I spoke to Boomers, original ravers, Generation Landfill and modern sesh gremlins to see how first forays into substance use have changed over the decades.
An ecstasy vortex. Photo: mediacolor's / Alamy Stock Photo
My first time taking any drug other than cannabis was fairly unremarkable: two stubby lines of low-grade cocaine off an Acer laptop in my university halls. I was drunk. Most likely stoned. I remember thinking I wasn’t feeling anything, and – bearing in mind the infamously poor quality gear available in England during the mid-2000s – I probably wasn’t.
As stories of lost drug virginities go, it’s not dissimilar to many people in my peer group. Compare it to some of the old tropes – "My mum took the brown acid at Woodstock in ‘69!", "My uncle dropped his first pinger at Spike Island in 1990!" – and it's objectively meh.
But was it really so different for the generations of hedonists that came before (and after) me? And what leads people to take the plunge into a world of chemical indulgence in the first place? I spent a few weeks badgering everyone I know in the UK who's ever done drugs – plus their dads – trying to figure it out.
The Baby Boomer Psychonauts
The term "baby boomers" refers to people born in the time between World War II to the mid-1960s, and for the post-war narcotic enthusiast, LSD was the weapon of choice.
"A dissatisfaction with the constraints of a post-war nine-to-five expectation of birth, school, work, death [led to increased usage of LSD]," says Andy Roberts, author of the 2016 book Acid Drops. "Most LSD users gravitated to the drug because it opened up a way of seeing the world in a way only previously seen by the mystics."
In this brave new world, the mystics were icons like author Aldous Huxley and honey-hipped Doors frontman Jim Morrison. "[They were] very important to some LSD users, because someone like Huxley gave the intellectual justification to take acid, and rock stars such as Morrison gave them the ideal acid hippie culture and lifestyle to aspire to," continues Roberts.
For the sake of clarity – and to save my word count – here are screenshots of two testimonials I received. The first detailing an experience in 1969; the second in 1972.
The clearest threads joining these testimonials were three-fold: 1) They took place outside; 2) Alcohol wasn't an important component; 3) There’s a misty-eyed sentimentality about the experience, which they would go on to repeat.
I also spoke to Steve, whose experience was broadly similar, though his first acid trip in 1979 ended with his wife (then partner) seriously electrocuting herself. Regardless, he was so enamoured with this chemically-altered world of "magic, incredible physical warmth, [of] walls and pictures turned to living tableaus" that it was the spark for a journey through psychoactive substances that, 38 years later, he’s still embarking on.
Funnily enough, his wife’s not touched drugs since.
WATCH: Locked Off – Inside the UK's Illegal Rave Renaissance
The Original Ravers
With dance music currently undergoing a global renaissance, the period from the late-1980s to mid-1990s – that of the Hacienda, M25 raves and Global Hypercolor T-shirts – is again being fetishised by people whose only real connection to it comes via those grainy YouTube videos of ravers devouring their own lips as the sun comes up in the background.
"The key element was the music and the drugs," says Dr Russell Newcombe of 3D Research, who composed definitive research on rave culture and wrote the first ever paper ("High Time For Harm Reduction") on harm reduction, in 1987.
The most popular drugs – other than cannabis – were ecstasy, followed by amphetamine and LSD. Cocaine was virtually unheard of, and alcohol intake was much lower than it is now – "other than sometimes to come down at after-parties" – as first-time ravers dropped pills to feel the music and the love in equal measure. "There was a lot of class and racial friction in northern towns like Liverpool in the late-80s, but at raves different classes, races and sub-groups of people all mixed together," says Russell. "It was bit like the hippies in the mid to late-60s, mixing together underneath values of love and peace."
All bar one of my drug virginity testimonials from this time were about ecstasy (the other was LSD) and took place in a club, and each person (bar the LSD) had planned beforehand. Like the psychonauts, all reflect positively on the experience and would go on to repeat it with little regrets. Even Will – now 41, just 15 in 1990 – who would battle addiction until getting sober in 2007, felt nothing but positivity regarding those formative experiences: "Falkirk [where I'm from] was usually full of Disco Dans, steaming drunk and knocking seven bells out of each other to shite music. Now we had the Stone Roses, D-Mob, raves happening in the local parks… My life now is fantastic and I wouldn't change anything of my past. My pill years were some of the best times of my life."
