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Ecstasy in the UK: 
recreational drug use and cultural change


Peter McDermott, Alan Matthews,


"Whoever it was brought house music and Ecstasy together is 
a total genius and I want to shake that man's hand".
Anonymous, The Face, Nov. 1991

The authors would like to apologize unreservedly to S-Expressa, 
Bob Dylanb, E-Zee Possec, Diana Ross and the Supremesd and the 
Jimmy Castor Bunche for the cavalier misappropriation of their 
lyrics, and thank  Michele Durkin and Jenny O'Connor for their 
invaluable work on the Chill Out information campaign, and for 
their staunch support during the media's ferocious attack upon 
Mersey Drug Training and Information Centre and it's director, Pat 

Introduction - 'You can be yourself'

MDMA is a member of the phenylethylamine family of drugs, related 
chemically to both mescaline and amphetamine. Consequently, it is 
often described as a stimulant and/or an hallucinogenic, when in 
actual fact, it is neither. Subjective reports advise us that on 
an active dose of the drug there is no loss of control or contact 
with reality. The primary effect is on mood. The structural 
activity of this drug is so different from others that, it has 
been argued, the drug deserves a new category (Nichols,1986). 
Terms that have been suggested to describe this category include 
'empathogen' (from the drug's capacity to evoke a sense of 
empathy) and 'entactogen' (from the Latin, meaning 'to touch 

The first reference to MDMA to reach a broad audience in the UK, 
came in an article in a magazine called 'The Face'. This reported 
on the use of the drug by a small group of people working in the 
media, pop music and fashion industries, who were flying to the 
United States and importing small amounts of the drug for their 
personal consumption. (Nasmyth, 1985)

Over the next two years, the MDMA scene grew slowly but steadily. 
Two London disc jockeys visited Ibiza in the summer of 1986 and 
returned with a new style of dance music - created by the DJ's 
themselves - which became known as 'Balearic Beat' (Kaplan, C. et 
al, 1989). The music consisted of a mixture of late seventies and 
early eighties disco, and the later mutations of that nightclub 
oriented sound from Chicago (House) New York (Garage) and Detroit 
(Techno). Using modern musical technology such as samplers, 
sequencers and synthesisers, DJ's began to create a new musical 
form that clubgoers found ideally suited the effects of the drug. 
The Ecstasy/nightclub combination began to spread slowly from the 
London fashion/music industry elite, until 1991, when the rave 
scene (as the subculture became known) was possibly the biggest 
youth subculture that Britain had ever seen. A subculture 
intimately bound up with the use of Ecstasy.

The effects of the drug were to become closely bound up in the 
artefacts of the newly emerging subculture. For instance, one song 
that was widely played in the clubs in 1989 was called, 'Express 
Yourself' and gives some insight into the meaning of the 
experience for young people. The hook lyric proclaims "You can be 
yourself, yeah, yeah". Although this may seem trite to those who 
have not shared the experience, most of the people we interviewed 
felt that this capacity to drop one's inhibitions and allow 
yourself to be who you truly were without fear or embarrassment, 
was the drug's most rewarding quality. While other drugs like 
alcohol or LSD produced dramatic changes in the psyche,  Ecstasy, 
in contrast, just allowed people to be themselves, to accept 
themselves and others. This curious sense of freedom arising from 
a collective of chemically liberated individuals made the club 
scene very appealing, not just to teenagers but to people of all 
ages. When the drug was taken in a club with 2,000 other people, 
it produces a sense of being emotionally synchronised with the 
crowd, a notion that is amplified by the DJ's use of the music and 
lighting effects. People would describe how they would make eye 
contact, and rather than looking away embarrassed, or being a 
catalyst for aggression ("Who the fuck d'you think you're looking 
at?") strangers would identify a communality, albeit one based 
upon chemistry.

So, from 1987 onwards, nightclubs across the UK witnessed joyous 
outbursts of mass hugging and kissing. A popular record would be 
received by 2,000 pairs of arms shooting up into the air, as 
everybody would hold hands, sway blissfully and sing. Given the 
contrast with our everyday experience, it is not surprising that 
the experience of the drug and the scene was to become of central 
importance to the lives of many young people.

