Where ecstasy gets the all-clear
By the daily telegraph – Thursday April 11 1996
Copyright: the daily telegraph
As Glasgow’s social services director provokes anger by claiming ecstasy is less likely to cause death than aspirin, William Greaves goes to a rave to examine how the Dutch reduce its risks.
THEY opened the doors dead on 10pm. Police stood chatting in clusters and security guards spread themselves around the cavernous indoor arena. While first-aid teams took up their positions, lasers and synchronised lights made eerie, psychedelic patterns across the floor and the music pounded the eardrums like gunfire.
The great rave of Utrecht, 25 miles south of Amsterdam, was about to get under way.
The youngsters at the head of a queue which had been growing for hours paid their £20 entry money and headed straight across the room to a trestle table, which sported a banner emblazoned with the words “SAFE HOUSE”.
One of them, shaven-headed and wearing a “Lunatic Invasion Planet Earth” T-shirt, dug into a pocket of his carefully torn jeans, produced a small sachet containing four white tablets, handed over 2.5 guilders (about £1) and put one of the pills on to the table.
Herman Matser, of the state-funded Drugs Advice Bureau, smiled a welcome to his first customer of a long night. Taking a sharp knife, he scraped off a few tiny shavings on to a white plate. He reached for a rubber dropper, squeezed out a blob of colourless liquid and watched as it turned a brownish purple.
“It’s MDMA, all right, and only 70 milligrams dosage. It’s okay; careful how you go – and have a good night”
Picking up the pill again, he looked for a logo on its surface and measured its thickness and diameter with a micrometer. He then rifled through several pages of print-out material until he found the matching details.
“It’s MDMA, all right, and only 70 milligrams dosage,” he said, with a reassuring nod. “It’s okay; careful how you go – and have a good night.” The young man grinned conspiratorially, happy that he had not been ripped off, happy that he was indeed going to have a good night, and distributed the other three tablets to his pals. A policewoman and her male colleague looked on benignly. Last week, under pressure from Britain, Germany and other European Union countries, Dutch MPs voted to crack down on drug-related crime and the sale of narcotics. Were they, one wondered, signalling a genuine intent to fall into line with EU policies? Or was it just a bit of legislative window-dressing to appease the critics?
Here at the Vachtsebanen – a huge ice-rink in quieter times – the massing ravers seemed sublimely oblivious to the possibility of being tapped on the shoulder by any custodian of law and order.
They knew the score – just as they knew the language. MDMA meant 3.4-methylene-dioxy-methyl-amphetamine – “pure” ecstasy or, more commonly, E. If it had been anything over 140mg, Matser would have recommended half a tablet now and the other half later.
If it had been MDEA – ethyl instead of methyl in the middle of the formula – the punter would have been overcharged for a lesser substitute. If it had turned orange instead of purple, it would have been a straightforward amphetamine – “speed”, “whizz”, “uppers” – and expensive at half the price.
“The trouble with ‘legalising’ usage without legalising supply – except for the small-time dealers – is that you bring the major criminals into Amsterdam”
If it had turned no colour at all, it could have been anything – and should not be touched with a bargepole. “Go find the dealer and get your money back,” would have been Matser’s advice.
The crowd of youngsters around the Safe House table grew with each passing minute, and Matser was joined by three more analysts to keep pace with demand. Some of the customers were dealers, anxious to obtain a seal of approval for their wares. So this was “cracking down” on the the drugs problem, Dutch-style . . .
In Britain, where the tragic death of teenager Leah Betts brought into focus the ever-increasing use of ecstasy as a party stimulant, the Government last month began a £15 million, three-year campaign with advertisements warning youngsters who defy the law that they are risking kidney and liver failure and permanent brain damage.
British police believe that the Dutch “blind-eye” policy, coupled with the ready availability of cheap quality testing, has created a manufacturing base which is flooding the British underground market with inferior – often contaminated – versions of the drug.
“Fifty per cent of burglaries in this country are committed to finance the drug habit, so, as things are, it is often innocent householders who are the main victims”
“The trouble with ‘legalising’ usage without legalising supply – except for the small-time dealers – is that you bring the major criminals into Amsterdam, who inevitably over-produce and have to start looking for foreign outlets,” said former Detective Chief Inspector Eddie Ellison, until recently head of Scotland Yard’s Drugs Squad. “With the relaxing of customs controls, it is well nigh impossible to stop tablets coming straight in across the Channel.”
