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MDMA use in the North West of England

Published in: The International Journal on Drug 
Policy, Vol. 4, No. 4.
(This was an early draft)

Peter McDermott


Despite indicators of increasing prevalence, it seems 
surprising that there have been very few studies of MDMA use 
published in the UK.  American studies appear to have drawn 
their subjects from the middle classes whose use patterns 
bear little resemblance to the patterns of drug use 
discovered in this study. (Peroutka, Rosenbaum)

This research is aimed at those who are concerned with the 
study of drug use and drug problems.  As a consequence, the 
events that I have chosen to highlight in this paper are 
those which appear to me to represent potentially 
problematic aspects of drug use.  The reader should not 
infer any of the following from this:

1. That Ecstasy is a particularly problematic drug.
2. That recreational drug use is necessarily problematic.

The incidents described are specific to the individuals and 
the circumstances, and while these will undoubtedly be 
replicated elsewhere, we cannot generalize from these 
incidents in order to make the claim that Ecstasy is a 
dangerous drug, or that these consequences will follow 
Ecstasy use.  It may well be the case that the individuals 
who experienced difficulties, would have experienced similar 
difficulties through alcohol use or sexual promiscuity, or 
any other inherently pleasurable, but risk laden activity. 


The author found himself in the position of being able to 
observe the birth of the ‘raving’ phenomenon in Liverpool. 
For a period of almost two years, some part of each weekend 
was spent in the company of a group of Ecstasy users.

The primary data collection instruments were observation and 
unstructured interviews.  Any exploratory study of illegal 
activity conducted in this manner will have a range of 
associated ethical and practical problems.  Due to these 
problems, I did not seek to conduct a formal ethnography, 
but offer instead a combination of what  has been described 
as ‘sociological comment upon the subculture’ and a 
‘community based field study’. (Agar, p.1 - 10)  As a 
consequence, the reliability of these findings may be 
questionable, but given the paucity of qualitative 
information on this drug and its users, a  study of this 
nature seemed worthwhile.

The role that the researcher occupied for most of this 
study, was that of the covert participant observer, 
following the example of Adler.  This role was necessary for 
a variety of reasons.  Had I not participated, I would not 
have gained access to much of the data.  Had I not been 
covert about my aims, then at the least, access may have 
been denied, at worst, I may have been in physical jeopardy.

Although the group was aware that the author was been 
engaged in drugs work, and had a particular interest in 
Ecstasy, no specific attempt to tell them during the early 
part of the research about this study.  After the fieldwork 
had been completed, the researcher informed members of this 
group that their work would Pprovide the basis of an 
article, and asked a number of group members whether they 
would be prepared to be interviewed.  Due to the involvement 
of many group members in highly illegal activities, it is 
unsurprising that they declined.  In fact, having gotten to 
know certain group members quite well, it was decided that 
even asking for an interview may be prejudicial to the 
researchers health.  A surprising number of group members 
did agree to be interviewed, however, and the period of 
prior observation proved very useful in checking responses 
for consistency and coherence.   Other members have broken 
contact with the group, therefore interviews were not 

What is MDMA?

3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a drug of abuse 
that is relatively new to the British scene.  The drug is a 
member of a family of drugs, the phenethylamines, that also 
include mescaline, MDA and DOM (a drug more commonly known 
by it’s street name, STP.)

Despite MDMA’s close structural relationship with the 
amphetamines and the aforementioned  hallucinogens, the 
pharmacological action of the drug is such that it would be 
inaccurate to typify its action as either a CNS stimulant, 
or a hallucinogenic.  Because sensory disruption or loss of 
contact with reality rarely occur with MDMA, it would be 
wrong to classify the drug as a hallucinogenic.  Though it 
shares with CNS stimulants a tendency to increase 
talkativeness and elevate mood, these symptoms are not 
accompanied by increases in initiative, motor activity or 
ability to concentrate.Due to the lack of a therapeutic use 
for this substance, it has been argued that MDMA should be 
classified according to its primary effects.  According to 
the literature, these are a sense of enhanced closeness and 
communication. Therefore, it has been proposed that the drug 
should be regarded as a member of a new class of 
pharmacological agents. MDMA’s ability to create a sense of 
empathy led some commentators to seek to categorize the drug 
as an ‘empathogen’ although others prefer the term 
entactogen.  (Nichols, Nichols and Überlender)

Because of these particular pharmacological properties, 
there are those who claim that the drug has a valuable 
therapeutic role to play in various forms of psychotherapy, 
particularly in the fields of family therapy and substance 
abuse.  During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the drug 
gained a cult following in the USA among therapists who 
valued the drug’s ability to allow individuals to examine 
difficult experiences without experiencing the associated 
emotional pain.  

These attempts to categorize the drugs activity as different 
from established drugs of abuse may well stem from the 
attempt by the drug’s adherents to challenge the DEA’s 
attempt to reschedule the drug.  However, MDMA’s quasi-legal 
status ended in 1985, when the DEA successfully applied for 
the drug to be recategorized as a Schedule 1 substance, 
thereby ending the possibility of further research . 

