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STOP PRESS: This article was deliberately written in a light tone  because I think the 'Just Say No' approach to drugs just makes them sound even more thrilling. But for one of the best pieces I've ever read about the dark side of drugs, about the shame, loneliness and self-hatred behind addiction, see  Crystal Meth, HIV and the Gay Community by Jean Malpas.

Go straight to the drug tips section


The Positive Nation safer clubbing guide

by Gus Cairns, with help from Matt Southwell, Grainne Whalley, Monty Moncrieff, Cathy Gillies, Andria Mordaunt, and numerous anonymous clubbing friends of Positive Nation

 Drugs are cool and drugs are great / But leave you in a dreadful state.

They keep you up for hours of fun / But then you don't know what you've done…

Sorry for the silly rhyme, but there's something about drug use that brings out the bad poet in everyone. Before we say anything else, let's say this: drugs are fun. That's why people take them. This applies to a pensioner supping Guinness in the pub as much as to any raver.

All societies use them, and always have done, though specific substances may be more or less permissible. The human race has always 'self-medicated' to escape the stress of everyday life or seek a glimpse of the divine. Native Americans were chewing the hallucinogenic peyote cactus 5,300 years ago. The book of Genesis tells of Noah getting blind drunk on wine and having to be put to bed by his long-suffering sons. Even wild animals seek out hallucinogenic plants to chew on.

But drugs are dangerous too, particularly to societies that are not used to them. Especially if your immune system is down and you're taking other prescribed drugs.

In recent years our society has been flooded with new chemicals, and we may be using them unwisely, more like swigging neat vodka than sipping a Chardonnay.

just say 'whoo!'

"The best way to minimise the harm caused by drugs is to maximise the pleasure people get from them," says Matt Southwell of the Dance Drugs Alliance, a self-help group that campaigns for clubbers. "No one goes out in the evening intending to end up in A&E - it's not a good look! If you are having fun you are also less likely to be experiencing damage."
It doesn't help that the law and much of society continues to regard the use of anything other than tobacco or alcohol as wicked and/or sad. The Just Say No attitude to drugs is a slogan that turns off the very people it tries to target. Government policy is muddled. Home office policy recommends training bouncers to spot drug casualties in clubs. But the law gives the police powers to close clubs that 'knowingly' allow drugs to be consumed on the premises. So all the bouncers are put on the door to do searches.

what a difference an E makes

The UK dance drug scene has changed unrecognisably over recent years. In the late 80s a new and wildly popular substance came along - MDMA or Ecstasy. It was quickly 'legalised', not in the sense of being made legit, but in the sense of being brought under legal control by banning unlicensed raves. Crusties became clubbers overnight.
This had the unintended effect of turning an underclass into part of Cool Britannia, to the extent that a commons committee is recommending decriminalisation, and the home office has just put out an uncharacteristically whizzy pamphlet on Safer Clubbing, complete with Cyberdog-style graphics.
Grainne Whalley, one of the pamphlet's authors, says: "We have moved in one decade from a counter-culture to Smiley faces being used in ads for the Alliance and Leicester." She mourns the solidarity of rave culture. "People use drugs now in a more isolated way, and that causes health problems in itself. Your best health asset is your mates."
Now every weekend an estimated 750,000 Britons pop an E. This has brought health problems in its wake. These aren't usually of an acute, fatal nature, despite tabloid headlines: there have been a total of 80-100 E-related deaths since the drug arrived, which compares pretty favourably with the figures for alcohol or driving.

the menace of mixing

But Grainne continues: "The real danger is that we're now seeing a culture of poly-drug use. People are used to 'fixing' themselves with medications, and we're seeing much more mixing of uppers and downers, people taking Valium to come off E, or coke so you can drink without getting sloppy."
This 'combination self-therapy' can have unpredictable and dangerous effects. Your body builds up tolerance, meaning you need to spend bigger bucks for your buzz, but that doesn't mean your liver or brain cells do.
One of the more dangerous new arrivals on the club scene in recent years is that ancient and legal drug, alcohol. Brewers saw their profits vanish with the E generation swigging nothing but Evian and Lucozade. So they started packaging alcohol like E - in fluorescent-coloured Bacardi Breezers, or added to caffeine-based mixers that keep you going like Red Bull.
"The arrival of caffeine-and-alcohol drinks into club culture in the early 90s was a health disaster," says Matt Southwell. "'A' and 'E' counteract each other's effects, so the temptation is to take more of both, but they are also both fierce dehydrators - and it is overheating that is the cause of most club deaths." A and E could land you in A&E.

