Exactly How Addictive Are Party Drugs?
The Debrief: How do you know when your partying has become a problem?
A typical Friday night for Alice, 25, used to mean to going to any lengths to find a party. A few years ago, she was quite literally living for the weekend — she was out every weekend, fuelling her nonstop partying with a powerful mix of drugs.
'On a Friday night we would drive to anywhere in the country to go to a rave, even if it took eight hours, we didn’t care,' she said. 'We’d spend the weekend there and then drive home. Everyone was off their face. I just think now how lucky I am to be alive.' Alice, who’s more than two years sober now, was addicted to ketamine and also struggled with a number of other party drugs included MDMA and cocaine. She now lives in Amy’s Place, a rehab facility in London set up by the Amy Winehouse Foundation, one of the few women-only live-in recovery centres in the country.
Last week the home office announced a new drugs strategy aimed at cutting illicit drug use. While the overall number of people using drugs in England and Wales is at 8%, a 2.5% drop in the last ten years, the number of drug deaths has risen to 2,479 in 2015 (up by 10% the year before). The government’s strategy, which has come under criticism by drug charities, focuses on legal highs (new psychoactive drugs) and chemsex (taking drugs as part of sex), both being part of the wider issue of party drugs.
While most conversations about drug addiction focus on what are thought to be harder substances like opiates and crack cocaine, many harm reduction experts agree that party drugs can also become a problem. MDMA is a particular concern because it widely considered to not be addictive. People who use it recreationally are usually under the impression that it’s not possible to get hooked on it. But whereas other substances, like heroin and tobacco, can cause a physical dependency, MDMA users can end up thinking they can’t have a good time at a party without it. 'If you associate swallowing a pill with having a good time, the association becomes really strong.' Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at York University said. 'Listening to music, relaxing, being with your mates, having that good experience, you want to repeat it. But perhaps the only way you can have that emotional response becomes dependent on the taking that pill.'
Forming a psychological addiction may not be as immediately dangerous as a physical one, as withdrawal from physical dependency can be life threatening, but it’s nonetheless a significant issue for those afflicted. Hamilton said: 'If you are psychologically dependent on something, it’s very little comfort to you that you’re not psychically dependent because it results in the same action—that you seek more of the drug.' Hamilton, whose work focuses on the relationship between substance use and mental health, went on to explain that when thinking about whether party drugs have become an issue, it’s more important to think about what is happening when someone isn’t taking the drug. 'Addiction and dependency on any drug is marked by what happens in the absence of it, not what happens upon intoxication,' he said. 'What happens if you can't get it or are withdrawing? Do you notice anything uncomfortable, either psychologically or physically?' Dominic Ruffy, special project director at the Amy Winehouse Foundation reiterated this point. Ruffy, who himself has been in recovery for drug addiction including to MDMA, said: 'If you find the notion of going out without taking a substance is abhorrent or not appealing, then you’ve got some sort of an issue.'
This was the case for Alice, as her entire life had become about partying. She struggled to keep down a job and became homeless, living in squats and on friends’ sofas. She was taking ketamine every day and just waiting for the weekend to roll around so she could go out again and take more drugs.
'I was the kind of person who wanted to party all the time and I wanted everyone to party with me,' she said. 'But one by one my friends stopped partying with me because they had jobs and lives, and it ended up just being me.'
Alice came to realise she had a problem and checked herself into rehab. She now gets extensive support at Amy’s Place, a facility specifically designed for recovering female addicts to re-integrate into society. It opened last year because of a lack of dedicated women-only recovery spaces.
Research suggests that without this kind of support, women are more likely to relapse into drug addiction than men. In addition to this, Hamilton also said that women are also thought to be more susceptible to MDMA addiction than men.
'What the research consistently suggests is that young women, i.e those under the age of 25, seem to have an elevated risk of MDMA dependency,' he said. The research, however, is so sparse that it’s still unknown why this might be or how much of a problem it is.
Hamilton said that the research into MDMA addiction is simply not there yet. The estimates for whether it substance is habit forming ranges between 4-59%, a margin too wide to draw any kinds of conclusions.
Both Ruffy and Hamilton also pointed out that the other challenge with talking about addiction to party drugs is the that the behaviour of the person taking them doesn’t fit the typical profile of what we understand addiction to look like. These substances are typically taken only on the weekend, and people often continue to hold down jobs, and so it can be hard to delineate when someone has a serious problem.
'There are people who are quite capable of recreationally using drugs, do they have the capacity to take them on a Friday and Saturday night and that's OK for them,' Ruffy said. 'But there are a small percentage of people for whom they find that they can't stop.' It’s also assumed that the clubbing scene is a catalyst for addiction. However Alice, who is now going to be starting her degree at King’s College, said that she didn’t think the party scene was the reason for her addiction. 'I completely don’t think the party scene makes people addicts,' Alice said. 'I think that for some people who have had trauma in their lives, that’s when you get an issue. It’s the people that are the problem. I was the problem. It’s never the drugs, it was me. Unfortunately for some of us who are seeking escape, we take it to the extreme.'
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Anna Codrea-Rado is the News Editor at Thump, Vice’s electronic music and culture channel. She writes about drug use within nightlife and is currently working on a series about harm reduction at festivals this summer.
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