The emergence of  Ecstasy-related problems

When the drug first appeared in the U.K., little was known 
about the potential risks, though a small number of 
inexplicable deaths in the USA should have counselled 
caution. (Dowling, G. P. et. al., 1986; Brown, C. & 
Osterloh, J., 1987)

As the drug spread rapidly across the U.K., there were a 
growing number of deaths and hospitalizations were 
attributed to the drug.  Speculative theories for the cause 
of these deaths include allergy, ideosyncratic reactions and 
heatstroke, though the syndrome is, in fact, identical to 
other reported incidents of phenylethylamine toxicity such 
as amphetamine overdose. (Henry et. al., 1992; Ginsberg, 
M.D., et. al., 1970; Simpson, D.L. & Rumack, B.H., 1981.)

Other warnings have focussed upon MDMA’s capacity to trigger 
psychotic episodes and the drug’s potential to cause 
neurological damage. (McGuire, P. & Fahey, T., 1991; 
Ricaurte, G.A., et. al. 1980.)  The evidence for the latter 
claims was primarily based upon research conducted with MDA, 
and a single animal study, from which the authors inferred 
that the drug could selectively damage the serotonin 
receptor sites in primates. A recent review of methodology 
of these studies has found the evidence to be seriously 
flawed, so at present, no real evidence supports such 
claims. (Saunders, 1993b.)

The Group.

The group was, highly dynamic, with a shifting composition 
of subgroups.  Throughout the two years, many people would 
join, hang out for a while, and move on. The group consisted 
of around eighty members in all.  However, some of these 
were transient members and there was a core group of 47 
people on whom I managed to collect basic data.

These subgroups fell into four categories.  These were:

The Estate group 

Although this group was a subset of a wider group, drawn 
from a council housing estate outside Liverpool, this subset 
introduced the drug to the professionals, and continued to 
go out with the main group over the two years.

Most of the members were part of a couple, and they would go 
out as couples.  The sex distribution of the group was more 
or less equal.  Most also had children.  The age range of 
this group varied between 17 and 33.  Typically, the men 
were employed in the building trade and the women were 

The professionals

It was through this group that I gained access to the 
scene.  Members of this subgroup played an important role in 
maintaining the social cohesion of the group as they would 
provide a ‘centre’, somewhere that the group would leave 
from when going out, somewhere to return to after the clubs, 

Members of this subgroup were older than the other groups.  
The age range, if one excludes the 23 year old wife of one 
member, was between 28 and 50, though most were in their 
30’s.  The modal age was 35.  The occupations of this group 
were varied, but there were several businessmen, a graphic 
designer, a journalist, a lecturer, a researcher, a cinema 
manager, a computer animator.  Several members occupied 
managerial roles, in both the private and public sectors.

This group had the sort of masculine bias that was typical 
of the drug-using subculture, which is perhaps unsurprising, 
because this group was made up of people who had been 
introduced to the hippie and punk subcultures of the 1970’s, 
and was exploring this new drug and its associated 
subculture.  Women comprised about a third of this group, 
and were always part of a partnership.

The club kids

This was the largest of the subgroups, and also the most 
changeable, there were approximately 30-35 members of this 
subgroup, though I got to know 17 of them well enough to 
begin to collect data on them.

It is this group that is most typical of those who are on 
the club scene.  Almost half of this group are women, and 
they were much less likely to be part of a couple than 
members of the other sub-groups.

The age range of members of this group varied between 18 and 
27, with the majority clustered around age 20.  Occupations 
were usually non-manual, including a solicitors clerk, a 
dental hygienist, a nursery nurse, several clerks. There was 
one soldier.  It was in this group where unemployment was 
most evident, with approximately one third being unemployed.

These unemployed had a variety of methods of finding the 
money to go out.  Two of the women were shoplifters, and a 
number of the men would sell drugs.  Others, however, would 
go out less frequently, or would use cheaper drugs such as 
LSD or amphetamine, rather than Ecstasy.

The nurses

The smallest of the subgroups, the one that bridged the 
professionals and the club kids was a group of nurses.  
Mainly men, there were also a number of women.  These were 
less committed than the men though.  This group consisted of 
six people, four of whom were men.  Their ages ranged 
between 22 and 28.

Locations - the rave

The fieldwork was conducted in a range of locations - 
nightclubs, private parties, warehouse parties, etc. Zinberg 
has drawn our attention to the importance of setting in 
defining the drug experience, and in this case it is of 
paramount importance.  The rave occupies a central function 
in the value system of ravers.  It acts as an organizing 
principle around which the consumption of drugs can take 
place.  Like many forms of recreational drug use, this 
pattern of MDMA use is highly ritualistic.  Ravers may spend 
Saturday afternoons preparing for that night’s rave.  The 
preparation may involve ‘getting psyched up’ - for example, 
going into the town centre, hanging around cafés or record 
shops where they might meet other ravers, exchange notes on 
what a particular venue was like, or the relative strengths 
of the most recent types of tablet.  Many ravers will 
attempt to organize their drug supply at this point as well, 
in order to avoid the hazards associated with buying drugs 
from strangers in a nightclub. Consequently, certain cafés, 
bars and record shops became the site of police activity 
during 1990.