drugs, sex and HIV

Given the way it's caught, some of the most enthusiastic drug-guzzlers are inevitably people living with HIV, in particular, though not exclusively, gay men.
Some HIV drugs - see
Q&A - greatly magnify the effect of dance drugs, and fatalities have happened. Caning it all weekend and then staggering into work on Monday is enough to damage anyone's immune system, let alone if you only have 200 T-cells to spare.
"There's two different things about the gay male scene," says Monty Moncrieff of Project LSD. "Gay men tend to go on using drugs well into their 30s and 40s - so there's a longer timespan in which to do damage. And we tend to treat ourselves like machines - there's a big ethos of being able to 'handle your drugs', so people conceal problematic use from their friends and may seek help too late."
In addition, of course, you're more likely to have unprotected sex if off your face. "But we have to be careful here," says Grainne. "Drugs don't make you fuck without condoms. People take drugs in order to lose control. You may have taken a conscious or unconscious decision to drop your normal safer-sex behaviour, and are using the drugs to make you feel OK about it."
Matt recommends that if you do drugs regularly, try and draw up rules for yourself - eg only use at weekends, don't mix certain drugs, or go home at a certain time. Take responsibility for your pleasure.

Party on! Drug tips from Positive Nation

 There's a lot of good advice out there coming from clubbers that had never been collected together properly. So here's the dope on having a good time while staying safe. 

  • Alcohol A grand crack in the pub, but not necessarily with other drugs. E plus alcohol = dehydration. E plus alcohol plus caffeine (e.g. Red Bull) = dangerous dehydration. E plus alcohol plus cocaine = burn-up. Alcohol plus cannabis = the 'whirlies', projectile vomiting.

  • A pint an hour No, not beer but water. That's how much you need. Take regular glugs, don't drink it all at once. Overdoing water is as bad as underdoing it - the salts flood out of your blood suddenly, which is what killed Leah Betts.

  • Ask a friend Thinking of trying something new? Don't just swallow it and regret it later. Ask friends who've done it before. Same applies to new 'brands' of E etc. They may be much purer than what you're used to.

  • Back pain Your kidneys are protesting. Especially if you also take indinavir. Take a break and get some water now.

  • Bag it or lose it Wear one of those leather or velcro wristbands or a bum-bag. Inside, in waterproof change bags, put (separately) your drugs, your HIV drugs, your paper money, and your cloakroom ticket. If however, you tend to lose accessories in backrooms, better to leave nearly everything in the coat check and stick your ticket and a tenner in your shoe…

  • Breaks Vital. Chill out and rehydrate. If you're the type who gets locked into dance nirvana and loses track of time, try a pre-set buzzy alarm watch or get friends to check you out at prearranged intervals


  • Bright lights If you're on E or acid in particular your pupils dilate and disco lights, even candles, will make you wince. Seek out the darker corners or wear Ray-Bans à la rockstar. Everyone will think you're a poser but you won't get a headache.

  • Body weight The runt of your crew? Girl not boy? You'll probably need less to come up than your ox-like mates.

  • Buying and using Yes, it's illegal (see disclaimer below), and depending on the drug, can still carry quite harsh penalties. From both a health and a legal point of view, try not to buy drugs in clubs/from strangers: you are more likely to be under surveillance and you won't know what you're getting.

  • Comedown What goes up, must come down. Plan to feel washed out. It's OK. All parties have to end. Go home, have a warm bath, drink chamomile tea, don't drink alcohol, try and force down a few carbohydrates (ReadyBrek is good), and get a goooood long sleep. Learn meditation (not if you're still tripping, it will make it worse).

  • Condoms See Bag it. Stick at least one in your little wrist bag, especially if you plan to have sex on the premises. If you are off your face you're much less likely to stop the action to get one from the toilet or whatever. Think positive: if you don't have a condom, that hunk may not want to screw you…

  • Dance the buzz down Coke comedown? Restless? Paranoid? Dance. Your anxiety is caused by too much adrenalin. Burn it off. (But see heartbeat, below)

  • Dance the pill up Think the pill isn't working? Dance. The exercise will metabolise the drugs quicker, natural endorphins will bring on the high, and you won't be tempted to double-dose.

