Holy Rollers

To keep X-craved Miami Beach raving, Hasidic teenagers smuggled in pills by the hundreds of thousands

The initial shock of the arrests in this case, which made international news in late July, centered on the incongruity of Hasidic Ecstasy smugglers. But as culturally quirky as this alleged smuggling ring might seem, it does somewhat fit an established profile for international MDMA trafficking. In its June 1999 Drug Intelligence brief about Ecstasy, the DEA stated that Israeli organized-crime syndicates (some composed of Russian-Jewish immigrants to Israel who maintain ties to Russian mobsters) are the "primary" source of Ecstasy for distributors in the United States.

But while the DEA is thinking globally, Miami Beach club kids are tripping locally. Laying aside the distinguishing garb of the alleged couriers, the sheer number of pills involved in this case speaks volumes about Miami's appetite for the most famous of all designer drugs, the drug that's driving some of the hottest music trends and dance clubs -- and most heated drug-enforcement debates -- on that sinful stretch of Miami Beach known as Washington Avenue.

Four forty-five a.m. Sunday on Washington Avenue. The regular clubs are closing down, the after-hours clubs are starting up, and too many of the thronging revelers are fucked up on the wrong kinds of drugs. A shaven-head twentysomething in a Fubu tank top shoulders his way through a cluster of silk-shirt-and-blue-jeans clad men waiting to get into Twist. "Excuse me," says one of those getting shouldered, with a tinge of attitude. "Excuse you is right," says the offender, clearly spoiling for an early morning gay-bash. His two friends shoo him along without incident. It wouldn't have been worth it anyway, it seems. "Hitting a faggot is like hitting a woman, knowhatimsayin'?" he expounds. "They start cryin' and shit."

Now there's a guy who could use some Ecstasy, the feel-good drug of the Nineties. Where could he score some? According to Miami Beach police, just about anywhere. Like from the guy with the impish grin and dyed-blond flattop waiting in line to get into The Mix. "You need rollers?" he asks, in a friendly tone. Or maybe it was a statement: If you're up this late, and you're not already rolling, then you need rollers.

His offer is politely declined; he departs with a retro "soul-brother" handshake. No more business to be done here. He's clearly taken a gander at the 30 or so individuals waiting to get into the Beach's most notorious after-hours club, and seen that the clientele is already rolling big-time. Every third patron is sucking on a Charm's Blow Pop; one diminutive girl, appropriate to her stature, has brought a pacifier, while a couple of bug-eyed gringos are chewing ferociously on plastic straws. Anything to offset that dry-mouth feeling that comes from the dehydration effect of Ecstasy; several of those in line are draining bottles of Zephyrhills. What's that smell? Ah, it's the wiry youth with the goatee and the Atlanta Falcons floppy hat smearing Vicks VapoRub all over his face. Who doesn't love the smell of menthol in the morning? (Kids on X use the strong-smelling stuff to cool off because the drug raises their body temperature.)

After a 40-minute wait in debilitating heat, the velvet rope parts. You plunk down a $15 cover charge, endure a turn-out-your-pockets- and-thorough-pat-down search, and then you can roll right into The Mix, with it's thump-and-wail trance soundtrack courtesy of DJ David Padilla, $4 bottled water ($2 for a cup of ice water -- hey, these kids ain't drinkin' booze, and these clubs ain't there for charity) and grinning, sweating clubsters brandishing glow sticks.

If Miami is the Ecstasy mecca of the globe, then The Mix is its holiest shrine.

MDMA, an acronym for 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, has been around in one form or another since 1912, when a German company first synthesized it, possibly for use as an appetite suppressant. Decades later its euphoric effects, including the feelings of empathy, touchy-feelyness, and all-around good vibes, gave it some currency among psychiatrists, who explored its application as a therapeutic drug in the late Seventies and early Eighties. As with so many other substances in our anything-for-a-buzz culture, the stuff found its way into the illicit market, and as recreational use of this designer drug began to escalate, the state stepped in.

"July 1, 1985," says Jim Hall, executive director of the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community. "I remember the day exactly. That's when the DEA scheduled MDMA as a designer drug." Beginning on that day, Ecstasy was a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, meaning the federal penalties for its use and possession were just as stiff as they were for cocaine, PCP, and heroin.

But even as early as the mid-Eighties, the European subculture that had grown up around X, especially in the pot-permissive Netherlands, was unique. "The emergence of warehouse parties in Amsterdam was really centered around Ecstasy," Hall says. "It was [marketed] like, 'Here is the return of acid, but without LSD.' Ecstasy gives self-introspection like LSD, but it's technically a stimulant, not a hallucinogen. It's not a stimulant like cocaine or amphetamines, where you get this physical, nervous, agitated energy, like too much coffee for some of us," he adds, with a chuckle. "It's more of a mental alertness, an awakeness, but there's no distortion of reality." With the warehouse parties, Hall says, the early-morning hours accommodate the stimulant effect, and the booming music and photonic light shows stand in for the aural and visual hallucinations acid would have provided.

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