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it 

The first two authors became involved with this phenomenon at the 
end of 1988, when they gained access to a network of young people 
who were involved with the drug. They spent a great deal of time 
over the following two years studying this group and the rave 
scene, research which eventually led to the production of a 
television film "E is for Ecstasy" (Everyman, BBC 1, 1992)

During the course of this research, they became aware of a growing 
number of problems associated with the drug. Having read most of 
the published literature available on the drug, it appeared to be 
fairly safe. However, the set and setting in which the drug was 
used in the USA, where most of the available research had been 
conducted, was very different from the way it was now being used 
in Britain.

In America, the drug had come to the attention of a small group of 
people who were committed to the continuation of serious research 
into psychedelic drugs (Shulgin & Shulgin, 1992; Stephens, 1977). 
Because of MDMA's peculiar properties, this group had seen the 
drug as a useful adjunct to psychotherapy and for a long time it 
remained a well kept secret. Although the drug eventually made the 
transition from the therapists office and onto the street, the way 
it was used in the USA, and the groups that were using it, were 
very different to this new pattern of use that was emerging in the 
UK. (Rosenbaum, & Morgan, 1989; Beck, 1990; O'Rourke, 1985.)

In 1989, the UK saw it's first Ecstasy-related death. Although the 
first was believed to be an idiosyncratic reaction, possibly 
allergic, as the numbers of people taking the drug grew, the 
numbers of adverse reactions also grew. This research combined 
with the growing number of telephone enquiries to MDTIC, pointed 
to a hunger for information on the effects and the hazards of 
Ecstasy and the other drugs associated with the dance scene. In 
September 1991, Mersey Regional Health Authority decided to 
commission an information campaign aimed at Ecstasy users 
(McDermott, P.,1992) 

At the time the campaign was conceived, there had been virtually 
no interest in the drug by the medical or drug treatment 
establishment in the UK, and no research of any substance had been 
funded or conducted. Apart from the American research, which was 
conducted under very different use conditions, all the experience 
of the effects and hazards of this drug lay with the hundreds of 
thousands of users who had been conducting individual and 
collective experiments with the drug. A series of government 
funded television 'drug scare' advertisements had been screened in 
1989-1990 and most of the Ecstasy users we spoke to had seen them 
but they did not find them credible representations of the drug, 
the subculture, or the potential risks. Most of those interviewed 
did not believe that their drug use had caused them any serious 
problems, though they often felt that the lack of accurate 
information about the drug, and its illegal status, were problems 
in themselves (McDermott & Matthews, 1992).

Furthermore, current drugs services had been preoccupied with 
their existing clients, opiate users, and most had totally failed 
to make any attempt to contact this group. In fact, many involved 
in the drugs field were virtually unaware of the problem. Drug 
services were for 'addicts', whereas this group was just using 
drugs recreationally, at weekends. What did a drugs agency have to 
offer them? The reality was, in fact, not very much. (Gilman,1992)

Everything starts with an 'E'

It was decided that the form that our response would take should 
be different from other such campaigns for a number of reasons. 
Most importantly, it was felt that the people who were most at 
risk, and therefore could benefit most from such a campaign were 
the many thousands of people who were currently using the drug. 
There is no evidence that drug prevention campaigns such as the 
government's TV adverts, delay or reduce initiation into drug use. 
However, information may play a role in slowing transitions to 
heavier or particularly hazardous modes of use. (Dorn & Murji, 

The new club-drug scene had a number of characteristics that make 
it a risk-laden situation. First, many of those involved are young 
and are new to drug taking, therefore they are likely to have 
little knowledge of the drugs that they use. Second, the dominant 
drug used on this scene, MDMA or Ecstasy, was a relatively new 
substance that most drugs workers had little knowledge of or 
experience of dealing with. Our perspective on the problem, and 
the strategy that we adopted in order to deal with it, owed a 
great deal to the work of Norman Zinberg and Jock Young. 

