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Ecstasy hysteria flourishes in Florida

What happens when subcultures come of age? The answer would look a lot like the roomful of 75 social workers, therapists, teachers, activists, and self-professed "party people" who sat in a circle in a meeting room at downtown Miami's Wyndham Hotel last month. An intense high school girl in baggy jeans was next to a clean-cut thirtysomething gentleman in a conservative blazer, who in turn sat beside a young man with spiky magenta hair.

The common thread among them was a heartfelt connection to the rave community and a world view that there issuch a thing as a "rave community," a group that can be discussed just as one might talk about gays, blacks, or Cuban exiles, people possessing certain shared self-identities, cultural values, or health concerns. This last point is what brought these folks together on the eve of the Third National Harm Reduction Conference. That larger gathering would draw 1100 health professionals to weigh responses to matters such as the continuing spread of AIDS. At this particular gathering, however, the emphasis was on drug use, specifically Ecstasy, the drug that has achieved widespread popularity not just at raves but increasingly throughout mainstream America.

With popularity, though, has come an epidemic of fake Ecstasy, pills containing PMA or DXM, substances both cheaper and easier for drug dealers to obtain than MDMA (Ecstasy's chemical name). In high doses they also can be very dangerous and are the chief culprits behind the well-publicized rash of "Ecstasy overdoses."

After introductions by each member of the circle (revealing points of origin as far afield as West Palm Beach, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Puerto Rico, and Toronto), Theo Rosenfeld rose. "We're going to ask the television media to please leave the room now," he announced, speaking politely but firmly to a CBS camera crew lurking in a corner. Rosenfeld is a community organizer with DanceSafe,an Oakland, California, nonprofit harm-reduction organization promoting health and safety within the rave and nightclub community. The discussion Rosenfeld was about to lead would get very frank.


A little more than a decade after rave's birth in England and its subsequent journey across the Atlantic and into the American heartland, an increasing number of its veterans are refusing to accept that the party's over, or that rave today is nothing more than a new marketing demographic. This perspective has found its clearest articulation in DanceSafe, which already has opened thirteen chapters nationwide and in Canada since its inception last year. Implicit in DanceSafe's health-oriented education work is a desire to take an active role in shepherding the direction of the rave community, which is beset on one side by increasing commercialization (the same forces that previously sanded off the dissident edges of beatniks, hippies, and punks), and on the other by the nation's drug warriors, who have set their sights squarely on anyone carrying a glow stick.

DanceSafe's members don't exactly look like grizzled politicos; the charismatic Theo Rosenfeld is a precocious 22 years old. Still, as someone who first hit the rave scene at age sixteen, he does have six years of dance-floor experience. By today's hyperattenuated standards of what qualifies as old school, that renders him practically ancient. "Those of us in our midtwenties are the elders in this scene," he quips with a smile.

DanceSafe does have some over-the-hill supporters in their late 20s and 30s. Several prominent dot-com millionaires such as Microsoft's Bob Wallace and Go2Net's Paul Phillips have made sizable contributions to the organization; as Phillips explained recently: "[DanceSafe's actions] are sane. The war on drugs is insane."

Accordingly DanceSafe's most notable activity, and the one that has undoubtedly fueled its rapid national growth, has been its on-site testing of Ecstasy. Setting up tables inside raves and applying a chemical reagent to pills offered up by ravers, DanceSafe members can quickly tell if they're looking at actual Ecstasy or something counterfeit. Ecstasy, of course, is illegal and thus so is DanceSafe's testing of it -- maybe. The group sidesteps this issue by obtaining a scraping from the pill in question, handing the pill back to its owner, and only then testing the scraping. Hence at no time are DanceSafe testers ever in possession of a pill they know to be illegal.

It's a gray area, but in light of the past year's rash of PMA- and DXM-related hospitalizations (as well as at least a dozen known recent deaths in Orlando and Chicago), police have chosen to look the other way and let DanceSafe operate unmolested. That is, police everywhere but in Florida. Members of Orlando's DanceSafe chapter say they've been informed by their local law-enforcement officials that should they begin testing Ecstasy at raves, they'll be immediately arrested. The head of the Orlando chapter, David Curiel, has even expressed the belief that the house in which a number of the group's members live is under constant police surveillance. Considering that several undercover Orlando officers have crowed to reporters of their clandestine work within that city's rave scene, Curiel is probably right.

Chastened by the experiences of the Orlando chapter and leery of police harassment, several South Floridians have been proceeding cautiously with plans to establish their own chapter. To DanceSafe's founder, national director Emanuel Sferios, such an attitude is maddening. In his eyes the actions of Florida officials aren't just misguided, they're literally killing ravers.

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