of crap that makes batches go further. Added to that, Ecstacy and similar chemical compounds are produced in clandestine laboratories where chemical expertise/quality control may be low.
"As part of the research for my book (Adelaars), I visited some illegal manufacturers in Holland who spent $100,000 dollars and two years of repeated failures before they actually made a batch of pure MDMA. That raises questions about what happens to all the duff batches that aren't Ecstacy - I guess they all end up on the street eventually."
Buying Ecstacy is like playing Russian roulette. Nobody knows what they are getting, and the market is flooded with so many 'brands' now that a different type appears almost every week.
The predominance of capsules, too, hides a multitude of sins. If people come to recognize snide Es, all the manufacturer has to do is grind pills down and put them into capsules or, alternatively change the color combination of the casing.
Dealers have now become well versed in the skills of market forces, maybe putting out one thousand pure Es, word of which spreads like wildfire, creating a demand, starving the market for a few weeks, then off loading a batch of duff copies.
According to McDermott: "Acid and amphetamine are the usual combination you find, although the weirdest is Ketamine, also known as Vitamin K, a general pet anesthetic used in America. It's a really powerful hallucinogenic if injected, although it doesn't have the same effect if taken orally.
Over the past three years, club culture has become a drug itself, and the truly dedicated will think nothing of traveling miles to clubs and parties, staying up all night, and them going into work the next morning. Despite tabloid reports that raving is a drug free haven for kids in their 'pukka' gear, it certainly isn't caffeine that keeps people going. MDMA is shorter acting than speed, therefore people are inclined to take more.
"Less is more you know," says McDermott. "Most people understand there are certain rituals around alcohol use which we observe to regulate our intake. With Ecstacy these rituals haven't developed.
Pure Ecstacy makes you feel quite mellow, able to talk and listen for hours. But in a club situation, people want the sharpness of amphetamine to keep them going. I know an awful lot of people now who won't take E unless they've got some speed or coke to take with it."
"MDMA is a mescaline related amphetamine," says Adelaars. "The more you take, the more it starts to work like an amphetamine. If you are taking anything like six Es a night, like some people now, you might as well take speed instead, because the effect will be exactly the same and you'll end up saving a fortune."
As tolerance levels develop and people still crave and chase that initial buzz, greater quantities are being consumed and a great list of ailments have appeared. Regular users complain frequently of insomnia, involuntary twitching, hot flashes, backache, tooth problems, cramps, and susceptibility to minor ailments such as flu and sore throats.
"Basically if you are going to indulge, then you have to take responsibility for yourself. There are no shortcuts." snorts Arno. "If you are forgetting to eat, this will cause fatigue and cramps, and give you a bad complexion.
All this stuff about Ecstacy draining your spinal fluid is a myth, though it is either dancing that makes you ache the next day, or your kidneys trying to deal with the other chemicals which have been ingested.
As for Ecstacy depleting your immune system, well, nothing has been proven. but if you spend all night in a hot, sweaty club - a breeding ground for germs - then go out in the cold night air, it is likely that eventually you will fall ill. Basically it is difficult to cut through all the crap surrounding Ecstacy, but I would say listen to your body telling you to slow down."
Final Note: A very real danger of taking Ecstasy is that you may do or say something you will regret, or that will upset someone else. This may be trivial, such as embarrassing some member of the public by your lack of inhibitions, or as serious as causing an irreparable rift; for instance, by telling your father that you have never respected him.
There is also "a tendency to call up ex-lovers and casual acquaintances and tell them how much you love them". Another danger is 'inappropriate emotional bonding', by which is meant falling in love with the person you are with, although the same source also claims that "whatever you choose to create will be a perfect and appropriate choice."
Acting on impulse while under the influence can also be a mistake - although insights can be made on Ecstasy, so can mistakes.
A quite different kind of danger is that using Ecstasy makes people into criminals just as happened with drinkers under Prohibition in the USA, and reduces their respect for the law.