From Zinberg, we took the notion that we had to accept that these 
people were determined to use drugs, and as a consequence, we 
needed to assist them by facilitating the emergence of a culture 
of controlled drug use (Zinberg, 1984).  In 'The Drugtakers' 
(Young, 1972), Young claims it is strongly dysfunctional to harass 
and undermine drug subcultures, instead we should facilitate the 
emergence of a system of values and norms within that subculture. 
He argues for 'positive propaganda' about drugs. Most drug horror 
stories fail to mesh with the experience of drug users, and so 
their message is rejected. It is only the subculture of drug 
taking, Young believes, that has the authority to control its 
members. As he so eloquently explains, "You cannot control an 
activity merely by shouting out that it is forbidden; you must 
base your measures on facts and these facts must come from sources 
that are valued by the people that you wish to influence. (...) 
Moreover, information aimed at controlling drug use must be 
phrased in terms of the values of the subculture, not in terms of 
the values of the outside world. (p.221)"

Following Young and Zinberg then, we decided that the best method 
of affecting a positive influence upon this group of recreational 
or non-dependent drug users would be to seek to facilitate the 
emergence of a set of subcultural rituals and norms aimed at 
minimising the potential for drug-related harm. 

A combination of our field research and an extensive literature 
review led us to conclude that the potential problems associated 
with MDMA could be divided into three categories - drug specific, 
situational and social. Problems derived from the pharmacological 
properties of the drug include overdose, allergic or idiosyncratic 
reactions, anxiety or panic attacks and the possibility of long-
term neurotoxicity. Situational problems ... those related to the 
user's mind set, and the setting in which the drug is taken, 
include dehydration, hyperthermia, exhaustion, panic, anxiety and 
problems arising from counterfeit drugs.  To date there have been 
at least 14 deaths in the UK associated with Ecstasy and as many 
as 50 other severe reactions.  One popular hypothesis is that 
these deaths are caused by heat-stroke due to a combination of 
Ecstasy, dancing energetically, not drinking enough water and the 
hot and humid temperature in clubs.(Henry et al., 1992)  

Finally, use of the drug can also give rise to a number of social 
problems that encompass relations with family, school or work, the 
law, and possible personality changes, but the extent to which 
these should be considered as 'drug problems', rather than normal 
adolescent rites of passage is arguable and often depends upon 
highly subjective criteria.

As an information service, the problem we faced was how to make a 
positive intervention that would enable us to maximise contact in 
an appropriate manner, and to allocate scarce resources as 
efficiently as possible. As the government had recently run an 
enormous mass media campaign aimed at dissuading young people from 
using recreational drugs like Ecstasy, we decided to run an 
information campaign aimed specifically at those who were 
determined to continue to use these drugs. 

Reach out and touch somebody's hand....

Following intense press coverage of the issue after several 
Ecstasy-related deaths over a short space of time, many drug 
services began to argue that outreach work should be conducted 
with this group. We felt that this response was a mistake. 
Outreach work in the UK emerged in an attempt to contact injecting 
drug users at risk of HIV. It was an exceptional measure that was 
necessitated by the need to avert a public health crisis. Ravers 
are neither hard-to-reach, nor are they such a priority.(1) 
Outreach seemed to be unreasonably intrusive in the perceptions of 
the targeted group, just another form of social policing.  If the 
rationale for such work is reducing drug-related harm or HIV 
prevention, then such efforts may be more profitably directed to 
the local pub, where both the extent and the severity of risks and 
problems will far outweigh those at any rave club. Few would argue 
that such a response to alcohol was either appropriate or 
desirable -  why should we think it so for other drugs?

One drugs agency manager in the Mersey region explained his 
understanding of this trend towards outreach work among 
recreational drug users: "For the last few years, the role of an 
outreach worker has been to go and sit in a grotty council flat 
and try to make contact with injectors. Compared to this, going to 
clubs at the weekend has got to be a high priority. And it's 
easier, too. In a club, you have access to up to two thousand drug 
users, all in the same place at the same time.(Dalton, 1991)" 

If the concept of outreach work is fraught with inconsistencies, 
the management of such work poses serious logistical problems. 
Counselling or information giving in a club where you can't hear 
yourself think, is inappropriate and virtually impossible. Dealing 
with collapse or overdose should be the responsibility of club 
management, who should have staff experienced in first aid and who 
are just as able to call an ambulance as any outreach worker. When 
dealing with anxiety or panic attacks (the bad trip syndrome), 
friends are more likely to be helpful than strangers. Most clubs 
already sell condoms. As drugs workers, our primary aim is to help 
prevent problems, not have workers waiting on the sidelines in the 
hope that one might develop. Our task is to demystify drugs and 
drug problems, to take power out of the hands of professionals and 
to empower the drug user, enabling him to make responsible and 
informed decisions. Outreach work is too often used as a method of 
perpetuating professional mystique and client dependency on drugs 
workers rather than transferring decision making skills to drug 
users who can best understand their own needs.

