Anomie and Ecstasy

Mike Males February 2001

“Unique,” “life-changing,” “different from all drugs that came before it” -- if breathless accolades for Ecstasy gushed only from dreamy-eyed aficionados of America’s fastest growing illicit mood alterant, they might be suspect. But scientific researchers and therapeutic testimonial confirm partiers’ claim that MDMA, the chemical abbreviation for Ecstasy, is something new under the sun. Ecstasy’s chemistry borrows from the psychedelics and hallucinogenic amphetamines with which it is popularly classed, yet “MDMA is utterly unique, not an extension of other drugs,” declared biochemist and psychedelic drug authority Alexander Shulgin. “Penicillin for the soul,” added his wife, therapist Ann Shulgin.

“Most drug research is incredibly depressing, but not this,” declared Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation San Francisco director Marsha Rosenbaum, author of Pursuit of Ecstasy. “The descriptions users gave of its effects were like nothing I’d heard before.” Ecstasy dissolves defenses, profoundly enhances empathy, promotes connectedness to others. No one kills on it, no one kills for it. It doesn’t require regular use; many say one dose per lifetime is the ideal. Just “one session with Ecstasy can be life changing,” testified Sue Stevens, who took it in counseling to ease communication with her cancer-stricken husband. “Ecstasy is a safe and effective adjunct to psychotherapy,” added Dr. Rick Doblin of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), summarizing 1,000 studies on MDMA published in scientific literature.

Given its hip status as the “hug drug” for mostly affluent, under-30 white folks, Ecstasy “has the potential to generate honest dialogue” transcending “drug war demagoguery,” said Lindesmith director Ethan Nadelman. Ecstasy triggers a brain-bath of serotonin, the mind’s natural bliss compound. Researchers worry about long-term damage from altering brain regulation. Johns Hopkins University neurotoxicologist George Ricuarte’s animal and human studies report that even taken in normal doses, Ecstasy can cause long-term serotonin and cognitive deficiencies. “Ecstasy damages the brain and impairs memory in humans,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warns. Other researchers, including City University of New York pharmacologist John Morgan and University of California, Los Angeles, medical professor Charles Grob counter that studies indicating long-term Ecstasy damage “are seriously flawed” because they involved subjects who took many different drugs.

Short-term problems include hyperthermia (elevated body temperature), dehydration, and ingesting other dangerous substances misrepresented as Ecstasy. When taken moderately in pure form by users familiar with the need to drink cool water and avoid overheating, Ecstasy’s effects are benign. Unlike alcohol, “no one gets into fights on Ecstasy,” said Emanuel Sferios, founder of DanceSafe, a nationwide “harm reduction” group that tests pills for purity and distributes safety information at raves.

In today’s officially deplored adolescent melting pot, white kids copy inner-city hiphop styles as raves gain popularity among youth of color. “Lots of Hispanics attend East Bay raves,” Sferios said. Nationally, it’s mostly young white adults. Four-fifths are older than high school age. Most use Ecstasy or, less often, other club drugs like GHB. “I ascribe Ecstasy’s popularity to profound alienation among today’s young people,” said Grob.

Alienation? Contrary to image, 90% of today’s teens tell surveys they’re happy and well-adjusted; four-fifths get along with parents! Still, ravers may be more misanthropic than most youths. “In a world of community and family breakdown, dance community has an uncanny ability to support each other through their natural networks,” said UCLA doctoral candidate Dustianne North, long-term rave-culture participant and observer. “It’s not about teenagers on Ecstasy. It’s about tribalism.” Formerly alienated Matthew Klam reports in his January 21 New York Times Magazine essay that Ecstasy vastly improved connection to others even years after taking it. “More than for any other drug, kids tell their parents about Ecstasy,” said Sferios. “They want their parents to try it.”

