Ecstasy Without Fear
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.
She scrapes a tiny bit of red Motorola onto a white ceramic plate, and I pull out the marquis test bottle. A sticker on the front screams CORROSIVE. Its no joke -- I spill a drop, and it eats through Elenas tablecloth like Alien blood. Thats okay, she says. I got it at IKEA.
I tip the bottle upside down over the pile of red Motorola. Two drops slide onto the powder, and the liquid immediately turns a purplish black. We consult a color chart. Immediate black means theres at least some form of MD compound in red Motorola.
A white Buddha pill also tests positive for MD. Elena moves on to a white Mushroom tab, scraping some onto the plate. I douse it with another drop from the bottle. This time, when the powder turns black, it bubbles and gives off a satisfying acidic hiss.
We smile. This is cool.
But not everyone is so impressed. DanceSafes programs have raised the ire of several high-profile anti-drug groups, including the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a project whose efforts have resulted in roughly $3 billion in pro bono media exposure and whose list of funders includes Pepsi-Cola, the U.S. Department of Education and several pharmaceutical companies. Its never, in our mind, a good idea to make drugs that are illegal seem more socially acceptable, and that, in essence, is what DanceSafe is doing, says Howard Simon, the PDFAs assistant director of public affairs. They could just as easily go into these raves and pass out literature about how dangerous the drugs are, urge the kids to hand over the drugs no questions asked, and not hand them back. But theyre choosing to test the drugs and give em back to the kids, and we think thats insane.
According to Sferios, DanceSafe booths do distribute literature explaining the dangers of Ecstasy. But if we told kids we were planning to take their pills away, he says, theyd never come around to read the literature in the first place.
Thats a nice cover, responds Simon. But again, the bottom line is that DanceSafe is saying, Youre using an illegal drug? Well help you do it.
If DanceSafe has its high-profile enemies, though, it has some equally impressive friends. The groups efforts have quickly caught the attention of the high-tech world, people like software millionaire Bob Wallace (Microsofts employee No. 9) and newly landed young IPO gentry like Paul Phillips.
As the original chief technical officer of Go2Net -- a publicly traded Internet portal company with a market cap of over $1 billion -- Phillips had the financial wherewithal to go into semiretirement at the tender age of 27, the better to embark on a career as a professional poker player. Like many techies, he also spent years making the rounds of the rave scene, where he says he witnessed a lot of ignorance. Theres much to hate about the drug war, but the worst is how it suppresses information. The government claims to be educating kids about drugs, but theyre not -- theyre just telling them not to do drugs. Anything thats about getting the information out there, Im in favor of. Phillips first spotted a DanceSafe booth at a rave in August 1999. The next day, he wrote Sferios a check for $10,000.
Others followed. Software designer and movie investor Ray Greenwell will give DanceSafe all his profits from the upcoming Groove, an indie film, set in the rave world, which Sony Pictures Classics bought at Sundance for $1.5 million. The founder of one multibillion-dollar tech company has offered to make his new outfit DanceSafes corporate sponsor, Sferios says. (A company spokesperson confirms the offer, but says her firm isnt ready to go public.) In the last nine months, according to Sferios, DanceSafes coffers have swelled from negative numbers to $200,000.
Thats allowed the group to breathe a little easier in the face of potential legal threats. Sferios is relatively unconcerned, for instance, about the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, a proposed federal bill that, if passed, would make it a crime to use the Internet to disseminate information about illegal drugs. I hope the government tries to shut us down, he says. Nothing would give us more publicity, and we have a lot of money to fight the issue in court. I dont think they want to go to war with the dot-coms over this.
But even if DanceSafe wins that war, the group faces an uphill battle in its efforts to change users attitudes toward drug safety. Case in point: Elena. Though all her tabs check positive for the presence of MD compounds, I remind her that the marquis test cant determine a pills overall purity. Would she consider waiting a week while the Sacramento lab tests one of her pills and posts the results on DanceSafes site?
Smiling, Elena gathers up her tabs, clutching them to her bosom like a mother cradling her child. I care about this whole purity thing, she says. But not that much.#
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.