...make this world a better place...

When determining the form and content of the campaign, we set 
ourselves a number of goals -

1. To provide basic information on the effects of the various 
drugs commonly used on the club scene.
2. To enable clubgoers to identify potential problems that might 
arise, and help them to deal with them effectively.
3. To alert them to hazards associated with the set and setting in 
which the drug may be used.
4. To establish standards for safer, more responsible drug use 
within the drug sub-culture.
5. To give drug users a contact point for further information from 
a source they can trust, should problems arise.

In order to achieve these aims, we felt that the form in which the 
information took, and the routes through which it was transmitted, 
were equally as important as the content. The information should 
be pertinent to the lives and interests of the intended audience. 
It must also be accurate and honest, reflecting the positive 
aspects of drug use as well as the risks and harms that the drug 
might cause. Finally, the campaign needed to be non-judgmental 
about the ethical issues inherent in drug use in order to 
establish a relationship of trust between the information 
providers and the intended recipients. 

As the budget for the campaign was low, we needed to take a 
creative approach to maximising our audience. Once again, our in-
depth knowledge of the subculture gained over the previous two 
years was invaluable. This was a subculture which was based around 
holding illegal parties that were not advertised but could attract 
over 10,000 people by word of mouth. We decided to attempt to 
utilise the methods and networks that the subculture itself uses 
to transmit information ... flyers, magazine articles and word of 

Flyers are hand-outs that advertise the opening of new clubs or 
one-off parties. They usually feature a graphic design style that 
is identifiable with the culture, similar to the graphics 
associated with the hippie/underground subculture of the 1960s. 
Flyers are distributed outside clubs, in record shops, clothes 
shops and other places where ravers congregate. They are often 
collected by ravers, who pin them on bedroom walls and in 
scrapbooks as memorabilia and mementos of events or clubs they 
attended. A local designer, noted for his creative work in this 
area, was employed to produce a leaflet that would utilise 
elements of this form.

The leaflet, "Chill Out ... A Ravers Guide", contained basic 
information about the three main drugs that are used on the club 
scene, MDMA, LSD and amphetamine. It considers the risks involved 
in using those drugs, methods to try to minimise the risks, and 
how to deal with an emergency. Furthermore, the leaflet does not 
just focus upon the drugs, but also looks at the other issues 
involved - the need for sleep and good diet, avoiding dehydration, 
heat exhaustion etc. Finally, a phone number was available on the 
leaflet in case further help was required. 

As the nature of club culture mitigates against passing out such 
detailed information in a venue where people have gone to dance 
and to enjoy themselves, this method of distribution was rejected. 
If handed out willy-nilly during such an event, we felt that most 
would be likely to end up littering the floor, unread. Rather than 
leaving these behind the desk at drug services, places that are 
rarely attended by this group, we distributed them initially 
through specialist record and clothes shops, and through 
advertisements in fanzines, on radio and in bars, cafes and clubs. 

Our resources were limited to an initial print run of 10,000 
copies of the leaflet, therefore we could only distribute them 
throughout the region. Yet the need for information on this matter 
was felt to be increasingly pressing, as the number of deaths and 
hospitalisations across the country mounted. As yet, no other 
service was providing the information that was needed. In an 
attempt to remedy this information shortage and contact a much 
larger audience, the second component of the ampaign was 
initiated. One of the authors approached the magazine that had 
carried the original article on MDMA in 1985, "The Face". This 
magazine is the most prestigious of the so-called ‘style 
magazines'. Aimed at a readership aged between 18 and 35, the 
magazine sells all over the world and has managed to successfully 
remain ahead of all the others because of it's ability to have the 
finger on the pulse of fashion and pop music. It's credibility 
with young people is probably unrivalled by any other magazine. 
Continued references to Ecstasy, both in features on "stars",  in 
letters and in journalistic asides led us to believe that this 
would be an ideal conduit for a carefully targeted media 
information campaign.