One appeal of Ecstasy, raves, and togetherness to youths stems from America’s massive, unadmitted drug crisis: the eruption of hard-drug abuse among aging baby boomers and consequent family disarray. As their parents fell into addiction, divorce, “personal growth,” and other navel fixations in the 1980s and ‘90s, large numbers of latchkey young sought alternative families. Poor kids formed gangs. Middle-class and affluent kids instigated raves, breaking into warehouses or gathering in remote wilds to rig sound systems for all-night parties. To prevent unwanted visitors (especially uniformed ones), rave locations were communicated through word of mouth, flyers handed to known faithful, and phone or Web messages.

Like every popular innovation, rave culture caught private marketers' attention. The clandestine, intimate raves of the 1980s and early ‘90s evolved into “massives” -- all-night parties attended by thousands despite often steep admission prices. “This kind of opportunism threatens the integrity of our culture,” North laments. “Corporations promote commodification of our movement.” As large and small “raves” expanded geometrically in the 1990s, the makeup of ravers changed. Ceaseless media and law enforcement barrages that “these rave parties are really there just for drugs” (as D.E.A. operations chief Joe Keefe told ABC News) draws hard drug-users to what are mainly dance events, said Sferios.

With a few calming exceptions, press depiction of raves remain histrionic. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report regularly feature Ecstasy on their covers; CNN and ABC cascade “undercover” exposes. Dateline NBC, against a backdrop of ambulances and addicts, proclaimed that “extremely dangerous substances” are taken by “teens... maybe even your teen” at “raves, where drug use is rampant.” “Ecstasy: Cracking Down on a Risky Drug,” U.S. News headlined “the hot drug among America’s teens.”

John Cloud, who wrote Time’s balanced June 5, 2000, feature, said journalists routinely exaggerate the dangers of high schoolers at raves, adopt safe “just say no” stances, and let cops dispense science. “Ecstasy is no different from crack (cocaine), heroin,” 60 Minutes uncritically quoted a police detective. (One difference: cocaine and heroin killed 9,000 people in 1999, while Ecstasy was implicated in 40 deaths -- fewer than one-tenth the fatalities involving abuse of Tylenol, a 60 Minutes sponsor.) Under White House and congressional pressure, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering classifying Ecstasy in the same hard-drug schedule as heroin and cocaine.

The law enforcement strategy toward Ecstasy might be termed “harm maximization:” deterring illegal drug-taking by making it as dangerous as possible. Florida Office of Drug Control director James McDonough announced his “very thorough autopsy-by-autopsy review” blamed Ecstasy and other “club drugs” for 254 deaths. The Orlando Sentinel investigated a sample of the autopsies and found ludicrous inclusions: toddlers, nursing home residents, hospitalized surgery patients, middle-aged heroin and methamphetamine overdosers. Larry Bedore of Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission told the Sentinel he “talked until I was blue in the face” in a futile effort to get McDonough to be accurate.

Accuracy was not wanted. Using the bogus report as justification, Florida law enforcement agencies launched “Operation Heat Rave” in summer 2000 to shut down raves (which the D.E.A. defines as an event with music at 120-200 beats per minute and psychedelic images displayed.) Drug warriors’ full-page ad in the Miami Herald berated DanceSafe personnel by name for testing drugs and offering “harm reduction” services. Soon after the clampdown, six Floridians died from taking untested PMA, a toxic stimulant fraudulently sold as Ecstasy.

In January, Eddie Jordan, U.S. District Attorney for New Orleans, filed charges under the 1986 “crackhouse” law (which criminalizes owners of facilities “created or maintained for the purpose of” drug use) against owners of a popular rave club. The indictment charges the owners, who searched and banished entrants found with drugs, knowingly “promoted” illegal drug use. Evidence: they provided free water and DanceSafe literature.

Amid growing federal and state crackdowns, Lindesmith convened its “State of Ecstasy” conference in San Francisco in February, where all was not hugs. Several speakers interested in legalizing MDMA for research and therapeutic use denounced ravers for ingesting drugs irresponsibly, giving Ecstasy a bad name. “Only around one-fourth of the drugs at raves are MDMA,” Grob said. “Disturbing cases of recreational abuse by young people have created a major public health crisis.” Instead of leaving Ecstasy to “16- and 17-year-olds having fun,” MDMA should be reserved for safe, therapeutic research and prescription, several speakers argued.

