In the summer of 1985, a small minority of people working in the exclusive fashion, pop and media industries were playing the introductory role in what was to be the beginning of a recreational drug revolution. Although they may not have realised at the time, the new drug that they were importing from the United States was to become a drug culture in itself. However, the widespread use of this drug was not started by the extremely small imports of these people, indeed they were only bringing back to the United Kingdom enough for their own personal use. These small amounts did find themselves in the experimental hands of London music DJ’s though, and it was through this channel that MDMA, or ecstasy as it is commonly known, is thought to have exploded onto the British recreational drugs scene.
It was in the summer of 1986 that these London DJ’s went to Ibiza, a small Balearic island, and returned with a music style originally known as Balearic Beat. This music type was a mixture of old seventies and eighties disco, mixed in with US style house garage, and techno.1 Gradually the sound from previous decades was lost and this music developed into the sound of British techno, dance and house found in clubs and particularly raves leading up to the early 1990s.
This development in music was mirrored by the development in ecstasy use. The drug changed from being available only to those elite mentioned earlier, to ever greater numbers in clubs across Britain. Spurned on with the same idea as the large warehouse raves held in major American cities from 1985 onwards, by 1991, large unofficial raves were being organised, mainly in the countryside, were people could enjoy these new dance music types. Ecstasy use at the same time was very popular. At it’s peak, around 1993, it is estimated that around half a million people in Britain took ecstasy every weekend2, and around half of all young people had tried the drug.
This would suggest that the only group using ecstasy were young partying people, but this is not the case. Many people enjoy using the drug in their own home, and have never used it elsewhere to experience it’s other ‘qualities’:
“I started off as a ‘home user’, and went round telling ravers how they were wasting the experience dancing and should try E quietly at home.”3
The drug is also known to be used by those in religious circles, as in many cases it can ‘open the pathway to god.’ Religions that involve meditation are those most commonly associated with it. Many religious people took the drug initially when it was still legal to buy, like in the United States before 1969. One rabbi has said:
“E was a wonderful tool for teaching meditation, allowing novices to ‘get there’ straight away”4
It is clear that the drug can serve different purposes to different people. This is perhaps the reason why the drug is used over such different age and class differences. Whereas Heroin might be associated only with young white urban users, and Crack with black lower classes, Ecstasy has no such associations. Ecstasy has been described as a ‘democratising’ drug. By far the largest group that take ecstasy are the young ‘ravers’ or ‘clubbers’ that I have mentioned. The other groups that take the drug are perhaps looking for a different outcome:
“The other much smaller group is made up of more spiritually inclined people, perhaps exploring a ‘new age’ philosophy of life, or seeking personal insights alone,”5
People that are seeking these feelings could be a professional middle aged psychiatrist, or an unemployed gentleman in his fifties with no prospects in life. A user really could be almost anyone from any walk of life. They are not usually buying the drug on a whim though, and almost always have a specific intent for it’s use:
If someone buys a tablet or two in anticipation of a party or encounter session and the event is then cancelled, the drug is likely to be stowed away until another suitable setting can be arranged.”6
Overall, it can be said that ecstasy drug culture is like nothing seen in Britain this century, partly at least, because it has attracted interest over such a wide range of people like no other drug before.
There is, of course, no doubt that the main reason why the drug is so popular is because of what people taking it experience. In the club culture scene, users will almost always experience euphoria, joy and happiness. The feeling of being ‘loved up’ is common, where people are ‘opened up’ and are more willing than ever before to meet and engage with others. Many speak of even further qualities that are experienced on a lesser basis:
“euphoria, happiness and joy characterised by a transitory, unexpected, valued and extraordinary quality of rare occurrence and magnitude in which an altered sense of consciousness is temporarily experienced.”7
This again is the experience generally felt by clubbers, however there are common strands by which any user will experience some similar effects. Enhancement of the senses is very common, particularly feelings of alertness, closeness, empathy and luminescence8. With such experiences, many of which are uncommon with other drugs, and a combination of them certainly very uncommon, it is no wonder why many people take ecstasy. If these experiences go hand in hand with a very low risk to health, ecstasy certainly is different to many other illegal substances that are taken recreationally. The ecstasy culture is perhaps enhanced by the fact that it appears to be less damaging than other drugs.
The media, it is generally felt, have been overly critical of ecstasy, and have portrayed the drug to be of much higher risk than it actually is. Attempts to portray the user’s themselves as outlaws or ‘disgraces to society,’ as many other drug user’s are often perceived, has failed:
“The young people who use ecstasy do not consider themselves outlaws, and were concerned with a good night out rather than adolescent naughtiness.”9
Past and present British governments have tried to discourage the use of ecstasy by trying to highlight the dangers of taking it. It is possible to die from an allergic reaction on your first tablet, and the media, particularly tabloids, have splashed this fact everywhere when such an incident occurs. Unfortunately, ecstasy users ignore this information and do not trust the government when it comes to anti-drugs campaigns. Is this any wonder when for every seventeen people that die from ecstasy, one thousand die on our roads?10
Ecstasy has produced the biggest drugs culture in Britain in the last century and will probably continue to hold this position long into this century. If the government is to succeed in halting this culture, the user’s trust they will have to regain. But for the foreseeable future, this does not seem likely, and the drug that has tempted so many different types of people, will continue to do so long into our future.