Jemima Lewis: How ecstasy has screwed up my generation

I'm amazed at how many people of my acquaintance are now dabbling with heroin and crack
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The Independent Online

Like many people who came of age around the time that ecstasy arrived in Britain, I have always had a hard time associating drugs with danger. When my friends and I discovered Class As, it was nothing like a government health warning. We didn't throw up or get spots, there were no scary dealers involved, and none of us, so far as I know, was looking for something to blot out the grinding hopelessness of our lives. On the contrary: we were young and optimistic, and we took a pill that made us feel even more so.

Like many people who came of age around the time that ecstasy arrived in Britain, I have always had a hard time associating drugs with danger. When my friends and I discovered Class As, it was nothing like a government health warning. We didn't throw up or get spots, there were no scary dealers involved, and none of us, so far as I know, was looking for something to blot out the grinding hopelessness of our lives. On the contrary: we were young and optimistic, and we took a pill that made us feel even more so.

I was 17, and a pupil at a posh London day school, when I took E for the first time. A friend who had tried it assured me it was the greatest sensation on God's earth, and although I was – and am – a naturally fearful, law-abiding girl, curiosity got the better of me. I asked her to procure me a pill, and set about planning my big night. Never a very able dancer, I didn't want to go out clubbing lest the drug make me feel even more foolish than usual. Instead, I persuaded a friend – let's call her Jane – to go halves with me at my house while my parents were away.

There can hardly have been a less sordid introduction to the world of hard drugs. It was a warm, scented summer night, and Jane and I sat in deckchairs in the back garden, with rugs over our knees like two little old ladies, talking incessantly. Occasionally, something mildly hallucinogenic would overcome us and we'd leap up to praise the beauty of the silvery, herringbone clouds moving through the dark sky, or throw ourselves onto the lawn to wonder at the intricacy of the common daisy. We laughed a lot, and told each other how marvellous we were, and exchanged declarations of eternal friendship (which, I'm glad to say, we've stuck to). In the morning, we felt a bit foolish and spaced out, but that seemed a small price to pay for having experienced such pleasure and intimacy.

While Jane and I were sitting in our deckchairs, thousands of other young Britons were discovering the delights of E in a rather less staid fashion. As rave culture took off, and suddenly everyone was getting "loved up", it dawned on an entire generation that everything our parents had taught us about drugs was hopelessly wrong. These drugs weren't deadly – at least nothing like as deadly as the quantities of booze slugged back by the older generation. It was almost impossible to overdose on good-quality E: I knew people who could take five pills in one night and still drag themselves to work.

Addiction wasn't a problem, either. Even the five-a-nighters seemed to be more hooked on the rave scene than the drugs, and the rest of us were models of moderation. We had our fun but it didn't stop us getting our degrees, growing up and, in most cases, settling down. No harm done.

Only now, I'm starting to wonder. The fact that E gave us such a clean, friendly introduction to hard drugs has left us, I fear, rather too insouciant for our own good. Ecstasy has opened the door for a host of darker intoxicants to creep in. Cocaine was the first, infiltrating clubs and raves, then private parties, then the BBC, until now it's impossible to get away from the wretched stuff. I have even witnessed a bride, clad in a huge white meringue, snorting coke off a lavatory seat before heading downstairs for the speeches.

Once synonymous with champagne and impossible glamour, cocaine is now commonplace to the point of tedium – which doesn't make it any less destructive. One by one, the addicts fall like autumn leaves, to be picked up – if they're lucky – by their distraught parents and carted off to rehab at back-breaking expense.

You might think that witnessing a few such ruined lives would put a dent in our love affair with drugs – but not a bit of it. I'm amazed at how many people of my acquaintance are now dabbling with heroin and crack – both drugs that were once considered untouchable by respectable folk. Crack consumption in Britain rose by an astonishing 300 per cent between 1998 and 2000 – and not all of it was sucked into the lungs of the under-classes. I know journalists, lawyers, restaurateurs, film-makers – successful people from every walk of life – who smoke crack socially, as if it were no bigger deal than lighting up a joint.

The same applies to heroin – which, as every child of my generation knows, screws you up. Even this – the drug-taker's final frontier – no longer seems to hold the same terrors. Lots of nice middle-class folk indulge in the odd bit of H these days. Of course, they only smoke it, which lets them believe they've got the situation under control. And in some cases, maybe, they have. None the less, the casualties are mounting.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the funeral of a friend who died after taking heroin. The church was packed full of beautiful, cool thirty-somethings, sobbing and clinging to each other for comfort. Everyone was clearly shocked – but perhaps not shocked enough. A friend of mine who went on to the wake reported back to me that, after the egg and cress sandwiches had been passed around, and condolences passed on to the family, some of the mourners retired outside to smoke a few rocks.

If addiction, bankruptcy and death won't shake my generation out of its extraordinary complacency, it's hard to imagine what will.

The writer is editor of 'The Week'

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