Holy Rollers

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

Hall adds that, despite the euphoric feelings it delivers, X is hardly benign. As with any stimulant, an overdose carries the risk of convulsions or even stroke. Ecstasy also is notorious for a bad hangover, usually lasting most of the day after use. Because of the relative newness of MDMA, Hall says, researchers really don't know much about the effects of long-term use of the drug on humans.

Kirsten Leistner, a 34-year-old bartender, has a prime perspective on the Ecstasy era. A native of Berlin, she vividly remembers the European X scene, and she's tended bar in Miami Beach since 1991. "Back in the days," in Europe, she says, Ecstasy appeared out of an Amsterdam drug/club scene already saturated with marijuana and LSD. X spread quickly through Western Europe as a once-in-a-while, special-occasion, stay-up-all-night-and-hug-everybody drug in the mid- to late Eighties, and remains strong in the clubs over there. One of the most visible and notorious barometers of Ecstasy's continued popularity is the annual Love Parade in her hometown, during which it seems the entire continent's youth takes MDMA, then brings the fun out of the clubs and into the streets. If you don't want to participate, it's best to leave Berlin.

"The music needs to be enlivened, so the old disco gets a revived backbeat to it, a more energetic feel to it," Hall adds. "There was always this kind of special relationship between the drug and the event." The intertwined phenomenon of MDMA and the all-night party made enough of an impact in the United States -- principally in Houston, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay Area -- for the government to declare the drug part of the deal illegal. (With a few exceptions, then as now, the drug itself was being produced in Western Europe and shipped all over the world.) In addition to the semiclandestine warehouse parties where X was served, organizers would sometimes pitch a tent somewhere out in the boondocks as a temporary venue. By the end of the Eighties, the word rave entered the mainstream pop-culture lexicon. By the early Nineties even Jason Priestley's character on Beverly Hills 90210 took something called "Euphoria" at a rave in one episode. (He makes out with a sleazy girl who slipped the "4" (as in eu-FOUR-ia) in his drink, then the next day she says, "You told me you loved me," and he says, "Yeah, well I must have been on drugs." Cue music ... and fade.)

The demand for the stuff was expanding steadily. As with most drugs, its popularity spurred a growth in the production of fake Ecstasy.

"Through most of the Eighties, when people would send in Ecstasy for us to test, it was one of the few street drugs that was almost always what it was supposed to be," Hall remembers. Then, in the mid-Nineties, that began to change. He recalls one person from Central Florida calling the Miami Coalition's hotline, distraught because he had flunked a drug test, but insisting that he hadn't done any drugs. Hall asked him what he had tested positive for; the man told him, cocaine and phenobarbital. Which was impossible, because he hadn't taken any drugs ... except for Ecstasy. "Well, there's your answer," Hall told him. "What you took wasn't X, but a combination of cocaine and phenobarbital."

This was the first Hall had heard of this particular mode of combining an upper and a downer in one pill -- a cheaper formula than MDMA -- and calling it Ecstasy. But as he investigated this ersatz X, often known as "rollers" (which is confusing, because being on real Ecstasy is also called "rolling," the real stuff also called "rollers" and "rolls"), he discovered something weird.

"What has fascinated me about [fake Ecstasy] in the Nineties is, normally, when there's adulteration, the consumers get mad, or antsy, or paranoid," he says. "But here, for the first time, the adulteration becomes almost a promotional tool. People will ask each other, 'What's in your roller?' 'Mine has a little bit of X, plus methamphetamine, plus a touch of cocaine, and some Xanax, and just a little bit of heroin.' We first reported this back about six years ago, when people would take a 'five-way': In that case snorting, say, a line of coke, a line of Rohypnol, a line of Ecstasy, a line of Special K [the veterinary anesthetic ketamine], a shot of Jägermeister," he says, with an ironic laugh. "There was no real pharmaceutical logic to it."

In South Florida the non-Ecstasy rollers became a desired product themselves in the Nineties, especially among teenage ravers. Even as late as 1998, Hall says, the data he has collected locally, along with that of federal law enforcement and drug-prevention agencies, suggested that the big story down here was fake X, not real X. But in 1999 it's become clear that good old-fashioned, high-quality MDMA has made a huge comeback, especially in Miami Beach, thanks to a massive influx of the stuff from Europe, chiefly Amsterdam. The trendy and potentially deadly illogic of the "five-way" persists, though. The night of the September 18 rave in the Coconut Grove Convention Center, at which 15,000 people took in large volumes of electronica music and controlled substances, a man in his twenties died of an overdose in a nearby hotel. He appeared to have succumbed to some or all of the components of a "nine-way": Ecstasy, Special K, heroin, LSD, nitrous oxide, pot, cocaine, Xanax, and alcohol. (At press time the Miami-Dade County medical examiner's office had not determined the exact cause of the man's death.) Kirsten Leistner has witnessed the ebb and flow of drug trends from behind various bars. Her state-of-the-city report: "Now it's rolls everywhere," she says, specifying that she means actual X, not the fake stuff. Sometimes she sees the younger clubbers taking what they call "horse pills," big capsules that contain blends of Ecstasy, Special K, sometimes LSD, or other uppers or downers. Still, in 1999 the return of the real deal is dominating the club scene on the Beach. "Ecstasy came in within the last five years, but in the past few months, it's gotten a little more extreme," Leistner says.

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