The revolution is happening and it's down at Raquel's

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WHEN I arrived at Manchester University in the autumn of 1990, even a hickster from Wiltshire could tell which of her fellow freshers took Ecstasy, and which did not. Those that did were the ravers who had made their pilgrimage to "Madchester" to pay homage at the Hacienda club.They weren't there for Old Trafford, for cheap beer, a good course. They considered themselves there for a cause.

Taking Ecstasy five years ago defined you. It made you somehow other - in your attachment to just the right trainers, your commitment to obscure records, your touching belief in the spiritual possibilities of a whacking great rave. You were, in the argot of the day, an E-head.

And by that, you weren't very different from all your drug-defined predecessors - the dope heads, acid freaks, speed queens and other colourful standard bearers of youth sub-culture for three decades. Like your predecessors, you would probably grow out of it.

What had those early E-heads shaking their heads in disbelief last week was not the news that Ecstasy had claimed another life, that of 18-year- old Leah Betts. It was that their drug of choice is now common currency at a nightclub called Raquel's, in Basildon, Essex.

Now I have never been to Raquel's of Basildon, but it is safe to assume, I think, that the Hacienda it is not. Ecstasy has cut across social boundaries in a way no drug has ever done before. It is the very first drug to bear no attendant ideology, identity or idealism; it has, in fact, rendered the very phrase "drug culture" meaningless. What we have now, instead, is a popular culture defined by the drug Ecstasy.

Every Saturday night, profoundly conventional people without a subversive thought in their head dress up in Top Shop clothes to dance to Top of the Pops tunes in clubs called Raquel's - and take a highly illegal drug. This holds no political thrill, there is no anti-Establishment delight.

It is easy to see how 1960s flower children turned 1990s bank managers became anti-drugs; when they rejected the kaftan and the faith in free love, they rejected the drugs. But the regulars of Raquel's already dress, act and think like the upstanding citizens that they are. It is extremely difficult to see why, in 20 years' time, they will disapprove of Ecstasy.

Traditional drug-takers will regard Raquel's with a purist's despair. But it is the very absence of radicalism on its dance floor that may have the radical impact on society's attitude to drugs that they have long been advocating.

THIS is perhaps not the week to mount an impassioned defence of Ecstasy. The pictures of Leah in a coma and her parents' anguished press conferences, many will feel, preclude even the pragmatic response - that the drug is no one-high wonder, it is here to stay, and if it must be made legal to be safe, so be it.

It is difficult to write more enthusiastically about the drug without appearing naive, a bit naff - or possibly on it. But when I left Wiltshire (our survey in the Sunday Review is absolutely right, it is tranquil - sadly, not a quality much rated by an 18-year-old) my experiences of social life had been just the sort I imagine typified a pre-Ecstasy Raquel's. Tense, self-conscious evenings scarred by alcohol-driven outbursts of violence, often ending over a toilet throwing up the cause of so much unpleasantness, or sneaking out of a strange bed you had never meant to get into.

Five years earlier, and my clubbing days would have continued in that sorry vein. I count myself uncommonly blessed to have been offered an alternative. Ecstasy has inspired a remarkable thing - a social scene that can truthfully be described as social, and a celebration of the estimable pursuit of having a good time.

It is probably a shame that we want to use any drug at all, but we do, and there it is. None offers a risk-free narcotic nirvana, and the dangers of Ecstasy have been agonised over all week. But it is still not at all clear to me how criminalising it makes it safer.

People are fond of remarking that were alcohol invented today, it would be outlawed. It is an anti-social, dangerous, addictive, violent drug which costs countless thousands of lives. If these were the benchmarks by which we judged the acceptability of Ecstasy, it would be surprising to find anyone who would make it illegal.

THERE was something slightly surreal, last week, about the first national conference on policing the gay and lesbian community. We had activists illuminating our boys in blue on the mysteries of sex in public toilets. We had officers offering apologies for a long and sorry history of homophobia. It was an entertaining affair.

We also had the account of a gay shop owner. His London premises - discreet, clearly identified - were recently raided by the police. Photographs of naked men were removed; charges were threatened.

As the conference closed, the Sun was launching its celebration of Page Three's 25th birthday, complete with a buxom comeback from queen of the lovelies, Sam Fox. Copies of the paper could be seen peeping out of officers' briefcases as they departed.

ON Monday two men in their sixties began not their retirement but sentences of 15 and 18 years for robbery and shooting. On Tuesday, a court heard that a 68-year-old had stabbed an octogenarian love rival for failing to "lay off his girl" (52).

Affront at such disregard for old-aged propriety was palpable. "We will enter a world of singles clubs for the not so young - of genteel tea dances and simmering jealousies," reported a press uncertain whether to be amused or appalled.

I found it hugely encouraging. Having emerged from a disappointingly blameless adolescence, it is an enormous relief to learn that it's never too late to start behaving badly.

Joan Smith is on holiday.