Manchester's Lifeline Agency believes that 50 million Ecstasy tablets are purchased each year. Home Office seizures and estimates tend to support this figure
As we sit in the back of a smoky Bolton pub, the light from the snooker table catches on Robbo's ring. On the third finger of his right hand, Robbo wears a chunky 18-carat gold signet with three lions rampant, the crest of the national football team. He bought it from a jeweller just along the road.

Robbo follows England almost everywhere and never misses a home game. He has tickets for all the Euro '96 matches, right up to the final. "No doubt about it," is his sober reply, when I ask if England can win it.

We drink quickly. This being Thursday he has to go and collect his "goods" - 200 small, off-white tablets, a flying dove stamped into each. Then it's down to the first of his regular pitches, a small club on the road back into Manchester. He'll probably knock out "about 15, maybe 20", before visiting a nearby pub where a few lads are waiting to get sorted for the weekend. Most of his business, though, will be done on Friday and Saturday, in the bigger clubs and pubs on the periphery of Manchester.

"Who buys them?" I ask.

"Everybody," says Robbo. "All kinds of people. It used to be just kids that were into the music, like. But it's everybody now. Even dead straight blokes in suits. Kids. Marrieds. Women."

"How old?"

"All ages. Teenagers, twenties, thirties, forties. Even older, some of them."

"Why?"

At this point Robbo looks at me as if I've started speaking in a foreign language. After all, we both know why. And we both know that if you have to ask, you probably wouldn't understand the answer.

When Ecstasy first appeared on the British club scene, it was so exotic, and consumed by such a small cognoscenti, that it wasn't even illegal. Roughly ten years later, tablets purporting to be Ecstasy are the most commonly purchased illegal drugs in the country. Conservative estimates put consumption at a million doses a month, or 12 million a year.

Some drugs agencies say a truer estimate is 20-25 million doses, others think it's even higher. Manchester's Lifeline Agency, regarded as one of the more reliable sources of information about street drugs, puts it closer to 50 million. Home Office seizures and estimates tend to support this figure.

Clearly nobody knows the true amount, but one thing is certain. Despite all the publicity surrounding the deaths and near-fatalities associated with these tablets (few of which contain pure MDMA, or Ecstasy), more and more people are taking them than ever before, and in greater quantities. This is why the price has fallen by more than 50 per cent in a decade, and Ecstasy is readily available in every town and city in this country.

The death of Leah Betts last year exposed several unpalatable truths, the most obvious being how easily teenagers can obtain Ecstasy; that even in the close family situations, they are likely to experiment with drugs; and that no amount of tabloid editorials will stop them: within weeks of Betts' death, another young woman went into a coma (she recovered), and there was a subsequent Ecstasy-related death in a London club. Above all, it illustrated the lack of any meaningful drugs' education policy in this country.

Despite reams of copy denouncing "evil Ecstasy" and the "killers" who sell it, the Times reported that the autopsy had shown that Leah Betts died not from Ecstasy, but by the vast amount of water she consumed immediately afterwards. That report remains uncorroborated, at least until the inquest on Wednesday. But this was undoubtedly the case with Helen Cousins, who consumed seven litres of water in the mistaken belief that it would counteract the tablet's effects; her brain absorbed the excess fluid, causing compression of the cortex, and, consequently, a near-fatal coma. Such are the problems which arise when, instead of meaningful debate about a grave social problem, we have a climate of hysteria, fear and ignorance.

None of which will stop people like Robbo from going about their business. In fact, things have never been better. A recent trend, says Robbo, is for people to buy pills on Sunday nights. "That's telling you something, because there's no clubs open round here on Sundays. So they're either doing them down the pub, or at home." Robbo's no racist, either. He sells to blacks, whites, Asians - in short, anybody and everybody. And if you buy in bulk, they're even cheaper. Robbo smiles at the thought: "There was a time when I was buying them for what I'm selling them at now."

Robbo would rather not sell drugs, but right now, he says, it's the only way he can make any money, and he's too far in debt to stop. Football's an expensive game these days, and he's home and away most matches. But he never gets into trouble. "I get all my tickets through the England travel club, and if you get nicked, they're notified, so they won't sell to you again."

As we get up to leave, I ask Robbo why he wears the ring.

"Because I'm a patriot," he replies. "I love my country."

And with that he's off. Going about his business of putting the E into England

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