Hari Kunzru

  • BuyAltered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House by Matthew Collin and John Godfrey
    Serpent’s Tail, 314 pp, £18.99, April 1997, ISBN 1 85242 377 3
  • Disco Biscuits edited by Jane Champion
    Sceptre, 300 pp, £6.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 340 68265 5

‘Ecstasy’ is a brand name. According to tradition, the tag first became attached to the drug MDMA (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine) some time in the early Eighties, when it moved out of the American psychotherapeutic community, in which it had circulated for over a decade, and into wider use as a recreational drug. The street-dealers needed something punchy, and with its connotations of sexual abandon, the word ‘ecstasy’ propelled the drug into mass use, international prohibition and ultimately a social significance only matched, in the pharmaceutical stakes, by the flowering of an LSD culture during the Sixties.

First synthesised in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company of Darmstadt, MDMA – intended merely as a base for the preparation of other medicaments – had been largely forgotten until Alexander Shulgin, a Californian chemist, made up a batch in 1966. Shulgin, whose unusual psychopharmacological research had begun to get him into trouble with his employer, the Dole Chemical Company, was the first to recognise MDMA’s mood-altering effects; he called it an ‘empathogen’. So deeply affected was he by his MDMA experiences that he eventually resigned his job, built a laboratory in his garden shed, and embarked on thirty years of research into the drug and related compounds, In PIHKAL (‘Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved’), his autobiography-cum-pharmacopoeia, he gives details of 179 of them.

In 1977, Shulgin gave MDMA to Leo Zoff, an elderly psychologist. Zoff, on the verge of retiring, instead became the drug’s most zealous convert, travelling around America, introducing the substance, which was beginning to be known as ‘Adam’, to an estimated four thousand other psychologists and psychiatrists. This community of believers, many of whom had seen their hopes for LSD therapy dashed when LSD became a drug of mass abuse, tried hard to keep Adam a secret, discouraging press coverage and even the publication of scientific papers. But Adam’s transformation into Ecstasy had its own momentum, and in 1985 possession was made a criminal offence in the United States.

Saatchi and Saatchi could not have improved on the choice of the word ‘ecstasy’. In the ten years since the drug burst into the British popular consciousness, the ‘ecstatic’ aspect of MDMA has gripped the imagination of the press. The enduring tabloid version of Ecstasy use depicts the interior of a club; semi-naked girls with lycra tops and water bottles; boys with their shirts off, chewing gum; dilated pupils, hormones and sweat. The drug’s name is enough to make commentators feel they understand what is going on – an unhealthily Pavlovian form of pleasure-taking, vacuous, escapist and pernicious. Combine this with the shyly smiling face of Leah Betts, who took ‘just one tablet’ on her 18th birthday and promptly died, and you have a powerful story. Here is a drug that transforms your daughter from a well brought-up girl into a banshee nymphet, and in the process could very possibly kill her: a persuasive argument for prohibition. Public debate now places Ecstasy firmly in a medico-legal context – the only acceptable framework for discussion of any proscribed substance. As a means of understanding the drug’s impact on society, this has obvious limitations: the rhetoric of ‘escapism’, ‘illegality’ and ‘self-harm’ is powerless to explain the rich and diverse culture which has rapidly developed around the drug.

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