  • Double-dosing Causes many a bad night. Check the time when you take your drugs: if you've eaten recently, it could take an hour before they kick in. Also caused by 'bouncer paranoia' - necking everything before you get to the club, in case you're searched.

  • Driving In one survey 85 per cent of Scottish clubbers admitted to driving home still trolleyed at one time or another. Don't. It is an offence, the police do check, driving on dope or acid will make you paranoid. Take a taxi.

  • Eat Beforehand, eat complex carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, rice) to give you the energy to see the night through. Afterwards, try sugary porridge or bananas to replace vital energy and salts.

  • Eye contact Feeling shaky and paranoid due to a sudden E/acid upsurge or a coke comedown? Smile at people, even if you don't want to. Some E'd-up fool will smile back (or even give you a sweaty hug) and you'll feel in touch again.

  • Hats and bandannas May be the height of fashion in your crowd, but will make you overheat much quicker. Put the Kangol in the coatcheck and save it for the homeward trek.

  • Headache If it's like a tight band round your eyes, it's another sign of dehydration. If your limbs are stiff and aching too then you need to rehydrate fast, and maybe need sugar and salt too. Have a Lucozade or a caffeine-free Coke.

  • Heartbeat Will speed up anyway if you're dancing and on stimulant drugs. But if it's pounding away like a jackhammer (150 per minute and over), especially if you feel dizzy too, then you're dangerously overheating. Take a rest now, go the loo, stick your hands in cold water, rub ice cubes on your neck, have a soft drink, stand by the air-conditioner.

  • HIV drugs - interactions It's the protease inhibitors, mainly, and especially ritonavir, that bump up the levels of other drugs. See 'Q&A' page xx. If you're on ritonavir you will need less E, Viagra, GHB and many other drugs than other people to get the same high, especially in the first month or two after you start taking it. Bad point: fatal overdoses have happened. Good point: you're a cheap night out.

  • HIV drugs - taking them Take a dose to the club - see Bag It. You may not end up at home! Take your evening dose before you go out, even if it's a bit earlier than usual. If you do miss a single dose, don't panic, most HIV drug regimes are fairly 'forgiving' of single misses. DO NOT stop taking your drugs for the whole weekend: in studies, it is breaks of two days or more that are most strongly associated with treatment failure. 

  • Hypothermia If you walk outside into a December night, all sweaty and glowing, you'll get very cold very fast. People have died waiting for a bus. Pack a cosy top and hat in your bag and slap them on as you emerge.

  • K-hole See paranoia. You lose all sensation, you don't know where you're body is, you feel like you're turning to wood. Try not to worry, it will last about 30 minutes hopefully, find somewhere quiet to sit or lie. Remedy: use ketamine very sparingly and don't take it in mistake for cocaine (they look the same).

  • Location, location, location "Drug effect = drug plus setting". Check out where you are before you start - is this the kind of place you want to feel off your face? Try any drug that's likely to make you either anxious or crashed-out at home first. If you must take GHB or ketamine, do them with friends in case you pass out…

  • Lube, lube, lube If you do sex in clubs, yes, you try to use condoms, but if you've taken a decision not to, at least bring and use lots of lube. Most drugs open up the superficial blood vessels, including the ones in your genitals and ass. If you think (or hope) you're going to be a serious slut, lube up beforehand.

  • Mixing Most drug deaths are caused by mixing drugs rather than single drugs. Example: one drink of alcohol and one little bottle of GHB = four GHBs. Find out the drug you like best and plan to stick to it.

  • Money worries Limited budget? On benefits? Decide how much you're going to spend. Don't go out with cash or credit cards (they're safer at home). Post some money to yourself on Friday and you'll have it back, unspent, Monday or Tuesday.

  • Overheating In case you haven't got the message from all the other tips, this has caused by far the majority of the estimated 80-100 E-related deaths ever recorded (to put this into perspective, it's estimated that 750,000 Britons take E every weekend). 

  • Pace your drugs Don't bring either more or less drugs than you think you'll need, and take them in halves or quarters over a period. Go to a quiet part of the club and check your 'buzz'. See double-dosing.

  • Paranoia No you're not going mad, yes, it will stop, but it can completely ruin you and your friends' evening. Particularly associated with the terrifying 'bad trip' of acid, but different flavours of fear also affect users of other drugs, especially cannabis - being very stoned can be as unpleasant as an acid trip. If it happens to you regularly, you aren't pacing your use, you may be taking a drug that doesn't suit your personality, or you really do have mind problems that would be better dealt with by expert help than by getting blasted.