‘Raves’  can take place in a nightclub, a warehouse, a 
private house, a beach, almost anywhere.  Formal events 
attempt to structure an environment that is conducive to the 
use of certain drugs.  Even the most basic club will have a 
smoke machine, sophisticated lighting including lasers and 
strobes, and a high quality sound system.  Bigger venues may 
provide more sophisticated options, such as gyroscopes and 
fairground rides, ‘brain machines’ (machines aimed at 
emulating the effects of psychedelic drugs through use of 
computer controlled light and sound).  They may also provide 
a variety of environments, such as a ‘chill out’ space.  
However, the primary purpose of such clubs is to create a 
‘fit’ between the drug and the environment.

Nowhere is this fit more evident than in the selection of 
music.  The primary ingredient is a backbeat of 120 beats 
per minute, programmed on a Roland 808 drum machine.  Once 
that criteria is fulfilled, anything goes.  There is liberal 
use of ‘digitally sampled’ sounds, including other records.  
These phrases may be repeated over and over again throughout 
the record, or the DJ may use a particular sample as a motif 
for the night. The lyrics often refer to the drug 
experience.  For example

	“Such a good feeling, that’s where I want to be
	  Locked in a prison, of total Ecstasy”
	Such a good feeling, Brothers in Rhythm.

The primary effect of such records is, once again, to create 
a fit between the internal and external environments. The 
beat mimics the accelerated heartbeat, the shimmering sounds 
of the synthesizers emulate the slight aural distortion that 
the drug causes, and the soaring, emotional vocals cause the 
hairs to stand up on the back of your neck.

The location of this scene in Liverpool in 1989 was a club 
called ‘The World’.  The interior of the club would resemble 
the last days of Rome.  A queue would form outside the club 
before it opened, at 9.00 and people would stream in until 
it was full and the doors were locked.  As soon as people 
arrived, they would begin dancing.  By 10.00, the club would 
be filled with an amorphous mass of sweaty bodies.  People 
would be dancing on tables, on chairs, and on the bar.   

Inside the main entrance, the club’s ‘house dealers’ would 
accost the incoming customers.  The term ‘house dealers’ is 
appropriate because most drug dealing in nightclubs is 
either sanctioned or run by the security staff.  Independent 
operators, if caught, are beaten up, robbed of their drugs 
and money and ejected, so only house dealers can operate 
openly in this manner.  These dealers were usually ‘Berghaus 
skinheads’, identifiable by their Gore-tex mountaineer coats 
and closely cropped hair. By Christmas 1989, ‘The World’ had 
been closed down on the grounds of excessive drug use and 
drug dealing in the club.  Though there was no prior 
announcement, on finding themselves locked out one night, 
the 1000 or so patrons of ‘The World’ just went en masse to 
another club, and the whole scene just shifted. 

The bigger illegal warehouse parties of 1989 - 1990 were 
quite spectacular events.  Information about the meeting 
place would be transmitted by word-of-mouth around the 
various licensed clubs in the region.  The meeting places 
were usually sizable car parks, and motorway service 
stations were highly favoured for their amenities and access 
to other areas.  At such locations, anywhere between 300 and 
2000 cars could be waiting. Then, on the hour, the shout 
would go up, “Convoy’s leaving!” and the cars would all get 
in line behind the lead car to be taken to the rave. The 
convoy was to take on enormous symbolic significance for 
ravers, who began to travel to legal venues ‘in convoy’ in 
order to make a statement about their identity as ravers.  A 
variety of code phrases also emerged in order to reinforce 
this identity. For example, ‘Blackburn rules’ is not a 
statement about the relative machismo of Blackburn youth, 
but refers to a state of mind or a state of existence where, 
due to their sheer volume, ravers hold absolute power.  This 
power was rarely used for anything other than to continue to 
dance peacefully, but it did serve to reinforce some of the 
positive feelings held about membership of this group.

The illegal raves took place through most of the summer of 
1990.  However, they eventually ended following 
demonstrations of massive police force and tactics 
reminiscent of those employed during the miners strike. So 
for a period that summer, all roads that led into Warrington 
would be blocked off.  Ravers approaching such road-blocks 
report their cars and their persons being attacked. Police 
drivers developed strategies that enabled them to ‘corral’ a 
convoy and divert it from its destination, forcing drivers 
across county boundaries. Although such measures tended to 
be regarded with irritation by ravers, they also conveyed 
other messages to them.  If they insist upon dancing in 
unauthorized places, the full coercive power of the state 
would be brought to bear.

All of these factors contributed to create a new youth sub-
culture that is centred primarily on the use of MDMA.  This 
subculture is no longer an underground phenomenon, but has 
now crossed over into the mainstream. About half of the 
records in the top ten at any given time will be derived 
from this scene.  

The Chill Out

Most clubs in this part of the UK closed at around 2.00 or 
3.00 pm. Although the duration of MDMA is relatively short 
and people would be able to sleep if they went home to bed 
after the rave ended, most ravers wanted to prolong the 
experience. As some ravers would also use LSD or 
amphetamine, there would always be a proportion of people 
seeking to congregate somewhere after the club closed. 
Consequently, raves would be followed by impromptu parties 
at the home of some group member. Such parties were a 
typical feature of the rave scene, and even if one of the 
group was unwilling to host such an event, something that 
rarely happened, there would always be somebody known to the 
group who was aware of such a party.

