One pill now costs about the same as a pint of beer - and is almost as easy to get hold of. But the youth of Britain is starting to turn its back on ecstasy. Leo Benedictus on how the drug of the 90s fell from favour
"I am astounded. Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here, and I feel I have come home. I am complete."
When Alexander Shulgin, an eminent Californian professor of biochemistry, put 120mg of an obscure and unregarded phenethylamine to the test in his back garden in the summer of 1976, the result was a social revolution and a $65bn industry. Prof Shulgin has been synthesising and tasting new mind-altering drugs for more than 40 years, so, as you might expect, he has seen a few things in his time, but he still considers 3,4 methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) to be unique.
At 2.32am on New Year's Day, 2004, I get a phone call from Murray in Doncaster. I ask him how he feels. "Very, very content," he says. "A bit wobbly and a bit dry-mouthed." Murray is 25 and has been doing pills since he was 17. He's had four so far tonight. I read him the note from Shulgin's journal. Does he feel anything like that? "Doesn't compare," he murmurs. "It's a nice feeling, but that's about it. I could probably get this feeling by reading the News of the World in front of the fire."
For the first time since Shulgin's discovery, it seems that the young people of Britain, once its greatest enthusiasts, are losing interest in ecstasy. In fact, figures published last month in the British Crime Survey showed that the number of 16 to 24 year olds who had tried the drug in the past 12 months was down by a fifth on the year before to an estimated 312,000, or 5.4% of everyone in that age group. And this is at a time when the price of pills has been plummeting - Murray paid just £x.xx for each of his.
After 15 dizzy years in the mainstream, ecstasy is unquestionably non-addictive, and appears to be "relatively safe in the short term", according to Professor David Nutt in his advice to the home affairs select committee. In fact, though the authorities prefer not to make the comparison, roughly 20 deaths a year ranks ecstasy alongside electric blankets in a list of Britain's biggest killers. As with most things, prolonged heavy use is generally agreed not to be a good idea, and only this week new research from a British team found that regular users are risking damage to their long-term memory. But a supposed breakthrough linking it with Parkinson's-like deterioration in the brain was comprehensively discredited when it emerged that the compound the researchers had been studying wasn't ecstasy at all. "As each year goes by, I get relatively more sanguine about the risks, rather than less," says Nutt.
Add to this the fact that pills are cheap and simple to manufacture, as well as being easy to distribute and consume discreetly, and the mystery only deepens as to why so many of its core consumers stopped taking it.
Ecstasy's brief history offers a clue. First discovered in the laboratories of the German pharmaceuticals com pany Merck in 1912, no one was very interested in MDMA at the time, because the two researchers who discovered it, G Mannish and W Jacobsohn, were looking for something else. The drug lay undisturbed until the 1950s, when the CIA picked it up for a few desultory animal tests in its search for a truth serum. How the agency's interrogators planned to determine that their dogs were telling the truth is unclear, but whatever they saw did not impress, and MDMA never officially made it to human trials. However, considering that the CIA was routinely slipping LSD into its operatives' morning coffees at the time, it is entirely possible that the first ecstasy rush was experienced somewhere in the typing pool at Edgewood army base in Maryland.
Initially known as "Adam" after the almost prelapsarian bliss first noted by Shulgin, the drug lived a fleeting clinical life as a tool for forming bonds of trust between psychotherapists and their patients. Then, in the late 70s and early 80s, America's recreational pharmacists - never far behind their academic cousins - began brewing up batches of their own and distribut ing it in bars and by mail order, with just one subtle adjustment to improve sales: they called it "ecstasy".
Despite its energising effects, ecstasy's early users thought of it as a relaxing drug, best relished in a boudoir full of cushions and naked friends. Only with the birth of house music in the 1980s ("Sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats," to borrow the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act's seductive turn of phrase) did the drug begin to forge its definitive association with the dancefloor. Then, in 1988, during what became known as the second summer of love, ecstasy seemed to have found its spiritual home in a flagging Thatcher's Britain.