"Hedonism was so much cooler for this generation," says Adam Winstock, a professor in addiction psychiatry and founder of the Global Drug Survey.
By 2005, cocaine was the second most popular drug in the country (after cannabis), and ecstasy was associated with a dance music scene that had been usurped by rock 'n' roll. (Helping ecstasy’s decline was its reduction in quality from 2005 to 2010, with pingers averaging a measly 20mg to 50mg of MDMA, as opposed to the 80mg to 100mg in 1988.)
A generation was in thrall to hard-partying icons like The Strokes, The Libertines, Amy Winehouse and Mike Skinner, and testimonials from the mid to late-2000s are far less uniform. First times took place in clubs, some in parks, some in pubs and several at house parties. The one universal theme was excess alcohol, even among the clubbers. No surprise when you consider that 2004 has been termed by some as Peak Booze Britain, seeing average UK annual alcohol consumption rise to record levels.
Those first drugs taken vary more than before – cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine. Most tellingly, every testimonial thus far had espoused the benefits of the drugs. Now – apart from the dance music fans, who still viewed taking ecstasy as an integral facet of the culture they adored – we observe the rise of the rueful cocaine user.
"I was quite anti-drugs, but I kept going to parties where everyone was on coke, so eventually I started too. I now wish I hadn’t," says Donny, 31, from Birmingham, who still takes coke. It’s a common theme. "I’ve probably overdone it" is another. Whereas drugs had previously been about achieving some kind of higher consciousness, for many in Generation Landfill, cocaine was just a regretful step en route to another blackout binge.
Humans of the Sesh
In a country where cocaine’s average purity was just 17 percent and ecstasy often contained no actual MDMA, illegal drug use was decreasing. The 2011 British Crime Survey found that 8.6 percent of UK adults had taken drugs in the previous year; the lowest since records began, in 1996.
From nowhere, legal drug mephedrone – "meow meow" to the tabloids and your gran – came to be the nosebleed-inducing drug of choice. In a 2010 Mixmag poll, one in three clubbers reported taking the legal substance in the last month. It was banned in April of 2010, but in 2011 the Journal of Substance Use found it was more popular than ecstasy and cocaine among club-goers. Its popularity kickstarted a desire for alternative drugs that the regressive 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act hasn’t been able to halt.
"Particularly since 2010, and the legal high scene, people became much more aware that it wasn’t about just taking drugs to take part in a scene," says Russell Newcombe. "Now, there’s a whole range of options for getting off your head. People also started to categorise drugs in the way that researchers did – sedatives, stimulants, trips – as they became more interested in exploring drugs and exploring their minds."
First times here were certainly more planned, excess drinking less universal and cocaine much less popular: "I’d never spend £40 on shit pub grub coke when three of my mates can split a gram of MDMA for the same price," says Charlie, 20, who took MDMA for the first time three years ago.
The drugs were MDMA, ecstasy, mephedrone and ketamine. Noticeable was an increased knowledge regarding the drug they were taking; far more so than me back in that dingy university bedroom. For that, we can thank generations of drug-experienced parents and older siblings, internet sources like Bluelight and Sesh Safety, and press generated by the excellent work of organisations like The Loop and Global Drug Survey. Sadly, this message clearly isn’t getting through to everyone, as drug deaths in the UK are at their highest ever point, and rarely a week passes without a tragic report of more ecstasy-related deaths.
All this begs the question: how are tomorrow’s first-timers going to slip down the rabbit hole?
"I think we’re probably leaving the decade of stimulants and moving back to a psychedelic generation," says Adam Winstock. "If you think about today’s dominant narratives, they are personal and spiritual growth. So its more about introspection, thoughtfulness and using the drugs for a more varied purpose. I hope we’re growing up and realising that drugs are more than just a way to get off your face."
All names have been changed.
Take part in the Global Drug Survey here.