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Britain's Drugs Crisis: Habit shared among friends: The social experience

KAREN, aged 30, is a publisher and like most of her friends started taking drugs while at university. She met her current dealer at a dance club in London, writes Jason Bennetto.

'He gave me his mobile telephone number. So if I want anything I ring him up and he either comes round or I visit him,' she said. The dealer sometimes goes to private house parties with a selection of drugs, mainly ecstasy and speed, sometimes cocaine, for sale.

Her group of drug-taking friends, all in their twenties and thirties, include a council education officer, a barrister, two journalists, a social worker, a solicitor, a sales executive and an art director. Most are regular drug takers, several have been taking ecstasy every weekend for the past four years.

They see a clear distinction between the drugs they take and others such as heroin. 'Acid, E (ecstasy) and LSD are all up drugs, which are easy to obtain - there's no problem about going on to the street to get them,' Karen said.

'It's about oblivion and escaping the mundane things in life. You can feel fabulous and really enjoy life for 24 hours and everyone about you feels the same. Usually you end up talking crap non-stop for six hours, but at the time you think everything and everyone is fascinating. Unfortunately, after a weekend session you often feel vacant for most of the week.'

Louisa, 32, a is a television journalist. She smokes a cannabis joint nearly every day. Most of her friends share her habit and whenever she goes to a dinner or dance party she takes her marijuana with her.

'I usually roll about three joints and put them in my handbag. People rarely object,' she said. Her brother supplies her with most of her drugs which include cocaine once or twice a year on 'special occasions'. She has also taken speed and amyl nitrite.

'I started smoking dope when I was 18, and when I went of university I lived with an older bloke who had loads of drugs. He used to give me dope and speed, and during my final exams I took cocaine to help me keep going. None of this causes me a problem, or affects my work - it's just something I do as part of my everyday life.'

The middle and upper classes obtain their drugs from a number of sources. Many will get them from friends who have contacts with full-time dealers. Others will telephone their dealer who can deliver whatever drugs are ordered. Contacts are often made through work - a solicitor in London is being supplied by one of his former clients - although most often it's through the recommendations of friends and other drug users.

Richard, 33, a GP who works in the West Midlands, until recently regularly took a mixture of drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy and speed - sometimes on the same night.

'I used to go on benders and take tons of drugs. I buy them from a friend I know from medical school who was always a bit of a dope head. I know it sounds a bit irresponsible, considering my job, and I expect some of my patients would be horrified to think of me out of my mind on coke and E, but it really doesn't affect my work because I only take it at weekends. It makes me feel alive, and I suppose in a way young.'

He said he has recently stopped taking so many drugs because he is in love and his new girlfriend is a 'health freak'.

Sean, 29, a catering manager in Leeds, buys cannabis from a restaurant owner who has contacts in the local 'underworld'. He smokes it most days. 'I don't think I'm going to get caught because I don't buy it from a stranger off the street. In any case if I was caught I would only get a fine . . .'

Names of drug users have been changed.