 These parties became known as ‘Chill Out’s’, places where 
the frantic pace of the club would gradually wind down until 
the participants were ready to go to bed. The space at such 
events would normally be divided into two sections. One 
section would play music, usually tapes of sets that had 
been performed in clubs by a regarded disk jockey. In this 
room, those still feeling the stimulant effects would 
continue to dance. The other room would be a place where 
people could “Chill Out’, a quieter place were people would 
talk, smoke cannabis and cigarettes, and drink tea. Alcohol 
was never observed at any of these events and to suggest use 
of the drug would be regarded as a breach of the rules.

These parties seem to have primarily been an urban 
phenomenon. Ravers who came from small towns outside the 
cities tended to travel some distance to clubs. This 
travelling was followed by several hours drive home. As a 
consequence, impromptu parties began to break out at 
motorway service stations in the middle of the night. 
Although they were invariably incident-free, these parties 
were met with a certain degree of suspicion, and possibly 
fear by the service station personnel, who at certain 
services began to refuse entry to the cafe to the ravers. 
One raver describes his rejection.

“There were four of us. I got to the door, and a woman was 
there. She said, “You can’t come in and I’m not going to 
serve you.” When I asked her why not, she said, “You are 
what the management refers to as “Acid”, and we don’t want 
your sort in here.” I tried to ask her whether there had any 
trouble with ravers in the past, but she just ignored me. As 
we stood there, sulking, she told me if we didn’t leave, she 
was going to call the police. At other services, I’ve seen 
literally thousands, spending money, talking, doing a bit of 
business, dancing in the car parks. I’ve never seen any 
trouble at all. I don’t know whether it was prejudice or 
whether they were under instructions from the police, but it 
seemed they were cutting off their noses to spite their 
face. They could take a lot of money for 4.00 on a Sunday 
morning. Perhaps they just didn’t want to do the extra 

Entry into the Ecstasy subculture

The group was centred around ‘The World’.  I first visited 
the club in the autumn of 1988 when it was the only 
nightclub in Liverpool which played ‘Balearic’ music. The 
term ‘Balearic’ stemmed from origins of this dance/club/drug 
scene on Ibiza.  When it began is  uncertain, but it seems 
to have taken off in a big way in the summer of 1977, and 
was imported into the UK by a number of British disc 

There were a number of curious features about the scene in 
the club.  First, the club was packed tight on a Monday 
night.  Second, the crowd began dancing from the moment the 
door opened. Usually, Liverpool men are very reluctant to 
dance. Third, people were not dancing with partners, instead 
they appeared to be dancing for the sheer joy of dancing.

Despite my age and dress making me appear somewhat out of 
place, I was offered Ecstasy on that occasion. I was 
approached by a man of about 20 wearing a beatific grin, 
again, not a common sight in a Liverpool nightclub prior to 
that point. He was selling ‘New Yorkers’ for £20.00 each. He 
told me that he could be found in there any night, Monday to 
Saturday. Further enquiries indicated that he wasn’t the 
only dealer in the club.  There were at least another four 
or five.

Having good contacts with a number of reputable drug dealers 
involved with all the hitherto existing drugs, I could find 
nobody who knew anything about the Ecstasy distribution 
network. It seemed as though a parallel distribution network 
had just sprung up. Still, for some time I gave the matter 
very little thought. Following a few false starts, I could 
see no way into this group.

Then, a year later in the autumn of 1989, an old colleague, 
Arthur, a social worker, currently employed in a related 
occupation, had gone to a stag night with some friends from 
his old neighbourhood. The original group that went out on 
the stag night consisted of five men, four aged between 25 
and thirty, all employed in the building trade, all bar one 
(the groom to be), married with children. This group forms 
the nucleus of the ‘estate’ group.  The evening differed 
from other stag nights that he had attended. Instead of 
going out and getting drunk, he accompanied the stag party 
to ‘The World’, where they all consumed some Ecstasy, and he 
had what he described as ‘the best night of my life’.  He 
began to attend the club once or twice weekly.

Arthur was very experienced with most forms of drug use, 
though his drugs of choice were alcohol and cannabis in 
regular, moderate quantities. Although he had taken MDMA 
once before, at home, and found it mildly enjoyable, the 
drug did not have the profound effect that it had on him 
that night.  Though not usually given to proselytizing for 
drug use, the positive terms in which he described his 
experience led other colleagues, most of whom were regular 
cannabis smokers, to go with him. 

A month later, the group had expanded to approximately 20 
regulars.  About half were builders or their wives, the 
other half were health service professionals and their 
partners. The expansion of the group took off wildly when 
Arthur’s friend Adrian joined the group. Adrian was a 
charismatic individual who had achieved a very high position 
in his chosen career, in part due to the force of his 
personality.  After discovering Ecstasy, he used his immense 
capacity to motivate others, the factor that made him a 
successful manager, to persuade others into Ecstasy use.

