Dutch ravers can mellow out as official tests make Ecstasy 'safe'

Law turns blind eye to drug use as 'gabber' dance craze hits Europe

THE RECENT death of a teenager after taking Ecstasy at a "house" party in Blackpool was greeted with resigned dismay by Safe House, the Dutch drug-testing scheme which has virtually eliminated the dangers of taking the designer drug.

Picture this: 10,000 youths dressed in shell suits and with shaved heads, jumping up and down to the 180-beat-per-minute sounds of "gabber" music. At the edge of the dance floor, a number of first aid officials smile indulgently. Nearby, Herman Matser of the Drugs Advice Bureau is supervising the instant testing of what the Dutch call "XTC" tablets and dispensing advice to a remarkably receptive group of young people. A couple of uniformed policemen look on unperturbed.

Matser's advice is not "you shouldn't be taking drugs", but "you look hot - mellow out, have some water". Such a scene is not easy to imagine in a British club but it is a typical example of the pragmatic approach of the Dutch authorities to Ecstasy. Although the drug is illegal, the Dutch realise that to ignore the widespread use of Ecstasy, particularly at house parties, is not going to stop the tens of thousands of regular users in the Netherlands from popping pills.

"Gabbers" are a distinctly Dutch phenomenon, although their particularly energetic form of music is proving a success on the rave scenes in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Australia. "Gabber" is street slang and roughly translates as "mate".

Matser admits they can be an intimidating sight but is quick to add that these are just working class lads out for a good time on a Saturday night: "What could be better than letting them dance their aggression away at a house party miles away from anywhere? Imagine the destruction if they were let loose in the city centre fuelled up on alcohol after the pubs closed. They take Ecstasy because it enhances the feelgood factor you get naturally when you're in love or have done well at sport. It gives you energy. But there is a real danger for people with a weak heart or liver. Often people don't know if this applies to them."

A house party can attract up to 25,000 young people, although about 10,000 is the norm. They are held two or three times a month in sports halls or warehouses on the outskirts of cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

In 1993, the Dutch government issued guidelines on house parties and now leaves it up to local councils to decide whether or not to allow them in their area. Banning them outright is difficult because most are licensed events. Given that where there is a rave there will be drugs, many councils have adopted a damage-limitation approach. House party organisers have to provide a "chill out" room, ensure there is plenty of drinking water, have first aid officials on duty and have a pill-testing station where party-goers can have their tablets checked for about pounds 1. The latter is usually carried out by the Drugs Advice Bureau which launched its Safe House project when house parties first took off at the end of the Eighties.

"Many pills are sold as Ecstasy but contain other substances" says Matser, "so we have devised a quality control system based on a fluid indicator test. But it's limited. All we can do is establish how much, if any, Ecstasy a pill contains and what, if anything, it's mixed with. There are 700 varieties of pill around today."

From their canal-side Amsterdam office, Matser and his colleagues test up to 50 samples a day. They are brought in by producers happy to stay for a gossip or dealers with several samples wrapped in silver foil, as well as the occasional individual anxious to check what his 25 guilders (pounds 10) has bought.

Matser mixes the pill with an acid-based liquid. If it goes blue-black it is all right, made mainly of "an Ecstasy-like substance". Orange indicates the presence of amphetamine; green, heroin. The test also determines the level of Ecstasy contained in a pill: very high dosages are potentially lethal.

The testing concept is extremely effective in stamping out rogue pills. By keeping the market "clean" the producers and dealers keep demand stable. "There's nothing like a rumour of bad pills to mess up sales," said one. If contaminated pills do get on to the market, the producers, dealers and users join ranks to find the culprit who, as Matser puts it, is dealt with faster and far more effectively than he would ever be by the police.

That the Dutch system is successful is clear from the very small incidence of Ecstasy-related deaths. Holland's National Institute for Alcoholism and Drugs has recorded two in the last decade, although the Drugs Advice Centre itself says that six would be a more accurate figure.

The anti-drugs lobby claims that the Drugs Advice Bureau, which is partially government-funded, encourages young people to take Ecstasy, but Matser says they will take the pills anyway and it is better to educate them about the risks involved.

Jaap de Vlieger, drugs specialist with the Rotterdam police, agrees. He says Ecstasy cannot be described as a "hard" drug in the same way as heroin. "Unlike alcohol and speed [amphetamine], people do not need more and more to achieve the same effect. And Ecstasy is not addictive, although that doesn't mean it's not dangerous. Wrongly used or high doses can speed up your heartbeat or cause cramp, vomiting, panic attacks and hallucinations."

The Drugs Advice Bureau believes many European countries will follow Holland's Safe House example eventually. Some, such as Denmark and Switzerland, have already expressed interest. And he warns, too, that the Netherlands' success in stamping out contaminated Ecstasy pills has shifted the problem over the border.

"The people who make this stuff aren't going to dump a load of valuable pills into the canal. They're going to sell them in countries like Britain where the chances of them being traced is small, because people are too scared to go to the authorities."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Media Sales - OTE up to £30,000

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Developer

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique & exciting opp...

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Day In a Page

A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935