Safe? (one might demur.) Psychotherapy? The industry that killed tens of thousands of people with misprescribed barbiturates in the 1960s and now dispenses truckloads of powerful psychotropic drugs like Ritalin and Prozac to four million kids? The pharmaceutical Valium caused 10,000 hospital emergencies and 3,000 deaths in 1999 -- more fatalities every week than Ecstasy is blamed for in five years. “We don’t deserve stigma any more than you do,” one recreational user told therapists.

Ironically, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network, which calculates national rates and trends from annual surveys of hospitals and coroners in several dozen major cities, issued a calming report on club drugs in December 2000. The bad news: reflecting the explosive growth in rave popularity, medical mishaps involving Ecstasy leaped more than 10-fold from 1994 to 1999. The good news: “even the largest of these numbers is quite small...mentions of club drugs are truly rare events,” DAWN concluded.

Of 91 million hospital ER cases in 1999, including 555,000 involving drug abuse, DAWN found just 2,850 in which Ecstasy was mentioned. Of 11,555 drug-related deaths, only 41 had Ecstasy in their systems. “Under ordinary circumstances, we would not report numbers this small,” DAWN admonished scaremongers. “They are reported here for two purposes: first, to calm speculation and second, to correct recent media errors.”

DAWN estimated the six-year total of people who died with Ecstasy in their systems from 1994 through 1999 was 68 -- the same number killed every two days by drunken drivers. To put Ecstasy’s 2,850 hospital emergency treatments in perspective, 10,000 hospital ER cases in 1999 involved Prozac, 40,000 Tylenol or aspirin, 85,000 heroin, and 170,000 cocaine. Further, in nearly all Ecstasy cases, the victim had also taken harder drugs. Demolishing another stereotype, DAWN reported just one in eight club-drug hospital emergencies involved a high school-age teen.

Thus, in the hands of millions of “16- and 17-year-olds” and young adults at raves and clubs over the last 15 years, Ecstasy mishaps remain very uncommon. “MDMA abuse currently is not as widespread as that of many other drugs,” even the D.E.A admits. “Raves generally are safe environments,” said San Francisco lawyer Vylma Ortiz, a regular ravegoer in years past. “Parents shouldn’t be scared if their teenager goes to one.”

Doblin argued that with strict controls, Ecstasy can be safely legalized for therapeutic use and for recreation by teenagers (with parental permission) and young adults. “The biggest questions we get from young people are, what does this drug do and how can I protect myself?” Sferios said. Visits to harm-reduction websites such as and dwarf those to official websites, suggesting users are concerned about their health, Doblin agreed.

One of California’s most startling trends over the last 25 years is the explosive increase in drug abuse, family breakup, serious crime, and imprisonment among aging baby boomers accompanied by enormous declines in these problems among their kids. From 1976 to 1999, felony arrests of white middle-agers leaped from 25,000 to 90,000 while felonies among white teens plummeted from 55,000 to 20,000. In 1999, 1,500 white middle-agers died from drug abuse, compared to just 30 teens. Murder arrest rates for California white teens now equal those of Canadian teens. College enrollment and community volunteerism rose while suicide, violent death, sex offenses, gun fatalities, drunken driving, and other serious troubles plummeted among middle-class teens.

In short, even as their elders’ behaviors worsened, today’s California middle-class youth display far less troubled anomie (alienation from other people and community) than a quarter-century ago. There’s no proof Ecstasy deserves any credit, of course, but what about the larger network of peer groupings of which raves are a part? “I think there’s something to that idea,” said Doblin, citing documented declines in violence and anti-social behavior among English soccer clubs that substituted Ecstasy for alcohol. “Subcultures develop their own social controls.” Healthier ones, by all evidence, than those of American society and officials that expose young people to more danger than the youth culture they so furiously seek to suppress.

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