After negotiations, the magazine published an interview with one 
of the authors and a visiting Dutch colleague who had recently 
finished a book on the Dutch Ecstasy scene. The piece attempted to 
summarise the most recent scientific information that was 
available on the drug for a lay audience (James,1991). 
Confirmation that our choice of this magazine was correct was 
revealed by the response that the piece generated. The following 
month's issue gave the whole letters page over to the topic and 
noted that the article attracted the most mail that they had for 
some time (The Face, 1991a).  Many readers letters noted the 
phenomenal rise in the incidence of Ecstasy use, others identified 
MDMA related problems that they or their friends were 
experiencing, problems hitherto not addressed by existing drug 
service provision. 

Over the following six months, virtually all of the British 
magazines aimed at this youth audience carried similar articles, 
often focusing on Chill Out and a similar information campaign run 
by Lifeline, a Manchester drugs agency that was based on a cartoon 
character, Peanut Pete. Given the volume of useful coverage of the 
issues, in the type of magazines that were read by our target 
audience, we felt that our initiative was far more successful than 
we could have ever anticipated.

....if you can!

Over the past four years, British television and the quality 
newspapers have given a great deal of coverage to the 'new 
paradigm' in the drugs field. TV programmes like Granada's 
"Hooked' series and the BBC's Open Space programme, 'Taking Drugs 
Seriously' are just two examples among many. Most serious 
newspaper columnists and editorials are now critical of the War on 
Drugs mentality and often argue in favour of a more pragmatic, 
harm reduction approach.

However, this tendency towards realism by the media still only 
applies to the quality broadsheets and television, and has failed 
to filter through to the British tabloids, who still cover drug 
stories in the traditional shock-horror fashion. In an article 
titled "The myth of drug takers in the mass media" (Young, 1973) 
Jock Young has pointed out that the media's portrayal of drug 
stories is consistently biased. This bias is not a function of 
random ignorance on the part of journalists(2), but is grounded in 
the media's assumption of a consensual ideology that governs the 
writing of newspaper articles. Most drug stories rely upon a 
number of myths, myths that were identified and shown to be untrue 
as early as 1940 by the American pioneer of Harm Reduction, 
sociologist Alfred Lindesmith (Lindesmith, 1940). These myths are 
rooted in moral indignation, and are aimed at bulwarking the 
hypothetical world of the normal citizen and blinkering the 
audience to deviant realities that exist outside this imaginary 
consensus. In order to understand why newspaper stories about drug 
issues are systematically skewed, Young argues that one must seek 
explanations at a structural level. The way in which certain 
sections of the media attacked 'Chill Out' provides a powerful 
validation of Young's thesis.

The first author was contacted by a journalist on a local paper, 
the Liverpool Echo, who wanted to know where the information in 
the leaflet came from. In fact, the information was a summary of 
all the available literature on the subject, and had been read and 
approved by a number of leading experts both on MDMA and on drug 
education. Locally, it was read and approved by the Director of 
the Drug Dependency Unit, the Head of Merseyside Police drug squad 
and other interested professionals.  The journalist did not appear 
to be impressed by this, and intimated that some people in the 
field were concerned by the content of the leaflet. We later 
discovered that the concern emanated from her editor who had been 
outraged by the leaflet and had ordered her to get a critical 

We were contacted by colleagues in the field who informed us that 
this journalist had been ringing around in an attempt to find 
somebody prepared to condemn the leaflet. Apparently, nobody 
working in the drugs field was prepared to do so but, fortunately 
for the reporter, there was a general election due in a few months 
time, and Merseyside happens to be a solid Labour stronghold. The 
newspaper eventually managed to generate a controversy by sending 
copies of the leaflet to two Conservative MP's, both in marginal 
seats and asking for their comments.