Beside MDMA, there was also widespread and open use of 
‘poppers’, butyl nitrite inhalers in the club.  These were 
passed around openly and most group members used them 
initially, although the novelty soon wore off as it was felt 
that the unpleasant effects outweighed the good effects.  
Some members of the group also began to supplement their 
doses of MDMA with amphetamine, which they felt enhanced the 
drug and prolonged its action, thus giving better value for 

When the club closed at 2.00 am, few of the group wished to 
go straight home to bed.  As a consequence, impromptu after-
club parties would take place.  Initially, these usually 
took place at Adrian’s house, and would often continue until 
8.00 in the morning.  Because of these parties, the group 
was enlarged even further.  Many  younger people that the 
group met in ‘The World’ also began to attend the parties.  
As most members of this sub-group lived at home with 
parents, these parties gave them a convenient location to go 
once the clubs had closed, but a great many became integral 
members of the group network. 

Problems with the drug

Members of the group appeared to suffer from a range of 
problems.  However, it is important to bear in mind that 
some of the cases I describe would be unlikely to accept my 
typification of these situations as problematic, nor would 
they automatically agree that their problems were causally 
related to their drug use.  That said, it is my belief that 
these problems were related to drug use. The problems fall 
into several different categories. These include drug 
problems, psychiatric problems, employment problems and 
family and relationship problems

Drug problems

Most of the group’s problems fell into this category.  
Although none of the group was sufficiently concerned about 
their Ecstasy use to seek the help of a specialist drugs 
service voluntarily, two were compelled to do so by their 
parents, who were concerned about the changes in the 
behaviour patterns of their adult children.  There were also 
four members who needed to attend specialist drug services 
following the escalation of their drug use.  

Adrian had had a heroin problem in the past. After a period 
in a therapeutic community he was subsequently abstinent for 
many years. He had recently begun to smoke cannabis once 
again, but when he first took Ecstasy, he was committed to a 
concept of himself as an abstainer.  Like Arthur, Adrian 
spoke in glowing terms of his first experience with the 
drug. The drug had given him permission to relinquish his 
rigid self-control and do things like dance for the first 
time in his life.  Like the rest of the group, Adrian, along 
with the rest of the group, began to adopt a new dress 
style, wearing the latest club fashions, and began buying 
club records.  However, the most marked change in his 
lifestyle concerned the amplification of his drug use.

Adrian continued to become increasingly involved in drug 
use. The initial one tablet a night became two, then three.  
He began to use heroin in combination with Ecstasy after the 
clubs shut. Initially, he concealed this fact from members 
of the group and sought to deny it when confronted. His 
partner, who had only previously used cannabis, also began 
to use heroin.  Initially, they smoked the drug, but as an 
ex-injector, he rapidly adopted the more efficient route of 
administration.  Adrian eventually sought assistance in the 
form of a maintenance prescription from the local CDT. It is 
believed that he shares this with his partner, Dorothy.

David had known Adrian for some 20 years. They had both been 
addicted to opiates at the same time during the early 70’s. 
Both had entered rehabs, and both had cleaned up. David also 
resumed his heroin use during this period. Although he did 
not seek help for his addiction, he has been hospitalized 
for an ulcer on his foot, caused by thrombosis.  He 
continues to use opiates, but denies that he has a problem.

Paul and Arnold were also ex-addicts in their 30’s, although 
unlike Adrian and David, both had been abstinent for less 
than a year.  Both resumed opiates in the context of a 
weekend of Ecstasy use.  Both are presently receiving 
prescriptions for opiates from a DDU.  Both accept that 
Ecstasy was a catalyst, if not a cause of their relapse.

Three members of the ‘club kids’ group were also initiated 
into opiate use during this period, although this appears to 
have remained at the stage of experimentation at present.  
None of this opiate use occurred in the context of the main 
group.  Here, opiate use and injecting is taboo, although 
occasional cocaine use is not.  Instead, it seems to occur 
in marginal subgroups that splintered off from the main 
group in order to pursue these deviant activities.


Although most of the group were employed, a number of the 
‘club kids’ had been employed for a long time.  A number of 
these would engage in criminal activity in order to fund 
their weekend.  Two of the women, Brenda, aged 26 and Doreen 
aged 24, were shoplifters, with past convictions.  Three 
men, Norman aged 23, Don, also 23 and Podger, 19 would 
regularly engage in a variety of criminal acts, including 
cheque fraud, theft from cars, breaking and entering, etc. 

The most common criminal activity that members of the group 
engaged in however, was drug dealing.  Prior to their 
discovery of Ecstasy, some members of the professional sub-
group had organized themselves into a cannabis purchasing 
syndicate.  The idea was, that every month or so, they would 
pool a certain amount of money and buy cannabis in order to 
take advantage of wholesale prices and to minimize their 
contact with the black market. Adrian began to organize a 
similar syndicate for the purchase of Ecstasy. However, the 
management of this  syndicate soon became more than 
something that was organized as a cooperative purchasing 
venture. Adrian rapidly began to take high doses of the 
drug, typically, three or four tablets over the course of a 
night. He began to regard the syndicate as a method of 
financing his ecstasy use, and that of his wife, 
consequently, the syndicate became organized along more 
typical drug dealing lines, with Adrian playing a major role 
as supplier.

