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Will your brain survive your party life?

With more than 50 renowned clubs, endless parties and cheap, easy access to stimulating substances, Berlin is an undisputed haven for drug use. But what are the effects on your grey matter?

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With more than 50 renowned clubs, endless parties and cheap, easy access to stimulating substances, Berlin is an undisputed haven for drug use. But what are the effects on your grey matter? We consulted researchers and party experts, seeking to uncover the hard facts behind mind-altering experiences.

“Berlin has had a party culture for over a century, and drugs have always been a part of it,” says Simon, an avid party-goer and 10-year veteran of Berlin nightlife. “It’s a hedonistic, free metropolis, where people come to celebrate, enjoy themselves and have sex.” For this 46-year-old Swiss artist, a party is not a party without taking ecstasy. “It doesn’t only give me energy, but also makes me open-minded and sensual. Some sexual experiences are much more interesting on drugs.”

For Jonathan, a 26-year-old German student, drugs are an essential active ingredient to the party scene: “Techno equals drugs! The aesthetics of techno music gives a feeling of monotonous timelessness, with one DJ set blending seamlessly into the next. Clubs are like societal utopias: you can enjoy introspection in an alternative environment and taking drugs can allow for intimate interactions with strangers.” You’d think the above are highly subjective opinions of committed clubbers. But researchers confirm that drugs can help enhance your social experiences. “Many people find it difficult to let themselves go and relax, which is why they consume alcohol or cannabis. Some drugs make it possible to eliminate fears and doubts, and facilitate contact with others,” explains Dr. Henrik Jungaberle, researcher in drugs and prevention at the FINDER Institute and author of the book High sein (“Being High”). Last year, a group of Charité hospital researchers interviewed 877 clubbers about their drug use. Unsurprisingly, alcohol came out on top, with 87.7 percent of the study participants having consumed it in the last 30 days.

Following alcohol, the drugs most popular in the Berlin scene are nicotine (72 percent), cannabis (62.3 percent), amphetamines such as speed (50.3 percent), MDMA/ecstasy (49.1 percent) and cocaine, which had been consumed by just over one-third of the participants (36 percent). The drug next in line is ketamine, which Jonathan, like 32.2 percent of his fellow clubbers, enjoys taking on a night out. “The perception of music changes, it becomes more plastic. I sometimes hallucinate – but nothing serious. I see things while knowing that in reality they are not the way I see them.”

How the brain is affected

The effect of drugs on the brain is huge: it has been calculated that under the influence of cocaine, dopamine remains in the synapses 300 times longer than under normal conditions. Speed increases the release of noradrenalin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in excitement, alertness, emotions, sleep, dreams and learning. MDMA, the active compound in ecstasy, empties serotonin stocks – causing a strong sense of joy – and increases the levels of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which are conceived to be responsible for the feeling of emotional connection. This explains why MDMA has been known as a bonding tool in couples therapy for decades before it was criminalised in the 1980s.

“I like to take MDMA with my husband, it has a great connecting effect. It really stimulates your relationship, helping you remember great stuff – like why you’re together and what you mean to each other,” confirms Gaia, a 29-year-old start-up executive who moved from Seoul to Berlin nine years ago, “I don’t drink, alcohol makes me really sick,” she says. “So, drugs are my way to partake in the fun. In my early twenties, during my hardcore party years, I took lots of them! Now I work too much, and to be honest I kind of miss it. Drugs are great, they improve the quality of your life tremendously!” The problem? Repeated use of MDMA damages serotonin circuits involved in sleep, memory, mood and other functions of the body. Psychoactive substances are more or less neurotoxic, as they can disrupt or paralyse the nerve impulses and message transmission from one neuron to another. That can lead to a reduction or impairment of cognitive functions such as the ability to concentrate. But then again, alcohol is one of the most neurotoxic drugs known, eventually causing cell death in neurons, so maybe alcohol-abstinent Gaia didn’t bargain for much worse after all.

Another problem with stimulant drugs is that once neurotransmitter stocks are depleted, it takes up to weeks for them to fully regenerate, which is why the user can feel depressed several days after taking the drug.