The item ran as the main story on page one, under the headline, 
"Raving Mad: MP's fury over DIY drug brochure for teenagers." 
(Liverpool Echo, 28th January, 1992)

"The Echo today highlights a glossy drugs leaflet that every 
Merseyside parent will view with outrage. It is a youngster's 
guide to taking drugs that looks and reads like part of a sales 

Linda Chalker, MP for Wallasey, attacked the leaflet for it's 
message. "Instead of hammering home the message that drugs are 
wrong and drugs kill, they are taking the soft option and telling 
these children how to take them safely." Her colleague, Ken Hind 
MP, went even further. "This is a disgraceful waste of public 
funds. I shall today send a letter to the Chairman of Mersey 
Regional Health Authority demanding such funding is immediately 

The following day, the story was picked up by two tabloid 
newspapers, The Sun and The Daily Star.(3) The Daily Star's story 
ran under the headline "What a Dope: Daft do-gooder tells kids 
it's OK to use killer drug." (Daily Star, 29th January, 1992) The 
Star also gave it's editorial over to the issue, offering advice 
to Merseyside parents. "...this evil twaddle was written by Centre 
boss Pat O'Hare and his staff - local parents should find out 
where these oddballs hang out and then they should storm the place 
and dump all 20,000 copies of this pernicious pamphlet into the 
Mersey, followed by Mr O'Hare." 

The Sun, the newspaper that introduced the 'page 3 girl' to the 
British public, retained it's usual obsession with sex. The front 
page story was headlined "Fury at sex guide to E" (The Sun, 29th 
January, 1992), because of a single reference to sex in the 
leaflet that was aimed at raising awareness of HIV risk among this 
group. In fact, the leaflet read, "Sometimes you feel horny as it 
(MDMA) heightens sensations and pleasures of touch ... so have 
condoms with you."

This national media interest led the Echo to devote it's front 
page to the story for the next two evenings. The following night's 
story was titled "Rethink on drug guide" and sought to imply that 
the regional health authority was about to renounce the leaflet. 
In fact, a health authority spokesperson said "We have no 
immediate plans to withdraw the leaflet." Meanwhile, other 
sections of the media were expressing their support for Chill Out. 
Mick Middles, a columnist on Manchester's counterpart to the Echo, 
the Manchester Evening News (Middles, 1992) wrote:

"The media has universally feigned outrage and plucked a few 
provocative lines from the leaflet. ...It is all to easy for the 
media to take a line out of context and make the whole project 
seem like a celebration of this appalling drug. It isn't. It 
merely accepts the sad fact that many ordinary, intelligent 
teenagers are caught up in this Ecstasy subculture and takes it 
from there. The authority should be commended for attempting to 
reach the kids via this method."

This support was also echoed in the Liverpool Echo's sister 
newspaper, the Daily Post (Daily Post, 3rd February 1992), where 
columnist David Charters wrote:

"Admittedly, it is a defeatist tract, taking the line: the problem 
is here to stay. How do we cope with it. ...Most of the 
information is reasoned. The passage saying "Ecstasy can make you 
feel relaxed but energetic, happy, calm, exhilarated warm and 
loving" is too glowing, though it is balanced with references to 
sweating, nausea and vomiting. (...) Until the authorities control 
the spread of drugs, the MDTIC's leaflet has a role."

On the third evening, the Echo gave its front page over to the 
story once again, for the third night running, this time to report 
that the Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker had withdrawn a £15,000 
grant to MDTIC from the seized assets fund that was intended to 
fund an Ecstasy information campaign. The grant was frozen until 
after the general election (Liverpool Echo, 30th January 1992).

By this time, staff on the Liverpool Echo had begun to sense that 
their stance was not only out of step with professional opinion, 
but also with public opinion. In local radio phone-ins and on 
television news vox-pop interviews, support for Chill Out was 
overwhelming, particularly among the young, who the leaflet was 
aimed at.  In the same issue, the Echo gave the centre's director 
Pat O'Hare, and the leaflet's author, Alan Matthews, space to 
defend their position. 

The following week it gave its letters page over to the issue 
(Liverpool Echo, 4th February, 1992). Again, public support was 
overwhelming. Of sixteen letters, only three did not support the 
leaflet. The letters give an insight into the level of public 
awareness of and support for the harm reduction philosophy.

"As the Echo pointed out, the drug trade in the North West reaps 
profits of £25 million. This will not be halted overnight. 
Obviously there must be a demand."
"I am writing as the concerned parent of a 19 year old son to 
comment on your front page report, "Raving Mad". The most accurate 
part of the story is the headline ... but only if applied to 

"I have in my counselling sessions been using the Chill Out guide 
and I have been astounded at the success of this publication, 
which in my experience has given the drugs agencies credibility 
with the young drug users."

