POP / A bitter end to the summer of love: Ecstasy, suggests Alix Sharkey, has little to do with the deaths at Hanger 13. As the rave scene in Scotland has become more aggressive, so the drugs that fuel it have become more dangerous

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In the mythology of urban nightlife the Killer Ecstasy scenario is a perennial favourite. Every few months it flares up, this tale of the tainted batch, the 'snide E' that causes convulsions and sudden death. The rave cognoscenti has long regarded it as a statistical probability waiting to happen. Sooner or later, they said, someone will miss a step in the manufacturing process, and concoct a bathtub full of chemical garbage. Ruthless dealers will market it and ravers will drop like flies.

Three drug-related deaths in four months, all centred around an Ayr nightclub called Hangar 13, suggest that Killer Ecstasy has now become a reality. Local police have granted club-goers immunity from prosecution in an attempt to trace the source. An admirable attitude, but the police are involved in a stable-door operation, nothing more. The roots of the problem lie in our society's response to youth culture and recreational drug use, which presently amounts to little more than hysteria and denial.

When the rave scene first erupted in southern England during the late 1980s, it was characterised by hippie-ish goodwill, a fairly well-balanced male-female ratio, and an abundance of clean, unadulterated MDMA, or Ecstasy. The music was uptempo and anthemic, celebrating a sense of union. Vast outdoor events attracted diverse, generally good-natured crowds. Despite its vilification in the press, it can now be seen as a fairly benign phenomenon, which at its peak justified its 'Second Summer of Lover' tag.

Seven years later, Scotland's rave scene is a very different proposition, the preserve of young white males from high-unemployment council estates, stripped to the waist, dancing manically to fast, aggressive Euro-techno, with tempos up to 140 beats per minute. Hangar 13 is a typical venue: hot, dark, and packed to bursting point. Here, the original, celebratory spirit of rave has changed into something altogether more ugly.

'Clubs like Hangar 13 are influenced by the European hardcore scene, which is very macho,' says Davey Faulds, editor of Glasgow club magazine, MS. 'It's all about the hardest, fastest music and dancing for longest.' Hangar 13, he says, is keen to promote itself as the 'hardest' hardcore club in the UK. Its commercial success has led other clubs to adopt a similar policy. In this environment, punters will take large amounts of amphetamines and up to five or six tablets of 'Ecstasy' in order to maintain the blistering pace.

These days, however, there is almost certainly no MDMA in their 'Ecstasy.' According to a survey in this month's Gay Times, they are more likely to be taking MDA or MDE, two chemically- related but very different substances.

Of 17 alleged 'Ecstasy' tablets tested for Gay Times, in conjunction with Lifeline, the Manchester-based drugs agency, only one contained MDMA, and then only a trace. By far the most common substitute was MDA, the parent drug from which MDMA is derived, which is easier and cheaper to produce. But MDA's neurotoxicity, or brain-damaging potential, is twice that of MDMA, making it far more dangerous. A type of 'Ecstasy' tablet called a 'snowball' (readily available in most Scottish cities, according to local sources) was found to contain no MDMA, but 177mg of MDA - over twice the active dose. MDA is almost certainly the mythic Killer Ecstasy responsible for the deaths at Hangar 13.

MDA became more widely available as the rave scene was driven underground, into the ever murkier depths of criminal involvement. A new breed of rave promoters emerged, muscular, aggressive types with pit-bull dogs and guns. Previously, the only drugs connected with the rave scene were MDMA and cannabis. Suddenly, amphetamine sulphate became widely available, quickly followed by cocaine. (Older ravers say the scene was destroyed by cocaine, which gained in popularity as the quality of 'Ecstasy' deteriorated.)

The young, and those poorly educated about drugs, are most at risk. All three of the Hangar 13 victims were 20 or under. Witnesses say that when Andrew Stoddart, last weekend's victim, was first taken ill at Hangar 13, his friends, rather than seek medical advice, urged him to keep moving. Someone even suggested he try to 'dance it off'. This betrays a pitiful ignorance of basic first-aid procedures in suspected MDA or MDMA overdose: get fresh air, sit down, reduce the heart-rate and body temperature, drink lots of water, and seek medical assistance if in doubt.

Jaap Jamin, of Amsterdam's Jellinick Centre, whch monitors drug abuse, believes that education and decriminalisation are crucial to preventing dance- drug related deaths. 'We have learned that making Ecstasy illegal doesn't reduce demand or supply. It simply increases the chances of toxic substances being sold as Ecstasy.' In contrast to the UK, some Amsterdam rave clubs now have state-sponsored booths where freshly-purchased tablets can be tested for MDMA, heroin, or speed. The service is free and effective. Dealers cannot pass off bad drugs: people know what they are taking.

Elsewhere in Europe, rave culture is not only tolerated but increasingly integrated into the social fabric, with corporate sponsorship of events like Berlin's 'Love Parade', an annual rave festival that attracts upwards of 30,000 people. Here in the UK, where rave was born, things can only get worse following the implementation of the new Criminal Justice Bill which, if enacted in October, will increase police powers to prevent and break up raves, and seize equipment - a de facto outlawing of rave culture will drive it still further into the hands of the criminal underworld.

Earlier this year the Home Office received a report called Police, Drug Misusers and the Community, prepared by the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It said that raves should be encouraged and granted licences by local authorities. It noted that the 'elimination of drug misuse is generally regarded as an unobtainable goal', and said the whole philosophy of drug abuse should be rethought, rather than regarded as a simple law enforcement issue. In short, it is at odds with current policy. The report is still awaiting publication. No date has been set.

(Photographs omitted)