This role was to bring about a split in the ranks of the 
professionals that was never healed. Between January 1990 
and May 1990, reliable Ecstasy became difficult to find. 
Although tablets were purchased most weekends, they would 
invariably turn out to be amphetamine, a mixture of 
amphetamine and LSD, Ketamine, or no discernible drug at 
all. At the end of this period, the syndicate made contact 
with a person from the USA with access to wholesale 
supplies. The bulk of the risk of distribution was being 
handled by David, but Adrian succeeded in inserting himself 
between David and the supplier, and was taking an equal 
share of the profit. At some point, Adrian became aware that 
their small operation was under police surveillance. As he 
rarely handled the tablets, he felt that he was at little or 
no risk. However, he failed to share the information that he 
had with his partner. When David was informed about what 
Adrian has heard, he was reminded of two previous occasions 
when he alone had been convicted of offences that Adrian had 
initiated, while Adrian had avoided prosecution. His anger 
was so great, that David broke off relations with Adrian, 
despite a relationship of almost 20 years, and he has not 
spoken to him since.

This incident was one of several schisms caused by Adrian’s 
behaviour. Adrian asked another member of the group if he 
would be prepared to smuggle 20,000 ecstasy tablets into 
this country from the United States. Initially, Peter 
thought it was a joke. When he realized that Adrian was 
serious, he first tried to talk to Adrian about his 
increasingly rash behaviour. However, Adrian appeared to be 
suffering from delusions of invulnerability. On reflection, 
Peter came to two conclusions about the incident. First, 
that Adrian’s behaviour was so potentially destructive that 
a continued association would be liable to end in disaster. 
Second, that Adrian was prepared to use anybody to pursue 
his goal of controlling large amounts of drugs and making 
large amounts of money. Peter also made a decision to break 
off relations with Adrian.

Although some members of the group would move between the 
two camps for a short period, eventually they separated 
completely, as the not-Adrian faction made it clear that 
they did not wish to associate with people who associated 
with Adrian.

Employment problems

Although use of Ecstasy was invariably limited to the 
weekend, use of the drug caused a variety of psychiatric 
problems for some members of the group.

When The Professionals discovered the drug, it produced a 
marked change in their personal style that was apparent to 
the most casual observer. Their clothing, the music that 
they listened to, their attitude and their behaviour changed 
radically. While this might have been less worthy of comment 
in younger adults, it was to become the cause of a great 
deal of comment and speculation. Some members of this group 
had also been highly indiscreet about their drug use with 
large numbers of colleagues, both from their own 
organization, and with colleagues from other organizations. 
These indiscretions were to begin a series of events that 
led to the resignation or dismissal of a number of members.

During his rapid rise to a position of some power, Adrian 
had made a large number of enemies. In January 1990, an 
incident occurred that led to an allegation that Adrian and 
several of his staff were using drugs. His employers 
instituted an enquiry which was inconclusive - however, the 
enquiry was followed by a degree of reorganization that 
stripped Adrian and other members of his team of most of 
their operational autonomy and status. For the first time, 
they came under the intense scrutiny of higher management. 
This was eventually to lead to the resignation of Adrian and 
Robert, another colleague occupying a managerial position 
who owed his appointment to Adrian. Other members of the 
group failed to have their contracts renewed.

Other members of the group had problems with work that 
appear to be directly attributable to the drug. One of the 
club kids, Neil, resigned his job as a storekeeper, in order 
to devote a greater part of his time to the subculture. 
Another, Damon, lost his job as a junior solicitors clerk. 
This occurred because he was suspected of selling drugs in a 
local nightclub, Quadrant Park. One night, the club’s door 
staff called Damon into the office. There he was searched, 
and they found around twenty tablets. The club’s owner was a 
client of Damon’s firm of solicitors. Although no police 
were involved, the owner of the club informed the firm’s 
senior partner, who dismissed Damon immediately.

Psychiatric problems

Peter and Ellen, two of the professionals were also to 
suffer problems associated with their work that arose as a 
consequence of minor psychiatric problems. Ellen was 
suspended from work and referred to a psychiatrist for 
assessment. Her symptoms consisted primarily of intense 

Anthony was a senior sub-editor in his mid thirties, 
employed on a regional daily newspaper. He was introduced to 
Ecstasy by one of the group in an attempt to avoid relapsing 
into heroin use. His ecstasy use became increasingly 
chaotic, and was usually supplemented by LSD. He, in turn, 
introduced a number of colleagues to the drug. He managed to 
avoid relapse for a little longer, but eventually fell back 
into heroin use that may have been exacerbated by his 
consumption of Ecstasy. During this period, he was 
frequently absent from work, and when he was present, his 
conversation was often strange or inappropriate, and his 
behaviour chaotic, often bordering on psychotic.

