My friend Elena has a Ziploc bag stuffed with red-and-white tablets. The Bay Area dealer who sold them to her says theyre pure MDMA -- otherwise known as Ecstasy -- and shes inclined to believe him. The stuff coming out of the Bay Area is really good right now, she says.
If her dealers right, shortly after she eats a pill, Elenas neural axons will drench her brain with excess serotonin, her heart will race, and shell find herself overwhelmed by an exhilarating sense of deep empathy with all humankind. Three to five hours later shell crash, tired and perhaps depressed from serotonin depletion. But shes got a bottle of 5HTP vitamin supplement and a small cache of Prozac to take care of that. And though the jury is still out on the drugs long-term neurotoxic effects, as long as Elena remembers to stay cool and drink water, shell undoubtedly come down alive. The very few so-called Ecstasy overdoses have come from madly dancing, dehydrated X-ers giving themselves heat stroke.
But if Elenas pills arent MDMA -- if her dealer is wrong -- she could take a dose and die.
Black marketeers ---- hampered by law enforcements crackdown on Ecstasy manufacture, but lured by the swelling ranks of ravers willing to shell out up to $30 for a single dose -- have taken to substituting a pharmacopoeia of substances for X, making it the most frequently adulterated narcotic on the market, law enforcement says. Some bogus pills are harmless rip-offs. Others can prove deadly, especially in a rave setting. One X substitute, the legal cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DXM), inhibits perspiration and has led to a slew of club casualties. Last month, paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA) disguised as Ecstasy hit American shores after killing several users in Europe. Like X, PMA raises blood pressure. Unlike X, theres no limit to how high PMA can raise it -- the more pills ingested, the higher the pressure. Two Chicago-area ravers died from the drug. One of them had taken a staggering five doses.
With Ecstasy use deeply embedded in the fabric of modern dance culture -- due in no small part to the media, which by hyping raves as drug fests guarantees that drug users will attend -- the problem of adulterated pills threatens to destroy the very scene that spawned the current X boom. But -- not surprising in a movement that celebrates creative uses of technology -- dance aficionados have arrived at a homegrown tech solution, in the form of a nonprofit group called DanceSafe.
Founded in Berkeley last year by 30-year-old philosophy grad Emanuel Sferios -- and already expanded to nine cities, L.A. being the latest -- DanceSafe is the domestic descendant of European harm reduction organizations such as Hollands Unity group. Such groups cleave to the same principles that birthed needle-exchange programs and helped reduce the spread of AIDS. Its not that there are good drugs and bad drugs, safe drugs and dangerous drugs, says Sferios. There are just drugs. All of them have an inherent risk. People who arent willing to abstain need factual, unbiased information about what the drugs do and how to avoid the risks.
To that end, DanceSafe last February posted an educational Web site (www.dancesafe.org) that currently racks up a formidable 130,000 hits per day. The site is rife with FAQs detailing the effects, dosages and dangers of a whole range of illicit drugs.
What have drawn the most attention, though, are DanceSafes drug-testing services. Users anonymously send questionable tabs to a DEA-approved Sacramento lab for gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy testing. DanceSafes Web site posts a revolving rogues gallery of photos of bogus Ecstasy tabs, along with their actual ingredients, so ravers can identify tainted strains of X.
Since last June, the group has been taking pill testing to the people, setting up booths at a number of raves and club events. Ravers present their X to DanceSafe volunteers, who treat the pills using a marquis reagent kit -- basically a bottle of sulfuric acid tempered with formaldehyde. A drop or two on a pill shaving detects the presence -- or total absence -- of MDMA, or related compounds such as MDA and MDE. It can also identify some of the most common Ecstasy imposters: 2CB, DXM and speed.
For a $25 donation, DanceSafe offers a marquis kit for home use. Mine arrived in the mail two weeks ago. I gave Elena a call.
Elena fishes out a sample of each of the three Ecstasy brands from her little Ziploc. One is red with an M design pressed into its surface. These are red Motorolas, and Elenas heard theyre the best. Which just means everybody likes them, she says. It doesnt mean theyre X.