Real People: Uppers and downers

Viagra as a recreational drug? Some clubbers will try just about anything, discovers Tobias Jones

Dean Sithwentis is, but for one tiny detail, the archetypal drug- dealer: he's got the mobile phone, has been hauled into court a couple of times, and has about 80 regular customers. Since he started dealing six months ago he reckons he has provided for the needs of about 1,000 people, and he now brings in more than a grand a week. "I knock out about 120 pills a week, and have four people working for me around nightclubs in the West Midlands," he says. The difference is that Dean deals in the drug Viagra and promotes his services from a hard core porn site on the Internet.

The recreational use of the anti-impotence drug is now so widespread that next week's Student British Medical Journal publishes a lengthy investigation into Viagra's effects when used as part of a drugs cocktail. Meanwhile Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company which produces the drug, has had to reiterate this week that it won't tolerate the rogue dealers making money out of their product. "We have two court cases up and running," says a spokesman, "because we have to protect our own intellectual property." Next week's launch of Viagrene, a derivative herbal drink aimed at lovers, has already been blocked by Pfizer in the High Court.

Strangely, a drug developed for the most unfashionable medical complaint has found a niche market on the club scene. Like Prozac before it, Viagra has become a lifestyle drug, ingested by those who need it, and by those who don't. Ciaran O'Hagan of the drugs charity Release says: "Viagra is an extension of what's been happening for years: the menu of what's available has been extended, and there is a generation of people around now who are confident with poly-usage."

Drug users are mixing and matching their drugs to dovetail with their moods, using different substances to come up, to chill out and, now, to cop off. "It's a question of self-medication," says O'Hagan, "and Viagra is the ultimate night-cap for any clubber suffering from `speed willy' or `brewers' droop'."

Fast becoming the drug of choice on the gay and fetish scenes, Viagra is now also being taken by large numbers of women. Dean Sithwentis says that at least 20 per cent of his customers are female. "What I hear back from them is that, with the blood rush and all, climaxing is simplicity itself." Pfizer has just started conducting pilot trials on the drug's effects on "female sexual dysfunction", and the results will be known later this year.

Drug dealers also find Viagra useful. Simon, a London dealer, says: "It's a decent, semi-legal front. No one pretends it's a great club drug, or that huge numbers are using it, but it's certainly on the scene." Simon sells 15mg for pounds 15, and 100mg for pounds 20. (On prescription, after a pounds 120 medical, Viagra costs about pounds 5 for 50mg.)

Matt Biswell is another Viagra user. He first took the drug whilst on holiday in Thailand. "I literally had an erection all night. It was still there in the morning. Taking it on your own would be the most frustrating experience of your life, but I think it's got a huge future as a recreational drug between couples: you do feel very loved-up."

Critically for those who mix drugs, Viagra can have a lethal effect if mixed with amyl nitrite "poppers".The combination of the two drugs results in the body producing too much nitric oxide which means that blood pressure levels can plummet dangerously.

Pfizer is quick to insist that the drug's sole purpose is hydraulic, and that it has no effects on the central nervous system, libido or desire. Meanwhile doctors have spent the week outlining the possible dangers involved.

Viagra, they say, carries risks of facial flushing, headaches, blood pressure and priapism (a persistent, painful erection). John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George's Hospital in London, says: "We don't want to deny young people pleasure, but drugs are horrendously complicated. There are well-known drug interactions, and the more drugs you take, the more danger you have of stumbling on one of those interactions."

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