"I am 27 years of age and have been using Ecstasy for the last 
three years. Like most users I was ignorant of the side-effects 
attached to its use. Having read the leaflet, I have sat back and 
actually thought about my drug use."

"I was reminded of the outrage expressed when MDTIC introduced a 
free needle policy for drug users, and how that policy, now copied 
by others, has helped circumvent the spread of AIDS."

"The objectors to this leaflet ... the Liverpool Echo, Lynda Chalker 
and Ken Hind ... are in no position whatsoever to comment on a 
situation they know very little about. ... It is about time the 
whole drugs issue was tackled with some realism, instead of 
pretending that by making it illegal ,the whole problem will 

"I think your articles on Ecstasy are on par with the Government 
warnings ... a load of rubbish. ... You are meant to be an 
independent local paper for the good of the community. Tell us the 
truth and tell it straight."

Like the politicians, the newspapers were attempting to appeal to 
an imaginary consensus ... the worried parent, concerned about their 
children being ‘on drugs'. Furthermore, the newspapers were 
relying upon common sense notions of how we should deal with drug 
problems ... believing that the public will reject anything other 
than a 'just say no' approach. The response of the public to the 
controversy indicates that this consensus no longer exists ... and 
perhaps it never did. In Liverpool at least, it seems that the 
public is well aware of the failure of previous drug policies and 
prevention campaigns. The evidence of this failure is visible all 
around us ... to any parent of teenage children, anybody who drinks 
in the local pub, in fact, anybody between the ages of 13 and 45. 
Illicit drug use is now an integrated part of the social fabric in 
this area.

These letters also indicate a high level of understanding and 
acceptance of the harm reduction policies that were introduced in 
Mersey Region in order to tackle HIV and AIDS. Rather than 
opposing our realistic, pragmatic approach to drug problems, the 
public appear to be calling for the extension of such policies. 
Unfortunately, some politicians and sections of the tabloid press 
have not yet caught up with public opinion.

Conclusion: What we're gonna do right here is go 

This controversy arose primarily because of the serious 
contradictions that underpin earlier ideologies governing how we 
think about illegal drug use. Unless these contradictions are 
resolved, attempts to develop rational and effective responses to 
the problem of ever-increasing illegal drug use are likely to 
continue to fail.

A major problem lies in our inability to think hard about the 
issues of pleasure and consciousness change. One of the principles 
that appears to underpin the political and media ideology is the 
notion that it is inherently wrong to seek to alter ones 
consciousness through artificial means. This assumption seems to 
have its roots in Protestantism and in the modern requirement for 
the time and work disciplines that were necessary to industrial 

Though many of the early prohibition laws were a product of the 
struggle for economic and political dominance by certain sectional 
interests over others (Berridge & Edwards 1987; Duster, 1970; 
Szasz, 1975), more recent laws introduced to regulate synthetic 
psychedelic drugs appear to be a direct consequence of the 
perceived challenge that these drugs posed to the existing 
ideological order. Highly vocal advocates of these drugs like LSD 
and Mescaline argued that they had a revolutionary potential, a 
promise that seemed to come true as large numbers of American 
hippies began to visibly reject the old ideologies of the American 
Dream and the Protestant Work Ethic.

Following the reaction to early advocates of psychedelic drugs 
like Timothy Leary, and the subsequent consequences that this 
anti-psychedelic backlash had for research into the uses and 
properties of these drugs, more recent advocates of drug law 
reform have strenuously avoided any discussion of the pleasurable 
aspects of the 'new' psychedelic drugs. These new psychedelic 
advocates talk about the value of drugs like MDMA as a ‘research 
tool' or as an 'adjunct to psychotherapy'. Alexander Shulgin has 
described MDMA as 'pennicilin fore the soul'. It is important to 
ask ourselves whether a group of middle-aged Californian academics 
sitting around on MDMA listening to Mozart and calling it 
‘research' can genuinely be prioritised over the behaviour of an 
eighteen year kid from the North West of England who takes MDMA to 
get out of his face and dance to hard-core Techno music? We think 

