A drugs alert was issued following the death of a 17-year-old yesterday and the serious injury of two of his teenage friends after they apparently took ecstasy tablets and amphetamines at a Blackpool nightclub.
The fear that the extreme reaction may have been caused by contaminated tablets was heightened by the disclosure that vast quantities of poor quality ecstasy are being dumped on the UK market by Dutch traffickers.
Daniel Ashton died in hospital 11 hours after he collapsed and lost consciousness outside the Palace nightclub in Blackpool shortly before midnight on Thursday. His girlfriend, Vanessa Watson, and Andrew Aspden, both 16, all of whom live in Blackpool, also collapsed at the club and were taken to hospital. Andrew had been in a "critical" condition yesterday but last night both he and Vanessa were said to be "stable".
The police said yesterday that if any of the 600 people at the nightclub on Thursday had taken drugs they should seek medical help.
Since 1990 there have been more than 50 ecstasy-related deaths documented and the true number is probably far higher. Estimates for the number of people who each week take ecstasy, which is primarily used in the dance and club scene, vary from 500,000 to more than 1 million.
Drugs agencies yesterday expressed concern at the increasing number of ecstasy tablets on sale - they cost about pounds 15 each and provide an eight- hour high - which have been mixed with other drugs and substances including dog worming pills and a veterinary anaesthetic.
As the police carried out tests on ecstasy tablets believed to be similar to the ones that Daniel took, his family spoke last night of their disbelief about the circumstances of his death. His mother, Heather, said: "He hated everything about drugs. It's bad enough for any mother to lose a son but to know he went like this is heartbreaking."
Mrs Ashton was speaking at the family home, where she and her husband Aidan were being comforted by relatives.
Daniel's half-sister, Debbie Wainwright, 30, said: "He was always very anti-drugs. If he took an ecstasy tablet, someone must have slipped it into his drink."
Daniel attended Blackpool Sixth Form College and heard last month he had obtained nine top-grade GCSE passes. He was studying for his A-levels and was hoping to go on to university to study sound engineering.
Paul Wainwright, 31, his half-brother, said Daniel did not go to nightclubs very often. "Apparently this was a big party. Daniel only went out on special occasions," he said.
The large amount of adulterated, and therefore potentially deadly, tablets is mainly due to Dutch suppliers using the UK as a market for poor quality ecstasy, according to drug experts. In the Netherlands drug users are able to have ecstasy tested for purity in some clubs and street agencies. The Dutch government believes this ensures that contaminated drugs are quickly spotted.
Mike Linnell, of the drug charity Lifeline, said: "Dutch drug manufacturers have told us that Britain is a really good importer of bad drugs."
Mike Goodman, director of Release, the national drug and legal helpline, added: "Ninety per cent of ecstasy comes from Holland. Much of it is adulterated because drug users in Holland are far better informed and get to know if there is a bad batch on the market."
Mr Goodman called on the Government to allow similar schemes to operate in the UK. "We need to be more innovative if we want to drive out dangerous drugs. Our approach has to be more pragmatic."
The vast majority of deaths have been due to the effects of dehydration that can be caused when ecstasy-takers dance non-stop for hours.
He suggested that Daniel Ashton may have died of something like a heart attack. "The golden rules are drink plenty of water, take breaks and don't mix it with other drugs," he said.
Ecstasy and the law, page 3