Warning: Ecstasy causes amnesia

Britain pays a high price for its links with the brutal rulers of Saudi Arabia, says Robert Fisk The middle-aged are forgetting all they know about drugs, and that's dangerous, argues Carol Sarler

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Drug culture: it was fun in the Sixties, it's fun today, it won't go away

ONLY seven weeks after the death of Leah Betts, another poor girl swallows another tablet of Ecstasy, drinks another two gallons of water and slips into another coma - though this time without the same sad result; Helen Cousins is now recovering. But this has not prevented another frenzied outpouring, as another mother "calls for" the "pushers" to be caught, and Paul Betts, Leah's father, is dragged again into the spotlight to plead, "When will youngsters learn?" ... for all the world as if it is the kids who have something to learn, rather than the rest of us who have something to remember.

The middle-aged middle classes seem to be suffering an unusual collective bout of amnesia. As doctors, teachers, or media executives, we are usually only too happy to suggest to our youth that they learn from our experiences. Yet when it comes to the current prevalence of Ecstasy, we do a sudden flip and act as if we have no experience at all. This is palpable, and ultimately dangerous, rubbish.

We took drugs. Oh yes we did - and if we didn't, we knew a man who did. Nice Sixties grammar school girls swopped gym slips at night for a few yellow tablets, the better to enjoy the Small Faces down the Carousel club (actually, if memory serves, it was the only way to enjoy the Small Faces - but that is probably the point about today's rave music, too). Later we smoked our joints and dropped our tabs and, man, was it fun. It was!

The reasons for doing it may not have been good ones, but they were clear enough at the time. Some of it was about mind-altering; the yearnings and agonies of the average teenage mind need all the light relief they can get. More of it was about the delicious thrill of breaking the law, which is just as understandable; kids test every constraint placed upon them before acceptance sets in - parents, teachers - why should the Plod be any different?

Most of it, however, was about flaunting it, because in the flaunting lay the admission to a truly alternative culture. The flagrant trimmings and trappings were often more important than the drugs themselves; we read Oz whether we liked it or not, we wore the loon pants and we listened to the bloody sitar.

With an estimated 3 million of us at least smoking marijuana by the advent of the Seventies, and with the older generation of the time frantically ill-informed, we learnt quite a lot about what we were doing. We knew how to bring someone down from a bad trip, we knew the dangers of an OD, we knew it was daft to spike somebody's drink and we knew where, in extremis, to find a sympathetic doctor.

Unfortunately, we were not always as clever as we thought. As within any culture, legends grew that were no more than that. We believed, for a while, that we could get smashed on banana skins ... smelly and disgusting, but less perilous perhaps than contemporary legends about the drinking of water. And then, as now, we had our victims: a few took the wrong turning towards heroin, a few more still roam the world as wild-eyed "acid casualties". But these had no more effect upon us than the death of Leah Betts has now: they were, in a strange way, martyrs to the cause.

For the rest of the millions, the long-term damage was nil. Many gave it up; many more incorporated a few old habits into otherwise privet-hedged lives. A 14-year-old friend of mine was aghast last week to attend a dinner party with her parents and look on as a 45-year-old lawyer passed a joint to a BBC executive. Only days ago, I was introduced to a man in the most sedate of public houses, from which he excused himself to go and score; nothing odd in itself, but he is a GP.

Yet these are the very people who get up in the morning and go to work behind a mask of incomprehension and disapproval. They communicate false, scare-mongering messages to young people - just as our elders did to us, and with about as much chance of being believed.

The police love to refer to "pushers", which serves only mirth and alienation, conjuring up as it does an image of Fagin lookalikes hanging around school gates: "Come here, leetle girl, see my lovely sweeties ..." The kids know now, as we knew then, that you get your drugs from friends whose least appealing characteristic is an unhealthily early interest in the supply- and-demand laws of capitalism.

The media squeals a danger that the least numerate adolescent can contest. If there really are a million tablets of Ecstasy being taken every week, then the few instances of casualty give odds of millions to one against - little consolation if you are that one, but a risk that many think worth taking.

The most pernicious, deliberate confusion lies in the slip-slide between the expression "dying of Ecstasy" and "dying having taken Ecstasy". It was our generation who loved to draw analogies with alcohol, so let us try one here: you do not die of six whiskies. However, having taken six whiskies, you might die of driving home. People do not, as far as we know to date, die of Ecstasy; Dr John Henry, director of the National Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital, has said, "I am not aware of anyone who has died as a result of an acute allergic reaction to Ecstasy." And speaking of Leah Betts, he said, "She drank a lot of water but with a lack of understanding of why she needed to drink water." Crucially: "Water is not an antidote to Ecstasy, it is an antidote to dancing."

There we have it. Leah Betts died, and Helen Cousins nearly died, from the activities associated with the culture that contains the drug; not from the drug itself. She died of her own ignorance ... and from our pig- headed refusal to serve her generation in the best way that we can.

How can we do that? We can start by acknowledging that, for the foreseeable future (until the new hit comes along), the million tablets a week will continue to be sold and used. Once we do this, we can get on with trying to save lives. There is, after all, a precedent for this: we may never have liked our children having under-age sex ... but we bowed to the inevitables of contraception and the teachings of safe sex - and to good effect, too. Why not do so with Ecstasy?

There are two ways lives are lost with this drug. One is in the purchase of contaminated pills; the other is the drinking of water. I did not know until seven weeks ago (did you?) that it was dangerous for any of us to drink three-and-a-half litres of water. Just as safe-sex posters were plastered over the walls of gay clubs 10 years ago, so every rave club should splash prominent guidelines on fluid intake.

As for contaminated tablets, perhaps we should look to Holland. There the police - yes, the police - have set up booths outside rave clubs where those who have bought a tablet can have it checked out; the police have a comprehensive list of each new batch that comes on the market and they are able to tell the purchaser exactly what it is they have bought.

Some, with this information to hand, will decide not to swallow. Others will go ahead. But in the end, most of them - overwhelmingly most - will live to do just what we did. Grow up.

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