The theory of drug relativity    

Or so goes the theory. In practice, drugs have different effects and consequences from one person to another. “There are three things to consider when taking drugs,” explains Dr. Felix Betzler, psychiatric researcher at Charité and author of the “party drugs” study. The drug itself is the first criterion, but also the “set and setting”, namely the consumer’s state of mind, and the environment in which the drug is taken. It is also relevant how much and at what age you take drugs. With age, your psychological state is usually more stable – which reduces the risk for psychoses induced by psychoactive substances. But then, like with alcohol, the hangover is more painful. Brendon, a 35-year-old American-born freelance writer, agrees: “I’ve been here for 10 years and in the first couple of years I did just about every drug I could, every weekend. But some time in my early thirties I noticed that I crashed a lot harder than I used to. If I took a lot of MDMA, I would need more than a full day to recover and usually mope around the house, semi-depressed.” Brendon says he hasn’t dropped drugs. “I’m just more conscious of what I have to do in the days afterwards!” An opinion echoed by Gaia: “Over the years it started to hit me a lot harder – I also need more recovery time, but I guess it’s like alcohol. Some friends tell me that now they’re in their mid-thirties, they get drunk a lot quicker and the hangover is a lot worse… You just need to be aware!”

Why do some people want to take drugs and others don’t? According to Betzler, the predisposition to take drugs – or not – is less down to brain structure than it is a matter of personality. But a lot remains unclear: “With chronic consumption, drug use correlates with changes in personality. You become more impulsive. But do we take drugs because we have a personality that tends towards taking drugs or is it because we take drugs that our personality becomes the one that takes to drugs? It’s a chicken and egg issue!” This change in personality can be seen in an altered brain structure. “From a biological point of view, all substances which are consumed in the party scene harm the brain,” says Betzler. “You can even see it in the brain when someone is addicted to nicotine. But as Paracelsus said, ‘it is the dose that makes the poison’, and, in the case of drugs, also the frequency of consumption.”

Beyond the junkie stereotype

In Germany, official information on drugs is scarce. However, with its long tradition as a chemical champion, the country is well aware of the subject. It was in Berlin that the first amphetamine was synthesised in 1887 and in Darmstadt, in a 1912 patent registered by Merck Laboratories, that MDMA was first mentioned. When Bayer commercialised diamorphine in 1898, the laboratory gave it its common name: heroin.

Today, Berlin ranks pretty high on the scale of recreational debauchery and club opening times keep extending. “When Berghain opened in 2004, the parties ended on Sunday noon,” recalls Simon. “Gradually, it remained open later and later and now they close on Monday afternoon.” Not to mention the Berlin club toilets that simultaneously serve as giant pharmacies. For a tenner you can get a gram of speed or an ecstasy pill. A gram of weed costs between €10 and €15, and a gram of ketamine, or 0.5 gram of cocaine should be around €50 (don’t trust a dealer trying to sell you the stuff for under €100 a gram!). Outside the clubs, prices drop by 30 to 40 percent. “In the last 10 years I’ve lived here, that’s pretty much the only thing that didn’t get more expensive. Drug prices don’t go up in this city!” marvels Gaia.

Yet, despite the abundant presence of drugs in the party scene, drug research still primarily focuses on prevention and addiction. The berlin.de site gives clothing tips for getting into Berghain (specifying that it is “difficult”), but when searching for “Drogen”, you will mainly find articles on crime and addiction-related problems. “In Germany, there is a very stereotypical and cliché-filled discussion about drugs,” says Jungaberle, referring back to a famous 1982 Helmut Kohl quote when the then Chancellor compared his determination to fight drugs to society’s eradication of cannibalism. “Beneficial usage of drugs is hardly the subject of any research” he continues, echoing a concern among some scientists that the governments’ criminalisation of drugs has prevented research that could help people suffering from depression. This is especially true for MDMA, which has shown promising results in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Amphetamine is sometimes prescribed, although reluctantly and often as a last resort, for depression, particularly when people have little energy. Ketamine, normally classified as a “depressant”, has a stimulating effect when taken in small doses and sold on prescription in Germany, while many private clinics in the US boast great results for patients with severe depression.

Meanwhile, in mainstream political discourse, illegal drugs remain perceived as evil, addictive and ultimately lethal substances taken by sick people. But this, according to Jungaberle does not reflect the reality of drug consumption. “In general people stop or reduce their drug use on their own,” says the researcher. According to a report by John Hopkins University, on average, only about 11 percent of people who have consumed psychoactive substances, including alcohol and heroin, develop a severe problem with their use. Conversely, 9 out of 10 people do not develop serious addictions. According to Betzler, only two illegal recreational substances have a high addictive potential: GHB, in terms of physical, and cocaine in terms of psychological addiction. Statistics also show a contrasted reality: while 1272 people died due to drug-related causes in Germany in 2017, the legal drugs, namely alcohol and tobacco, caused almost 15 times more damage, with 74.000 deaths per year from alcohol-related illnesses and 121.000 deaths per year from tobacco use.

