Happy clubbers care little for MPs' call to downgrade ecstasy

More than a decade after MDMA became commonplace, official thinking still lags behind the realities of its recreational use
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The Independent Online

The music is so loud that your organs vibrate. As your eyes become used to the lasers and dry ice, the impression is of slow motion. Everyone seems to be walking on the moon, they seem tactile ... happy.

The music is so loud that your organs vibrate. As your eyes become used to the lasers and dry ice, the impression is of slow motion. Everyone seems to be walking on the moon, they seem tactile ... happy.

It is a brewery's nightmare: a London club where almost everyone is on methylenedioxy- metamphetamine – MDMA, ecstasy or E; the drug that a Home Affairs Select Committee last week recommended downgrading from a class A to a class B controlled substance.

A reduction from A to B means little in practice – the maximum penalty for possession is simply reduced from seven years to five. But the message sent out by the mostly white, middle-aged and middle-class MPs is being seen by some as groundbreaking. Was this a signal that, contrary to the tabloids' view, ecstasy was not such a corrupter of our children?

As an exercise in canvassing opinion, the people in this London club hardly represented a paradigm for empirical research. Those questioned were invariably, in their own words, "off their heads". Yes, they said, ecstasy should be legalised. It's wonderful. And, by the way, you're a really lovely man.

This is how ecstasy-users talk. Patented in 1913 by the drug company Merck as a dieting aid that was never marketed, MDMA gives feelings of empathy, warmth and euphoria. Violence is almost unheard of in a venue where ecstasy is the drug of choice.

MDMA comes as powder, which can be snorted, or more usually as a pill. The pills, costing as little now as £5 or less each, usually carry a logo. The current favourite is the Mitsubishi car company badge, but in the past there have been doves, dollar signs, Mercedes, Rolling Stones lips and many others.

A pill takes about 40 minutes to work and can last for one to four hours. It raises the temperature, increases the heart rate and dilates pupils. It suppresses the appetite, wards off tiredness and, paradoxically, makes users want either to dance or sit quietly in, they say, ecstasy.

"You simply can't explain to people just what it's like," said Luke, 30, a smiling computer analyst who is massaging his girlfriend's back. "You feel wonderful, everyone is your friend, all your social inhibitions drop and you find yourself talking to – and really befriending – complete strangers. For a while, the world is how it should be."

These clubbers are not impressed with reclassifying ecstasy. They took a risk when the penalty for possession was seven years. And they will take the same risk now that it is five.

"I doubt if anyone gave the news a second thought," said Luke's girlfriend, Anna, 24. "Ecstasy is everywhere and it has been for more than a decade. The police know it, but people on E cause them no trouble at all, particularly compared with people on alcohol. I don't know anyone who's had a bad time on it but I know lots of people who have been sick, got hurt or made a fool of themselves on drink. As long as you're caught only carrying enough for yourself, you're more likely to get just a caution these days."

Commander Brian Paddick, whose relaxed drugs policy in Brixton, south London, caused a political storm, said in his evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee: "If I felt that my officers were going into nightclubs looking for people who were in possession of ecstasy then I would say to them, and I would say publicly, that they are wasting valuable police resources ... I would say there are far more important things which cause real harm to the community."

The people who really need to worry are the dealers, but they show no sign of concern in this club. You can spot them in huddles, selling to eager clubbers. Pills? they ask, unsolicited. If you can see them, so can the club's security. But a club without E is like a wake. On sale here are Mitsubishis at £5 from one dealer, and tablets with a logo like an elliptical triangle at £7 from another.

"These guys perform a service because they take a risk," said Andy, a 27-year-old mechanic with wildly dilated pupils. "This stuff should be legal but they have to take a risk to get it to people who want it. And we all want it."

Professor John Henry, a clinical toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital, London, told the select committee: "I personally think that ecstasy is relatively safe in the short term. The long-term risk is to my mind unknown at present, although as each year goes by I get relatively more sanguine about the risk rather than less. I accept there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the long-term effects on the brain. In terms of addictiveness, it is very low."

Half a million people take ecstasy each weekend but death is rare. In 2000, 27 people died out of an estimated 55 million pills taken. This was just 2.2 per cent of drug-related deaths. In 1999, 754 people died taking heroin, 87 from cocaine, and hundreds of thousands from using alcohol and tobacco.

Release, a drugs charity, is not impressed with reclassification of MDMA. Kevin Flemen, its deputy director, said: "Reducing it to class B does nothing for either prevention or damage control. We would like to see it legalised and regulated. It should be sold in a pharmaceutically safe form at chemists – once users had to queue up for it with people waiting for their pile cream, it would soon look a lot less glamorous."

So, does reclassification represent a veiled acceptance? Chris Mullin, the committee chairman, says it does not. Instead, the intention was to put some distance between it, and heroin and cocaine, a distinction intended to help educate young people against drugs.

"This is clearly not as harmful as heroin or crack," he said. "But it can still be a dangerous drug and it is not one that we would like to see legalised."