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."