Towards an informed consumption

According to Betzler’s study, clubbers in Berlin are on average 30 years old. Most of them are men with stable jobs. “Our study shows that three out of four drug users in Berlin have a university degree or a high school diploma. They are well informed, but could and wish to be more so. If people choose to consume drugs, we want them to have an informed consumption, in order to avoid overdoses and dangerous combinations, such as GHB and alcohol.” GHB, also known as “liquid ecstasy” or the “rape drug” is a nervous system depressant, causing parts of the brain to become less excitable and responsive and is consumed by 9.4 percent of clubbers. According to club staff interviewed by Betzler, it’s the substance that has led to the most frequent emergencies.

Those emergencies don’t have to involve authorities either. Brendon has seen his fair share of GHB overdoses over time. “It’s pretty horrible. People twitch and moan and speak in possessed tongues. I don’t judge anyone for taking anything – it’s not my business, but I stopped taking it years ago so I wouldn’t accidentally end up with a bad mix.” Jonathan, on the other hand, has no intention of stopping his drug use. He is careful to take breaks regularly and does not feel that his life has changed so much since he started. The same goes for Simon, who gave us an interview a few hours after leaving the Berghain: “I’m not saying there is no problem at all with drug use, but my friends and I are pretty well informed, and we have never experienced any major health issues. I only take drugs while partying; I don’t let it have too much of an influence on my job.” Gaia has quit party life but still likes to get high. “It helps you relax and take a break from the crazy world around you. It also helps you concentrate. Drugs are great! You just need to know yourself and your limits.” They all agree that awareness is key. Following Betzler’s “party drugs” study, the Senate promised to invest a substantial sum of €300.000 in drug education and prevention over the next two years. In the meantime, a quick tip for the informed party-goer: never mix alcohol and GHB.

Know your party drugs

The effects of a drug depend strongly on the type of its chemical composition as well as the circumstances and settings in which it is taken. But here is what you can expect from Berlin’s most common recreational substances, aka ‘party drugs’*:

Amphetamines aka speed or crystal meth (50.3 percent)

One often feels very awake and powerful. The sensory perception increases, as well as the urge to move. Feelings of tiredness, hunger and thirst disappear. As the effects decrease, one can feel a state of exhaustion, sleeplessness, depression, lack of concentration and muscle pain. The e ect of crystal meth is much more powerful than speed, but highly addictive and more physically destructive. Both can cause heightened feelings of sexual desire.

MDMA aka ecstasy /molly (49.1 percent)

The general physical condition improves, the mood brightens, relaxation and empathy increase. One feels the need to touch other people. The feelings of tiredness, hunger and thirst disappear. Depression, anxiety, or psychotic disturbances may occur as after effects.

Cocaine (36 percent)

The effects are similar to those of amphetamines, but cocaine has a shorter duration and is more likely to induce euphoria. Self-confidence and the desire to speak increase, as well as the frequency of the heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature. Cocaine can also lead to overactivity, loss of control and self-overestimation. Worst case scenario: the misjudgment of reality with fear of persecution, an increased tendency toward suicide and aggressive behaviour.

Ketamine aka special K or simply K (32.2 percent)

The sensory perception changes, the impressions only come into consciousness in fragments, and their meaning is perceived in an altered way. The border between oneself and the outside world dissolves. This impaired perception may cause injuries or accidents, confusion, hallucinations and anxiety attacks.

LSD aka acid (12 percent)

As a hallucinogenic, it has a powerful perception-altering effect on all senses. Colour, music, touch or taste are perceived more intensively and the experience of space and time changes. In the case of a horror trip, confusion, anxiety and panic attacks can happen.

GHB/GBL aka liquid ecstasy or G (9.4 percent)

GHB has no chemical relationship to ecstasy, but the experience of the drug can be similar, hence the name. It can also induce a heightened sense of sexual desire. People under the infl uence of GHB can be talkative, extroverted and giggly, while others turn in on themselves. Like alcohol, it reduces inhibitions. Withdrawal from the drug can cause deliriums and hallucinations.