Peter believes that he suffered from a condition that he has 
identified in the literature, a condition termed “Delayed 
anxiety syndrome”. This episode occurred after he had 
abstained from taking the drug for a period of several 
weeks. He experienced severe panic attacks with no apparent 
source, and agoraphobia. Although the most severe symptoms 
of his condition only lasted a few days, he feels that he 
suffered from more diffuse symptoms of anxiety for about 
nine months after. These symptoms only began to subside 
after he resumed the use of opiates, after being abstinent 
for about a year. Peter, Anthony and Ellen can all point to 
other factors that may have contributed to their psychiatric 
instability, including a miscarriage in Ellen’s case, and 
the break up of a relationship in the cases of Anthony and 
Peter, but it seems likely that the drug exacerbated their 

The most severe psychiatric problem that was suffered by any 
of the group members was that of Geoff, a twenty-eight year 
old member of the estate group. Geoff was employed as a 
gardener, recently married with a young child. His wife did 
not use any drugs. Until his exposure to Ecstasy, the only 
illicit drug that Geoff ever used was cannabis.

Although he had taken Ecstasy on a number of occasions, he 
had taken a combination of LSD and amphetamine on the 
evening that his psychotic episode was triggered. The 
incident occurred in a club in Manchester. Later that 
evening, Geoff anounced he had had a revelation — God had 
appeared to him on the dancefloor and given him a message. 
It was his destiny to dance around the world, raising money, 
but more importantly, spreading the word that we must do 
something about famine in Africa.

I spoke to Geoff prior to his hospitalization. He seemed 
unable to stop dancing, was unable to sleep, and his 
thoughts were extremely disordered. He appeared to be in the 
grip of a severe psychotic episode. His family were 
persuaded to seek psychiatric help and shortly after he was 
admitted to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital where 
he was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression and was 
stabilized with lithium. He has suffered one or two minor 
recurrences, one requiring further hospitalization, but the 
lithium appears to have been fairly effective.

Relationship problems

These problems may well be the most difficult to attribute 
decisively to Ecstasy use, but there have been a range of 
problems in the group that it is possible to attribute to 
use  of the drug. 

Several members of the various groups suffered problems in 
their relationships over their use of the drug. In some 
cases, these problems stemmed from concern by parents that 
drugs were being used. For two men, this friction led to 
involuntary attendance at drugs services in order to appease 
their parents.

In other cases, parents or partners were distressed by the 
behaviour of the ecstasy user. As mentioned above, 
initiation into ecstasy use was invariably accompanied by 
extreme changes in behaviour patterns, that included 
dropping old, non-ecstasy using friends, cessation of 
alcohol use, being out for long periods of time, financial 
difficulties. For many of the younger group members, such 
behaviour may be viewed as a typical adolescent rite of 
passage, but whatever the cause, it often resulted in a 
great deal of friction.

For several group members, discovery of Ecstasy led to the 
break-up of long-standing relationships. This was usually 
attributed to either or both of two factors. First, the 
lifestyle of the ecstasy user changed to an extent that was 
incompatible with their past lifestyle and the lifestyle of 
their partner. Second, the drug allowed the user to step 
back and reevaluate their life and their priorities. It was 
often this latter process that made change inevitable.

One member of the estate group, aged 28 had been married for 
ten years and had three children, all under six. His ecstasy 
use introduced a level of strain into his relationship that 
proved to be irresolvable. Other couples who took the drug 
together found that it actually enhanced their 
relationships. Arnold and Ellen talk about that stag 
night.when he first took the drug.

“When I came in, it was about 3.00. I got into bed and 
Ellen was lying their awake.”
“I was furious. Where the fuck have you been till this 
hour? He had a big sheepish grin on his face. So he 
says, ‘I’ve been out for Geoff’s stag night, we went 
to The World. I’ve had a wonderful time.’ So I say, 
‘What the hell were you doing till this time?”
“And I said, ‘oh, just dancing.’ Then she kicked off. 
Ellen is really jealous. ‘Dancing! Dancing! Who were 
you dancing with?” “Oh, just the lads!””
“By this time, I’m furious. He’s gone out on a stag 
night with a gang of Scouse builders and he tells me 
he spent the night dancing with them. Give me some 
credit. So I say, “How much have you had to drink?” 
and he says, “Nothing.” All the time I’m getting 
angrier and angrier. He must think I’m a fool. Then he 
says, “I had this tablet, I had the best night I’ve 
ever had in my life, and I’m going back for some more 

Arnold and Ellen believe that the drug has brought them 
closer together. But for others, the drug can prevent them 
examining their relationship more carefully. Damon was 18 
when he began taking the drug. He had long suspected that he 
was homosexual, but he wanted to avoid admitting it. He used 
Ecstasy relentlessly to avoid confronting his sexuality, 
running up debts of several thousand pounds with the bank, 
and several hundred pounds with a local drug dealer. When he 
was unable to pay the dealer, his parents bailed him out to 
avoid physical retribution, then they sent him to London to 
stay with his brother.

While he was there, Karen came down and moved in with him. 

“I knew I was gay. Karen just needed somebody and I 
was non-threatening. Because of the Ecstasy, we were 
able to avoid confronting the issue for over a 
year.When things came to a head, it was much worse, 
because she had invested so much in me.”

Cessation of use

Three years after the first members of the group were 
initiated into ecstasy use, a pattern of use appears to have 
emerged. As with many other drugs, Ecstasy use appears to 
follow a career or a natural history.