  • Piss like sweat, if there's plenty, at least it means you've got fluid to spare. If it goes dark or you want to pee but can't, get some water now.

  • Poppers Don't take with Viagra. Can accelerate a mild buzz into a scary take-off, but don't worry, it won't last long. Watch out for cigarettes - it's almost explosively flammable. Leaking bottles will cause nasty skin burns.

  • Problematic use Needs an article in itself. We all know the consequences of long-term use of tobacco and alcohol. Most of the others haven't been around long enough to really know. Some experiments have suggested that 40-year old regular E-users have the brains of 70-year olds, but have recently been disputed. So have ones which link cannabis with long-term mental problems. All we can say here is: most problematic drug use is caused by using the drug to try and stave off the inevitable effects of the same drug: bingeing on coke to avoid a coke comedown, for instance. Accept and deal with your comedowns, and you'll be in much less danger.

  • Shaking/twitching Not good, especially if accompanied by weakness, nausea, shivers. You may be dehydrated and losing salts. You may also have come up on something stronger than you're used to and be panicking. Get off the dance floor, get to a friend, get a soft drink, chill out, hopefully you'll be OK. Different from 'speed gurns' (see below)

  • Smoking Well, you know the long-term risks, but have you thought about how antisocial it is smoking on a crowded dance floor? Throw your hands up at the Steps chorus (yes, we've seen you, Miss Thing) and you'll have someone's eye out. If you're a nicotine addict, use cigs as a way to have breaks.

  • Speed gurns E does this too - you have too much dopamine in your body and it makes you grind your teeth, grimace and weave your head around. You look silly, you have taken a bit too much, but you're probably not in danger in the absence of other symptoms. Biggest danger is damaging your teeth or tongue. Chew gum or suck a lollipop.

  • Sweating It's generally better if you do than if you don't - the latter may mean you're running out of fluids to sweat. The worse overheaters are coke and crack, which close down the blood vessels so you can't sweat.

  • Throwing up Can happen for several reasons. A sudden E or acid upsurge can make you feel nauseous. Moving will help. Swallowed speed can irritate your stomach lining terribly, specially if you haven't eaten. Cannabis makes the room spin round, especially if you are already drunk too. Throwing up during your comedown means you've really overdone it - you're short of essential sugars and salt. Try sipping isotonic drinks or Dioralyte.

  • Up your bum See lube, above. Also: do not snort drugs while you've got something up there. One of us knew someone who sneezed with a big toy up his ass and ruptured his bowel. Ouch, and very serious.

  • Viagra May enable guys to fuck while buzzing when normally they'd have lost their hardon, and therefore have unsafe sex. On the other hand may make using condoms easier (less of the marshmallow-in-a-slot syndrome). You'll only need a quarter as much, at most, if you take ritonavir. Do not use poppers at the same time or, if you must, at least make sure you're next to something you can sit down on in a hurry (oh grow up).

  • LASTLY: 'Think through the buzz'. This is the key mental attitude you need in connection with all of the above. Try and cultivate the ability to keep a small portion of your mind detached and sane while the rest of you is on Planet Zircon. Every now go to a chill-out area, allow it to take over and ask: "Am I OK? Am I buzzing? Where am I? How do I feel? When did I last have a drink? Do I feel dry, faint, anxious, sick? What's the time? Where are my mates?" That way you will both spot trouble before it happens, and not be tempted to take more than you should.




Antidote: based at the Hungerford Drug Project, offers advice, support, drop-in, counselling and alternative therapies for lesbians, gay men, bis and transsexuals. Contact Grainne on 020 7437 3523 or email here.

The Dance Drugs Alliance: a collective of club drug-users who campaign for drug law reform and the provision of proper, non-judgmental information. Contact Matt on xxx xxxx xxxx

Drugscope: The UK's largest drugs charity, campaigns for law reform and information provision. Phone 020 7928 1211

Mainliners: Mainly work with intravenous drug users who are HIV or hep C positive but also run youth groups. Contact 020 7378 5480 or email here

Release: longstanding drug charity: particularly helps drug users who get busted. Helpline: 020 7729 9904 or email here


Possession and supply of most of the above drugs is illegal and may result in serious legal penalties. Neither Positive Nation or the UKC condone or encourage the use of illegal drugs. 

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