Ellison believes there is a case for legalising soft drugs, if only because the price would immediately plummet. A single ecstasy tablet, now costing anything between £2 and £8 in Holland, can easily top £20 in Britain.
“Fifty per cent of burglaries in this country are committed to finance the drug habit, so, as things are, it is often innocent householders who are the main victims,” he said. “But the worst option is when one country goes it alone.” Matser, a 43-year-old graduate in international law from Utrecht University, is fully aware that Holland’s permissive policy has knock-on effects beyond her immediate frontiers – “We get a constant stream of foreign detectives visiting us to find out how we do things here” – but was in unapologetic mood when I visited him the previous day at the Advice Bureau’s headquarters.
“Ecstasy, like all hard and soft drugs, is illegal but our police, unlike other European countries, are allowed to choose which laws they enforce and which they don’t,” he said.
“When they bring pills here for us to test, I sometimes ask them whether they use them at home and they say ‘No, what’s the point? – We don’t dance at home'”
“Here, our policy is harm reduction. Arrest everybody and all that would happen is that we would have to build a lot more prisons. And what would happen when they come out?
“I would rather have the kids take a pill or two than drink a lot of alcohol. They never do both. Alcohol is a downer and ecstasy is an upper – the one kills the effect of the other. The most important thing for them is wanting to dance the whole night through. When they bring pills here for us to test, I sometimes ask them whether they use them at home and they say ‘No, what’s the point? – We don’t dance at home.’ “
Whatever messages might be coming down from the parliamentarians – there is even talk of setting aside 500 prison cells for drug addicts persistently committing petty crimes – Detective Sergeant Arend Stehouwer, of the Rotterdam police narcotics department, is adamant that the law enforcers have got it right.
“We tried the hard-line approach in the past and, to be honest, we were not making much progress. When ecstasy began to become popular a couple of years ago, we had to decide whether to forbid it or to allow for it to be tested. You can’t have it both ways.
“I know that the French and Germans are not very fond of us, but other countries are talking of imitating us. And we are being responsible. When someone wants to organise a big ‘house’ party, there are severe conditions that have to be met before they get permission.
“All we do is say whether it is a ‘good’ pill – and everyone knows that ‘good’ means only that it is what it claims to be”
“We insist that there is plenty of fresh air, that lemonade is available, that there are security men in sufficient numbers to keep order – at their expense, not ours – and first-aid people on the look-out. We are public servants – with the emphasis on ‘servants’ – and we are here to help.”
One can hardly blame the party-goers for assuming that what is smiled upon by officialdom must be okay for them. So is this nod-nod-wink-wink alliance of police, the Drugs Advice Bureau, the Ministry of Health and the City of Amsterdam (which jointly help to foot the bureau’s bills) and the Institute of Alcohol and Drugs (to which it submits regular reports) merely acting as an advertising agency for the ungodly?
Herman Matser, looking disarmingly sympathetic with shoulder-length hair cascading over flower-power shirt, pointed to the notices which were displayed throughout the Vachtsebanen: “The use of drugs is never without a risk – not even when the result of the test is good. For your own safety, have your ecstasy tested at the Safe House stand. Anonymity guaranteed.”
“We don’t give it approval,” he insisted. “All we do is say whether it is a ‘good’ pill – and everyone knows that ‘good’ means only that it is what it claims to be.
Only a handful of tablets could not be identified and, significantly, none was found to contain a dangerously high dosage.
“Yes, there is a very small minority who take the pills only because we are around to test them. I wish everyone were like them; if they were, we wouldn’t exist and nor would ecstasy.
“There are smaller parties than this, where the people are more educated and the pills have been brought to us in advance. But we are working at the other end – where there isn’t much money and there isn’t much education. And, but for us, that’s where the bad stuff would be.”
By 1 am, when the party was at its peak, some 4,000 youngsters were crammed into the Vachtsebanen, gyrating in spasmodic, desultory fashion, and business at the Safe House table was brisk. Six hours later, Matser and his team decided enough was enough. They had tested 320 pills.
“That was only a small percentage of the number in circulation because, often, the one we examined was from a big bag of identical ones – and obviously some we never saw at all,” he said. “A few kids collapsed – probably from a mixture of drugs and exhaustion – but no one was taken to hospital.”
Only a handful of tablets could not be identified and, significantly, none was found to contain a dangerously high dosage. It could be that those are somewhere in Britain, where their chance of being intercepted by expert analysis is nil. It was a sobering thought to take away into a cold and gloomy morning.