Ecstasy drug condemned as a `dance with death'

Inquiry into tragedies warns young people to steer clear of `fun drug' that `wrecks the body'. John Arlidge reports
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The Independent Online
Ecstasy is not a "fun" drug but a "dangerous, unpredictable" stimulant that can lead young people into a "dance with death", the official inquiry into ecstasy-related deaths at the Hanger 13 rave club in Ayr found yesterday.

Sheriff Neil Gow QC, who chaired the inquiry which was set up after three people died last year, warned that ecstasy, which is nicknamed the "hug drug", because it produces a euphoric "rush", can wreck the human body. It was disturbing, he said, that there was "a very substantial demand" for the illegal drug despite the growing evidence that it can kill.

John Nisbet, 18, from New Cumnock, Ayrshire, died at Hanger 13, after taking one-and-a-half ecstasy tablets at the weekly Saturday night rave last April. Andrew Dick, 19, from Glasgow, died in May, and three months later, Andrew Stoddart, 20, from Rigside, Lanarkshire, collapsed and died after taking three-and-a-half ecstasy tablets.

At the end of the week-long inquiry, Sheriff Gow gave a graphic description of how ecstasy helped to kill all three men. The non-addictive synthetic stimulant, which is the most popular recreational drug among the under- 30s in Scotland after cannabis, raises the body temperature from the normal 37C to about 41C, causing heatstroke. In the hot atmosphere of a rave, the body often goes on to reach 42C.

At that point, Sheriff Gow said, vital organs are "irreversibly" damaged. "There may be convulsions and collapse, muscle rigidity or spasm, the normal clot-forming factors in the bloodstream break down, causing general internal bleeding ... the brain, heart, lungs and kidneys all begin to fail. The body is wrecked."

Although ecstasy has been banned in Britain since 1977, Sheriff Gow found that it and other controlled drugs were "freely available" both inside and outside the former Pavilion Ballroom in the seaside town. "Patrons were approaching dealers for purchases and dealers were also touting drugs for sale." It was impossible, he said, to stop drugs being brought into a club like Hanger 13. Ravers could not be body-searched without infringing their civil liberties. Managers at Hanger 13 were not to blame for the three deaths, Sheriff Gow found. The club's owner, Christine Ridha, had "to a greater or lesser extent" met the safety criteria governing raves laid down by the Government and local authorities. He praised Mrs Ridha for making free water available, installing surveillance cameras, and hiring paramedics following the deaths. But he said that the air-conditioning system in the club could be improved to stop dancers overheating.

Sheriff Gow added that the Government should "urgently" introduce legislation to provide "model licences" governing raves "so that local licensing boards, managements and the police have a clear framework within which to operate".

The Scottish Office said last night it would respond "swiftly" to the recommendation.

Sheriff Gow concluded: "To emphasise the dangers, it is necessary to use colourful language. Ecstasy is not for fun. It is a dangerous drug with unpredictable effects and is potentially lethal. Drugs can kill. A dance with ecstasy can lead to a dance with death."

After the inquiry, Jack Drummond, Andrew Stoddart's uncle, said he did not believe Hanger 13 had done enough to improve stewarding and searching procedures. Mrs Ridha said she had taken "every sensible precaution" and she hoped young people would "learn the lessons" of the inquiry.