The nation's youngsters began to congregate in their thousands in fields and warehouses. In acid house they had their music, in fluorescent T-shirts and smileys they had their fashion, and in ecstasy, at £xx a pill, they had their drug. Never again would school parties be embarrassingly called "discos"; from now on, they would be embarrassingly called "raves". Even today, and probably for all time, ecstasy's public image - that thumping, sweaty dancefloor in which it is always imagined - is a scene from 1988.
And this, as any brand manager will tell you, is a slump waiting to happen. Like 501s or Marks & Spencer, ecstasy's image got stuck in the past. "It's a scruffy drug," says Paul Knight, 26, a promotions manager and DJ from south London. He has been working in bars and clubs since he was 17, and is a regular ecstasy user. "There's not much prestige in buying pills, especially because it's cheaper now. Cocaine is the more prestigious drug, definitely. The cokeheads probably think we're just a bunch of kids."
In fact, in Britain's illegal drugs market, cocaine has been the clear success story of recent years. In 1996, at £xx-xx a gram, it remained a banker's special treat, with ecstasy three times, and speed six times more popular. But last year, at £xx-xx a gram, cocaine was the only Class-A drug to show an increase in users and it established itself as second only to cannabis among the nation's favourite illicit highs.
At the same time, the traditional pills'n'thrills clubbing experience has come down from its late-90s apogee. "Five years ago, you went to a club to take drugs, dance like a loon and leave at six in the morning," says Knight. "Now it's different; there are lots of different sorts of music. It's a lot more social. Yeah, there are pills there, but you don't have to take them."
This new, restrained style of socialising, however, has done little to quench the modern clubber's appetite for intoxication. Britain's dancefloors now bristle with a hitherto unimaginable variety of powders and potions. "Before it was just pills, and maybe some coke as well, but that was about it," Knight explains. "But now I know people who do ketamine quite regularly, GHB now and again, mescaline, all that stuff. And they mix it up a bit, too." Next to these fearsome compounds, and the Shulgin-designed 2C-B, ecstasy must seem tame indeed.
Such comparisons, and habituation, no doubt play their part in ecstasy's decreasing cachet, but then the cut-price tablets now on offer are also, by common consent, not what they used to be. "Pills are less strong than they were," says Rob, a full-time drug-dealer from Hackney in east London. Now 25, he's been in the business since he began helping out his friends as a 16 year old. "I don't know what's in the pills that I sell, although I always try them first. At Glastonbury, I took about 40 over the weekend - that wouldn't have been possible with the old Mitsubishis [a wistfully remembered brand of ecstasy from the mid-90s]."
Rob charges £xx for three pills (or £xx for 10), and £xx for a gram of cocaine, but the news of a fall in the number of young ecstasy users comes as a surprise to him. "My mark-up is around £xx or £x on each pill and £xx on a gram of coke, and I'd say I make more in total on the pills. It seems to me as if E's popularity is going up."
If doses have been getting weaker - and both Knight and Murray agree that they have - then that might explain why people are taking more of them and keeping Rob busy, while also accounting for a decline in the mystique which used to attract new users to ecstasy. With recent estimates suggesting that only around half of all tablets sold as ecstasy actually contain it, could it be that it is not MDMA but pills that young people have lost their taste for?
The most compelling evidence for such a theory is the increasing prevalence, anecdotally at least, of MDMA powder, a product variant that claims to offer a more quality-controlled source of pure ecstasy. "It's been around for a while, but it's really taking off now," says Rob, whose MDMA goes for £xx a gram. "MDMA is a reassurance to people that they know what they're getting. I get it as crystals, and it's definitely better - a lot cleaner and more rushy."
Murray agrees: "I had MDMA the other week, and it was a completely different, very intense high - better than any pills you'd take." The rise of MDMA powder is unlikely to account for the British Crime Survey's findings - how many among its new users have honestly not taken one pill in the last year, if indeed they consider it a different drug? But it certainly suggests a dissatisfaction with the quality of today's tablets. In this climate, it is easy to understand why some of Britain's more occasional young drug users might be opting for coke instead of ecstasy on their - now more soigné - nights out, as well as why their teenage brothers and sisters, without a thriving house music scene to absorb them, try pills much later, if at all. It's easy to understand, in other words, that ecstasy is not dead, or dying. But it may just have entered middle-age.
The Guardian, Friday 16 January 2004