20 January 1997
Harvey the Heretic
Neil Davenport and Andrew Calcutt defend singer Brian Harvey, but recognise that 'safety first' is the watchword of both sides of the ecstasy debate
In an interview with Independent Radio News on Thursday 16 January, Brian Harvey (22), lead-singer of pop group East 17, made a fairly sensible statement about ecstasy: 'Really in the long run it's a safe pill and it ain't doing you no harm. I don't see the problem.'
He is right. There are instances of physical damage and even death after taking ecstasy, but these are exceedingly rare. When you consider that up to a million people take ecstasy every weekend, the estimated toll of ecstasy-related fatalities, at around 60, comes way down the scale of risk; and most of these deaths have resulted from heat stroke, fluid loss or complications involving other substances. Some commentators have already suggested that statistically you are more likely to die from swallowing a bayleaf than from taking ecstasy, or perhaps from swallowing huge amounts of water as a result of misleading 'safety advice' addressed to drug-users.
Harvey was right about there being nothing much wrong with ecstasy. What he did not know is that these days you just cannot say that sort of thing in public and expect to get away with it.
Judging by the panic reaction to what Harvey said, anyone would think that he had threatened to 'do a Dunblane' inside Buckingham Palace. The prime minister John Major condemned his comments in the house of commons, eleven radio stations banned East 17 records (was it all a misguided attempt to make East 17 cool?), politicians prophesied that Harvey would have the drug-related deaths of 'impressionable young fans' on his conscience, and in scenes reminiscent of the Inquisition, he was made to eat his own words. To top it all, he was finally sacked by the band for 'reasons of unacceptable behaviour'.
When we rang up to request an interview, pointing out that we were broadly in sympathy with his original statement, Harvey's record company informed us that he 'would not be doing any interviews, no.' Instead a statement was issued by 'Harvey' (we wonder how much of it was really his) in which he was made to retract everything he had said before. Shortly afterwards the poor lad was forced to act out his retraction for the benefit of Carlton tv cameras. His grovelling apology - I'm sorry if I offended Leah Betts' parents, I realise I was out of order and I'm horrified to think that I might have influenced anyone - was broadcast on London Tonight. The whole charade was a theatre of humiliation: Harvey had sinned against the new religion of restraint and he was made to make a public confession of his heresy.
While this melodrama was being played out, a new Bill passed through parliament unopposed. Introduced by Tory MP Barry Legg, the Public Entertainments Licenses (Drugs Misuse) Bill endows local councils with sweeping powers to close down nightclubs in which illegal drugs are alleged to be on sale. Fuelled by the panic over Harvey, and propelled by an eight-page anti-drugs feature in the Daily Mirror, this Bill now enjoys the support of Tory and New Labour MPs. Unlike most private members' bills which fall by the wayside, it is almost certain to become law.
In the nineties, 'restrain thyself' is not just a piece of take-it-or-leave-it advice; it is a commandment which must be obeyed. Those in the public eye who flout this stricture can expect to be lined up in a gallery of modern-day heretics (also featuring pornographers and sex-offenders).
While there is nothing altogether new in anti-drugs panics accompanied by a law 'n' order drive, what is unprecedented is that both proponents and opponents of the E-related 'counterculture' are using the same terminology and identifying the same priorities. 'Safety' is the buzzword on both sides of the fence.
Harvey stands accused of risking the lives of young people by promoting an unsafe drug. Meanwhile, those who advocate taking E do so on the basis that it makes them feel safe. Harvey himself indicated this when he referred to the drug as a means of 'increasing the love' between people who have taken it. Other commentators have noted the E-effect of reducing antagonism and anxiety, and creating an aura of community and cooperation among its users. The chroniclers of E as the drug which induces a feeling of safety include journalists Bruce Eisner and Douglas Rushkoff, novelist Thomas Pynchon, as well as the man widely known as the 'guru' of E culture, Nicholas Saunders.
In the nineties safety is the ultimate high. Gone are the days when the 'politics of ecstasy' meant attempting to go beyond yourself; the merit of E, according to its proponents, is that 'it allows you to take your ego with you' into a chemically-induced community in search of a few hours rest from today's exaggerated sense of being at risk. Avoid E, say the anti-drugs campaigners, don't risk it. Take E, its advocates say, it's the pill that frees you from the feeling of risk. Both strands of opinion are driven by a panic reaction to society and its problems; and they are both sufficiently imbued with fear to concede that safety is the most valuable commodity in 'risk society'.
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