The Other E-Commerce

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.

"Jim McDonough has blood on his hands," Sferios says matter-of-factly, referring to Florida's drug czar, a figure widely considered much more conservative than national drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. (McCaffrey recently announced his resignation effective January 6, 2001. Should George W. Bush be awarded the presidency, current Beltway speculation puts McDonough -- handpicked for his current position by Gov. Jeb Bush -- as his likely choice to succeed McCaffrey, a notion that chills many drug-policy reformers.)

"Our testing kits would have saved the lives of all those six people who died in Central Florida of PMA," Sferios asserts. "When you've got a drug that's in such high demand as Ecstasy, and it's so easy to put anything into a pill and sell it as Ecstasy, you make the conditions ripe for adulterants. The only reason PMA is being produced and sold as Ecstasy is as a scam in order to make money and avoid the risk and expense of manufacturing real Ecstasy. I don't blame those deaths on Ecstasy. I don't even blame PMA. I blame those deaths on Jim McDonough.

"I'm not trying to provide users with caveats to abuse drugs," Sferios adds, "but anecdotal evidence is better than alarmism. And we've had people using [Ecstasy] for 30 years now, and there's no evidence of cognitive damage."

The era Sferios refers to is Ecstasy's first flush of popularity in the United States, a period that peaked in the early Eighties. At that time, however, MDMA was referred to as Adam, and the notion of dancing all night while under its influence never occurred to anyone. Talking, not boogying, was the activity of choice.

Originally synthesized in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company and briefly used in U.S. military experiments in 1953, MDMA lay largely untouched until 1977, when it was "rediscovered" by California physician Sasha Shulgin. He in turn introduced it to psychiatrist Leo Zoff, who became so smitten with the drug's therapeutic effects on his patients that he acted as a veritable MDMA Johnny Appleseed. Zoff quietly began traveling the nation, acquainting hundreds of fellow physicians with the then-legal drug. The idea was to keep MDMA firmly within the medical community and thus avoid the Sixties example set by Timothy Leary, whose public enthusiasm for LSD triggered a government crackdown on that hallucinogenic drug.

Leary himself, also an early MDMA advocate, agreed with this low-key approach, telling an interviewer in 1985: "Let's face it, we're talking about an elitist experience.... No one wants a Sixties situation where sleazy characters hang around college dorms peddling pills they falsely call Ecstasy to lazy thrill-seekers."

Of course by 1985 that was a pretty good description of the situation at hand, as Ecstasy had quickly traveled out of doctors' offices and into nightclubs around the nation. On July 1 of that year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) outlawed it.

Fifteen years later the question still remains: Is Ecstasy harmful? The answer isn't entirely clear, thanks to inconclusive and often conflicting studies, not to mention a seemingly willful disinformation campaign on the part of government officials. Most of these tests have concentrated on Ecstasy's release in the brain of serotonin (the body's primary mood regulator and the reason Ecstasy users report feelings of happiness, empathy, and contentment), as well as its possible long-term depletion of serotonin.

One well-publicized 1999 study, conducted by Johns Hopkins neurotoxicologist George Ricaurte, prompted the nation's top DEA officials to hold up the results as clear evidence that Ecstasy causes brain damage. Yet Ricaurte himself drew different conclusions from his work, telling Time magazine that "the vast majority of people who have experimented with MDMA appear normal, and there's no obvious indication that something is amiss."

Dr. John Morgan, a professor at the City University of New York Medical School, went a step further. After reviewing the same material touted by the DEA as evidence of danger, he told Time: "None of the subjects Ricaurte studied had any evidence of brain or psychological dysfunction. His findings should not be dismissed, but they may mean that we have a whole lot of plasticity -- that we can do without serotonin and be okay."

In other words the long-term consequences of casual Ecstasy use may simply be a lot of grown-up ravers with Prozac prescriptions, hardly the apocalyptic future promised by drug warriors. Meanwhile MDMA's original advocates have resumed their work. In both Spain and Israel, studies are under way to examine use of the drug in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.


Back at the Wyndham Hotel, the discussion had turned to practical matters: How do you help ravers who are so high they're disoriented? One DanceSafe member cheerfully offered, "One of the things that was helpful during the height of my acid days was to pull out my Chap Stick, something with writing on it. “Oh yeah, there isa real world out there.'"

A round of knowing laughter spreads over the room. It's probably a good thing for DanceSafe the CBS crew was asked to leave. That little bon mot about lip balm is exactly the type of video clip television producers and drug warriors salivate over. Yet as anyone who possesses a familiarity with acid can tell you, it's also true, which raises the uncomfortable central issue of the war on drugs. Just who would you prefer on the scene with an overdosing child: A police detective such as Orlando's rave "expert" Mike Stevens, who opined to 60 Minutes II that "Ecstasy is no different from crack or heroin?" Or someone who actually is familiar with Ecstasy's effects?

Kids are going to go out and get fucked up.That's what kids do. It's what they've been doing for the past four decades. With a little help from their friends and the guidance of people from groups like DanceSafe, most kids will safely mature into careers, spouses, and mortgages. Then they can begin worrying about what their ownkids are up to.

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