Ecstasy moves out of the nightclubs and into the hands of 10-year-olds

The drug that epitomised the acid house scene of the late 1980s is now being taken 20 at a time by children to relieve the boredom and trauma of their everyday lives. Sophie Goodchild, and Andrew Johnson reveal the trend
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The Independent Online

They are known on the street as "sweeties" and that is what ecstasy pills have almost literally become for a new breed of user.

Disturbing research among pupils excluded from school has revealed that children as young as 10 are buying them with pocket money.

The Lifeline charity, which compiled the evidence, has found that ecstasy use is soaring on some estates, with the number of users going way beyond the official statistics.

More than half of pupils referred to Lifeline have used ecstasy at some point, and a minority of troubled drop-outs are bingeing on the pills, some taking up to 20 a day.

One explanation, say drugs experts, can almost certainly be found in the recent dramatic fall in the price of the amphetamine-based chemical - which is no longer the drug of choice for clubbers and can be bought for as little as 50p a tablet.

If cannabis remains the favourite illegal drug among the young, ecstasy has risen in popularity in cities and provincial towns, where it is cheaper and easier to get hold of than cans of lager.

And the age of the users is dropping. Mike Linnell from Lifeline said that on average ecstasy users first come across the drug at 14, but that a minority of extremely troubled children are starting on the drug before their teens to relieve the boredom and trauma of their daily lives. "For most it just gives them a buzz and brings them out of their boredom," he said.

"The perception is that it's used in nightclubs with people taking one or two pills, but what we are finding is that it is a drug that is used by schoolchildren, and some are taking up to 20 at a time."

North-west drug services in Salford, Blackburn and Bolton describe a significant number of young teenagers taking the drug in street gangs. One young user described taking about two an hour until the bag of tablets was finished. The gangs said they prefer it to alcohol because they can talk to one another, whereas booze makes them aggressive.

The "high" experienced by E users comes from its active chemical ingredient, MDMA, which was first synthesised in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck and patented as an appetite suppressant. The hope was that it could be sold to the German army. The First World War, and the hallucinations that patients kept suffering, put paid to that. After the Second World War, the American government investigated its use as a tool for brainwashing, while chemists and psychotherapists pointed out it could just be good fun. Marriage therapists in the US discovered it could make hostile clients friendlier towards each other. But MDMA was banned in Britain in 1977, a decade before little smiley faces swept Britain in the acid house summer of drugs.

The dangers of ecstasy first received widespread attention nearly a decade ago when Leah Betts took a pill at her 18th birthday party, then collapsed. An inquest found that her brain had swollen, which experts said was a result of her drinking a large amount of water in accordance with the advice given to ecstasy users at the time. Leah's parents, Paul and Jan, formed the charity Action for Drug Awareness.

Professor John Henry, an expert on the effects of drugs, says that ecstasy is a relatively safe drug to take from an acute point of view, but warns that every time someone takes the drug the serotonin terminals in their brain are irreparably damaged.

"Serotonin levels are needed for warding off depression. A significant number of people who use this drug claim they get depressed," said the clinical toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital in London.

"The risk of getting depressed increases in later life. So we may have a whole generation of people who have treatment-resistant depression - although there is no conclusive evidence yet. There is, however, conclusive proof that damage to serotonin causes memory loss."

People do not get poisoned by ecstasy. They die from heat stroke, heart failure or excessive fluid in the body caused by the drug triggering anti-diuretic hormones which limit the ability of the kidneys to process fluids.

The number of people whose deaths were blamed on ecstasy went up sixfold from 12 in 1996 to 72 in 2002. But the risk of an ecstasy-related death has been exaggerated in the media, according to the charity Drugscope, which points out there are far more fatalities associated with the use of heroin, cocaine, tranquillisers and even Aspirin.

Some drugs experts have even gone as far as calling for the drug to be reclassified from class A to class B on the basis that they do not believe it poses the same health risks as other class A drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

There is less actual MDMA in the average ecstasy pill than there used to be. "It is more of just a stimulant than something that alters your state of mind," one drugs worker in Birmingham told this newspaper. There is a view among some drug workers that there is less danger in young people taking ecstasy than in drinking alcohol and that the drug can even help disaffected teenagers open up about their worries and feelings.

One told The Independent on Sunday: "No one would ever say that children should take ecstasy, but it is preferable for them to be opening up with their friends and sharing their problems rather than getting out of their heads on alcohol and getting involved in fights."

DRUG FACTS

* Ecstasy comes in tablets that are white, brown or pink. Or capsules that are yellow, red and yellow, red and black or clear. With pictures or logos on them. Or none at all.

* About two million "disco biscuits" are swallowed every weekend by around 780,000 people. They are also known as Adam, beans, biscuits, brownies, burgers, eckies, Edward, elephants, essence, fantasy, love doves, M&Ms, MDMA powder, New Yorkers, pills, rhubarb and custard, shamrocks, sweeties, X or XTC.

* Ecstasy is a hallucinogenic amphetamine with the chemical name 3,4-methylene-dioxymeth-amphetamine, or MDMA. But...

* It is illegal. You can get seven years in prison for possession. Dealers can get life.

* The effects take anything up to an hour to begin. You feel a little sick and begin to sweat; your throat is dry and your jaw tightens. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase and your pupils dilate. If it's good you feel a rush all over your body; the colours and sounds around you become more intense; you feel energetic but calm at the same time. Any anger you feel melts away and you feel empathy with the people around you. You want to hug and be hugged.

* If your experience of the drug is bad you feel anxious and confused; the world around you is weirdly distorted and you start to panic. Your jaw clamps; your teeth grind and you keep shivering. These effects, like the good ones, can last for hours. Or, in milder form, for days. Sometimes you don't start hallucinating until the following day.

* It can take days to recover. You may feel exhausted and depressed. You are vulnerable to getting a cold or a sore throat. You might not feel like eating much.

* It seemed to be the perfect pill in the summer of 1987. The press got all confused when the music was called acid house; the papers thought it meant the kids were taking LSD, and got all confused when loved-up teenagers tried to hug the police. That didn't stop the moral panic or attempts to legislate rave culture out of existence.

* It was the reason Brian Harvey was sacked from the band East 17 in 1997. "If you bang one, you go out, you have a good night," he said. Two days later he was out of the group.

* It may cause brain damage, although experts disagree about how much and in what way. There is some evidence that long-term use leads to memory loss and bouts of depression.

* Dealers do not cut ecstasy pills with heroin to get their customers addicted. That is a myth, according to Drugscope. It is true, however, that you do not know what you are getting when you buy a pill in a club.

* Taking E and dancing for hours can lead to dehydration and overheating. The answer is to stop sometimes, cool down and drink lots of water. But not too much. A pint an hour is about right. If you are not dancing and sweating, then drinking too much can be dangerous.

Cole Moreton

www.drugscope.org.uk