Are you ready for the rush hour?: The drug speed is the toast of the nation's dance floors and is more popular than ever. It is killing more people than ever, too. Elsa Sharp reports

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IT'S 4am at the London club Emporium. Skinny girls in T-shirts wriggle and the boys march in time to the beat. The relentless energy shows no sign of abating. Strobe light flickers as Simon, 27, taps some white powder into a Rizla paper, twists it, pops it into his mouth and swallows it.

'Speed is an unbelievably practical drug,' he says, grinning broadly. 'You can dance all night and you don't get the nasty wired feeling that you get with coke.'

But Dr John Henry, a director at the National Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital, London, says: 'When they stop, they feel low, tired, hungry and miserable. It speeds the body up, keeps you awake, suppresses appetite and makes you feel high, but you can crash out and die from the high temperatures caused by the drug.'

Dr Patrick Toseland, a toxicologist at Guy's Hospital, explains that it is not so much the amphetamine itself as the materials the pushers mix with it that can kill. Home Office figures show a steep rise in such deaths. The National Audit of Drug Use said last year that until 1979, only 79 deaths from amphetamine use had been recorded in the world's medical literature.

But Home Office figures show that between 1987 and 1992, amphetamine use caused 17 deaths.

Known as whizz, speed or billy, amphetamine sulphate is now the second most popular illegal drug, after cannabis, in the United Kingdom, according to the national drugs charity Release. It is a powerful stimulant that boosts energy levels, confidence and powers of concentration by stimulating the central nervous system. Most illicit speed is amphetamine sulphate, which comes in the form of a dull white powder, though it can be other colours.

Normally sold in folded paper called wraps, it can be snorted in lines, taken in a drink, eaten in rolled-up paper or injected. Snorting or ingesting are the most popular methods for young people using it recreationally as a dance drug.

Long-term use can lead to mood swings and amphetamine psychosis, which has effects similar to schizophrenia. 'A small proportion of people will go psychotic,' says Dr Colin Brewer, medical director of the Stapleford Centre, London. 'You recover quite quickly when you stop taking the drug, but it is an abusable drug - some people develop a tolerance and take lots of it, then it becomes a problem.'

Purple hearts - a mixture of amphetamines and barbiturates, originally a prescribed drug called Drinamyl - became hugely popular on the mod scene of the Sixties, and heralded the first underground drugs craze. After speed was made a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it became popular on the Northern soul circuit and punk scene. Cheap and easy to obtain, it is now an integral part of rave culture.

A survey by Mori in 1991 found that 5 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds had tried amphetamines. Mike Goodman, director of Release, believes that the true figure is nearer 10 per cent, and rising.

Ecstasy is lagging behind amphetamine and LSD in popularity, Mr Goodman says. 'Speed has always been a popular part of dance culture, but its resurgence now is due to a number of factors. A gram costs pounds 10. It's cheaper than cocaine and it lasts longer. Ecstasy has declined in popularity because it's unreliable - a lot of people don't get real E when they buy it.'

Joan, 26, a hostess at a gay club in London, says that amphetamine is the most popular drug there. 'The dealers always sell out of speed first,' she says. 'If I want to score something, it'll be speed, I don't know what shit is floating around in Es. I've had really bad experiences with Ecstasy, but you don't get that with good old whizz.'

Ben, 29, first started taking speed when he was 16. 'It's quite subtle, like having a few drinks, and it breaks down barriers,' he says. 'It's such a great buzz though, and I've never had any bad effects.' Phil, 25, agrees.

'It was the first drug I ever tried. You can trust it. All that happens is that you can't get to sleep afterwards.'

This trust may be misplaced. Domestic producers are hard pressed to satisfy the increased demand. And, according to the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence (ISDD), the number of police seizures of speed doubled between 1988 and 1991.

The UK Drug Trends Report of 1993 found that in 1992 the total number of amphetamine seizures rose by 60 per cent, continuing the upward trend of the Nineties; seizures of imported amphetamine increased more than threefold; and seizures from distributors rose by 61 per cent. And Metropolitan Police figures for the number of annual drug offences related to speed rose in the 10 years to 1992 from 1,521 to 5,653.

Speed is also easy to make. 'Anyone with A-level chemistry and a textbook can knock it up,' says Dr Brewer. 'It's synthetically manufactured.' But shared intelligence and co-operation among the police, customs and manufacturers - wholesalers will inform police of a large order from an unknown individual - are making it increasingly difficult for dealers to obtain large amounts of the required ingredients. This increased police efficiency and growth in demand have led to the drug being 'cut' or spiked with other substances.

According to the National Audit of Drug Misuse in Britain, the purity of street amphetamine is 'no more than 5 per cent'. But Dr Toseland believes that the real figure is even lower. 'Ecstasy is much purer than the amphetamine sold at the moment. Amphetamine is only about 2 per cent pure - and that's the good stuff.'

Dr Toseland recently analysed some white powder found near the body of Andrew White, an amphetamine addict who died unexpectedly earlier this year.

Mr White was found by his mother, Janet Curtis, in bed at their home in Newmarket, Suffolk. Mrs Curtis says that her son, who had been taking speed for five years, had not touched the drug for six months, and had joined a rehabilitation programme.

She believes that his death was manslaughter - that the speed sold to him was impure. Only 2 per cent of the powder analysed by Dr Toseland was amphetamine. He found more than 20 different compounds and several unidentified chemicals masquerading as speed.

Powder bought as speed can include other substances such as caffeine, sucrose, glucose and Vitamin C. Chalk, paracetamol and talcum powder have also been used as fillers. 'Sometimes pushers put boric acid into what they're cutting,' says Dr Toseland. 'Then there are impurities from the manufacture or from the starting materials.'

None the less, Dr Brewer says, the dangers of amphetamine are relatively few. 'It is not toxic to the organs of the body, there are very few deaths due to amphetamines, and it is not difficult to stop taking them.'

Dr Toseland agrees. 'Speed itself doesn't pose these dangers if it's pure.

It's the manufacture and the cutting agents that pose the greater danger.

It's a new thing to find people dying with only traces of amphetamines in their bodies.'

Some names have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)