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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 they‘re pure MDMA -- otherwise known as ”Ecstasy“ -- and she’s inclined to believe him. ”The stuff coming out of the Bay Area is really good right now,“ she says.

If her dealer‘s right, shortly after she eats a pill, Elena’s neural axons will drench her brain with excess serotonin, her heart will race, and she‘ll find herself overwhelmed by an exhilarating sense of deep empathy with all humankind. Three to five hours later she’ll crash, tired and perhaps depressed from serotonin depletion. But she‘s 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 drug’s long-term neurotoxic effects, as long as Elena remembers to stay cool and drink water, she‘ll 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 Elena’s pills aren‘t MDMA -- if her dealer is wrong -- she could take a dose and die.

Black marketeers ---- hampered by law enforcement’s 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, there‘s 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 Holland’s Unity group. Such groups cleave to the same principles that birthed needle-exchange programs and helped reduce the spread of AIDS. ”It‘s 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 aren’t 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 DanceSafe‘s drug-testing services. Users anonymously send questionable tabs to a DEA-approved Sacramento lab for gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy testing. DanceSafe’s Web site posts a revolving rogue‘s 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 Elena’s heard they‘re the best. ”Which just means everybody likes them,“ she says. ”It doesn’t mean they‘re 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.“ It’s no joke -- I spill a drop, and it eats through Elena‘s tablecloth like Alien blood. ”That’s 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 there‘s 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. DanceSafe’s 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. ”It‘s 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 PDFA’s 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 they‘re choosing to test the drugs and give ’em back to the kids, and we think that‘s 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, ”they’d never come around to read the literature in the first place.“

”That‘s a nice cover,“ responds Simon. ”But again, the bottom line is that DanceSafe is saying, ’You‘re using an illegal drug? We’ll help you do it.‘“

If DanceSafe has its high-profile enemies, though, it has some equally impressive friends. The group’s efforts have quickly caught the attention of the high-tech world, people like software millionaire Bob Wallace (Microsoft‘s 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. There’s 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 they‘re not -- they’re just telling them not to do drugs. Anything that‘s about getting the information out there, I’m 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 DanceSafe‘s corporate sponsor, Sferios says. (A company spokesperson confirms the offer, but says her firm isn’t ready to go public.) In the last nine months, according to Sferios, DanceSafe‘s coffers have swelled from negative numbers to $200,000.

That’s 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 don‘t 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 can‘t determine a pill’s overall purity. Would she consider waiting a week while the Sacramento lab tests one of her pills and posts the results on DanceSafe‘s 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.“#


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