The first use of the drug appears to produce an extreme 
sense of euphoria that lasts far longer than the actual 
effects of the drug.. It is not uncommon for users to 
report, “That was the best time I’ve ever had in my life.” 
Many new initiates thank the person who introduced them to 
the drug for the experience. This so-called ‘honeymoon 
period’ is usually followed by a period of heavy, regular 
use. For the first twelve months or so after discovering the 
drug, the vast majority of users in the group went out at 
least once a week, many went out three or four nights a 
week. They would take at least one tablet, but over the 
course of a long night, they might take as many as five or 
six, with quantities as high as twelve tablets reported in 
one session.The centrality that set and setting play in 
determining the effect of a particular drug is confirmed by 
the role that changes in the club scene occupy in the 
reasons for changes in the pattern of use. Few members of 
the group would claim to have ‘given up’ taking ecstasy. 
Those who have, have transferred their allegiance to other 
drugs of choice. For the majority though, they claim that 
they no longer take the drug as often because ‘the scene 
isn’t like it used to be’.  As the drug and it’s associated 
subculture grew at the end of the eighties, it lost its 
exclusivity. Increasingly younger people could be found in 
the clubs, along with large numbers of criminal predators 
who viewed the large crowds of young people high on ecstasy 
as ‘easy pickings’. As the atmosphere in the Liverpool clubs 
soured, the group first looked further afield to clubs in 
small towns in Lancashire, then Wales, as they sought places 
where the ‘honeymoon atmosphere’ still governed in the 
clubs. As time passed though, members of the group began to 
recognize that they were chasing a dream that they could not 
recapture. Most will still take ecstasy on a special 
occasion, or on the occasional night out, but it is usually 
a rare event.


The events that I have chosen to highlight in this paper are 
those which appear to me to represent the problematic or 
potentially problematic aspects of Ecstasy use.  However, I 
do not believe that the reader should infer either that 
Ecstasy is a particularly problematic drug or that 
recreational drug use is necessarily a problematic activity.

The incidents described are specific to the individuals and 
the circumstances, and while these will undoubtedly be 
replicated elsewhere, we cannot generalize from these 
incidents in order to make the claim that Ecstasy is a 
dangerous drug, or that these consequences will follow from 
Ecstasy use. Indeed, it may well be the case that the 
individuals who experienced difficulties, would have 
experienced similar difficulties through alcohol use, sexual 
promiscuity, or any other inherently pleasurable, but risk-
laden activity. 

However, the research highlights a number of important 
issues that may not have received adequate attention in the 
past. The role that illicit drug use has played in all youth 
sub-cultures has probably been underestimated. The homology 
or ‘fit’ between ecstasy and the rave scene is one that is 
mirrored by amphetamine and punk, LSD and cannabis and the 
hippies, ‘pep pills’ and mods, etc.  The role that drug use 
and subcultural values have played in defining the 
identities of several generations of British youth have been 
inadequately explored, but these problems may well become 
exacerbated when ethnicity and gender are other factors in 
the equation. 

These successive waves of youth subculture have resulted in 
a situation whereby in large parts of Britain today, illicit 
drug use is no longer a deviant activity but the norm, a 
reflection of changes in social mores. If our attempts to 
control illicit drug use by legislation have any value it is 
that the introduction of any new drug always has some 
catastrophic effects while a culture develops its own 
informal rules and sanctions to control the use of that 

The emergence of this particular cultural conjunction at 
this particular point in time raises an enormous number of 
issues that warrant further exploration. At the expense of 
sounding like a hackneyed Marxist, the eighties was a period 
of closure, a post-religious, post-industrial, post-
political, post-ideological, post-modern era. The old ties 
to class, job, family and community have been rent asunder 
and new forms of social cohesion have yet to take their 
place. It could well be that the ecstasy experience gave 
some insight into the possibility of a form of community 
that no longer exists. Similarities between the rave 
experience and other religious or tribal rites are very 
strong. The DJ occupies the role of the shamen, MDMA is used 
as a sacrement, the music, dancing and lights produce a 
profound effect upon the consciousness of the collective 
that is perceived as a highly significant impact upon their 

Looked at in this way, it is not the drug that is the cause 
of the problems that arose in this context, but the intense 
experience derived from the sense of becoming part of a 
larger community, in a world in which people lack certain 
fixed and absolute values, or any sense of belonging or 
investment in the wider social order.

Over the past thirty years or so, successive waves of youth 
subcultures have embraced the use of various illicit mind-
altering drugs. This has resulted in a situation whereby for 
many people under the age of forty in Britain today, illicit 
drug use is no longer a deviant activity but the norm. 

For many of the people observed in this case study, Ecstasy 
acted as a ‘gateway drug’, a low threshold initiation into 
drug use that led rapidly to experimentation or regular use 
of other drugs.  However, the old conceptual tools that 
address this issue in terms of individual pathology are of 
little use in explaining this phenomenon. The widespread use 
of Ecstasy, which has subsequently been followed by the use 
a wider range of illicit drugs is a manifestation of social 
and cultural change.  The task before us must be to 
ameliorate the consequences of that change, through 
education and drug information campaigns, until a new set of 
informal rules and sanctions eventually emerge that are 
better suited to regulating the new technologies of 


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