The central issue here is one that is rarely addressed in public 
debates. The question is whether a state of intoxication should be 
considered an inherently immoral state. If society decides that it 
is, then we must surely apply the same sanctions to the use of 
alcohol and caffeine as we do to heroin. However, an ever-growing 
body of expert opinion is starting to acknowledge the probability 
that decisions about intoxication and recreational drug use are 
matters for individual choice, and that drug problems are best 
dealt with as health issues, rather than a matter for moral 
judgment or sanctions under criminal law. Most young people who 
use drugs today are aware of these contradictions and will no 
longer listen to grown-ups telling them that it is 'wrong' to take 
Ecstasy. They point to the legally sanctioned drugs -- tobacco and 
alcohol -- and ask what is the difference. If the reply is couched 
in terms of health risks, then young people today are only too 
capable of pointing out that deaths related to tobacco and alcohol 
use far outweigh deaths from MDMA use. They will also ask why 
nobody has taken the trouble to make those risks known in an 
accessible manner, along with information on how to minimize those 

If the argument against using illegal drugs is couched in terms of 
support for a corrupt and illegal enterprise, young people just 
see this as another point in favour of the legalisation of drugs. 
Without wishing to get into the pro's and con's of the 
legalisation debate here, the widespread use of drugs like 
cannabis, LSD and MDMA in the UK must lend more weight to the 
arguments for interventions aimed at separating the different 
illegal drug markets. Our research with this group has indicated 
that because of this overwhelmingly positive initial drug 
experience, MDMA may act as a low threshold initiation into 
illegal drug use, and the lack of honest and accurate information 
about this drug can lead young people to reject messages about all 
illegal drugs, leading many to go on to experiment with drugs like 
heroin and cocaine. Some liberalisation of cannabis and MDMA 
markets would offer more control and easier intervention in those 
markets, while reducing the potential crossover. 

It is our belief, based upon our experience in Liverpool, that the 
general public is able to understand such sophisticated concepts 
and is likely to embrace them, given the failure of traditional 
methods of drug control. Unfortunately, interventions of this type 
remain unlikely to be implemented while politicians and the mass 
media continue to approach questions of drug control from an 
ideology rooted in moral absolutism, rather than adopting a 
pragmatic approach based upon interventions that have been tested 
and work rather than outdated ideologies that are inevitably 
doomed to failure..


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1John Paul Grund argues that outreach should be aimed at those who are most
at risk. Ravers do not fall into this category. Presentation at Metropole
Hotel, London. European Drug Prevention Week . 

2In the experience of the first author, many journalists who cover drug
stories actually use illegal drugs themselves, but when writing an article,
they rarely draw upon their own experience, preferring to call a drugs
agency to ask 'do you have any drug users we can interview'. This separation
between personal experience and the subject of the story may be seen as a
form of alienation that contributes a great deal to the skewed
representations of illicit drug use in society. My article on drug use among
drug workers (McDermott, 1990) looks at a similar phenomenon among people
working in the drugs field. 

3 Neither paper sells very well on Merseyside, in part because of their
continued support for the locally despised Conservative government, but
primarily because of their coverage of the Hillsborough football disaster.
In 1986, at a Liverpool football match held at Hillsborough stadium in
Sheffield, 96 fans died and many more were injured as a consequence of poor
crowd control. The game was being broadcast live on TV at the time, and many
Liverpool people watched as their friends and relatives had the life crushed
out of them.  

Widespread popular anger at the tabloids built over the next few days.
First, some papers published ghoulish pictures of dead and dying football 
supporters, in full colour, without any thought for the impact on the
friends and families of the victims. Then, The Sun and The Star published
unattributed police claims that the tragedy had been caused by unruly
Liverpool supporters, who had been aggressive, had robbed bodies lying
injured or dead, and had urinated on police officers who were attempting to
help the victims. 

In fact, a public enquiry found that the tragedy was a consequence of police
mismanagement of the crowd and poor facilities at the ground, and the
allegations were made by a senior police officer, who resigned over the
incident, who was attempting to divert blame from his force. The people of
Merseyside began a mass boycott of The Sun and The Star. Newsagents refused
to stock the papers and the few who did found themselves abused by their
customers. The circulation of these papers has never recovered in the region
so both papers are continuously seeking stories that will help them to
rebuild their circulation in the Merseyside area. The Echo's "Raving Mad”
story seemed ideal, appealing to uninformed but concerned parents and so
both papers carried it as their front page story the following day.