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New York City
December 2002

Ecstasy Is Agony
By Kevin A. Sabet

It was a crowded Saturday night at a local rave. Having passed out over 4,000 “This Is Your Brain on Ecstasy” post-cards to ravers waiting to get into the club, I moved over to one side of the line and saw what appeared to be a 22-year old man under a tree, curled up in a ball, being comforted by one of the club’s “bouncers.” I approached them: “Is everything all right?” I said.

“Yeah, he’s just a little messed up. It’s no big deal. I called a cab for him,” the bouncer stated.

“Um…can he talk? What has he taken tonight? He looks very bad,” I said, frustrated at the obvious indifference the bouncer felt toward the guy.

He replied, “He’s fine,” as a woman, the club promoter, approached.

“Hey, I think this guy needs to be taken to the emergency room,” I exclaimed.

“Nah, he is okay. This is what happens to people sometimes. It’s not our responsibility to take care of him. We didn’t make him take whatever he took,” she assuredly stated.

“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need help,” I said.

“He is breathing and conscious, he does not need to see anyone,” another club promoter came and said.

The promoter continued, “We could get sued for this—for drugs in here. Do you know how many times we have gotten calls from angry relatives of people who we sent to the emergency room, because they wanted to sue us for the medical bill?”

I placed an emergency call to 911 but had to wait for two hours. The boy was finally rushed to the hospital.

Scenes like these are commonplace at today’s raves [all-night dance parties at clubs or warehouses—any large open space—that first started in the late 1970’s as an alternative to the club-disco scene]. Often knowing that drug use is occurring and realizing the profit potential of such use, club promoters turn a blind eye. For those who are worried about the threat that ecstasy poses on today’s minds and today’s raving culture, the pending federal RAVE Act should serve as a sigh of relief. The bill would effectively target a growing and threatening drug culture that surrounds the current dance scene. Unlike other illicit drugs, ecstasy use has been on the rise over the past twenty years. With more use, deaths have increased and these drugs, according to the latest scientific literature, have been linked to long-term brain damage. Contrary to what groups like “Dance-Safe” will tell you, there is no such thing as safe drug use.

Like cocaine in the late 1970’s, ecstasy is often looked at as a harmless drug. In fact, some of the same people who tout ecstasy use as being benign are also guilty of doing the same about cocaine twenty years ago. Ecstasy was developed eighty years ago for psychiatrists; scientists soon noted that the drug was being abused and that, compared with other drugs, its medical use was ineffective. Some of the latest scientific research points to evidence that ecstasy can lead to long-lasting, perhaps permanent, changes in the brain—specifically in the synthesis of the hormone serotonin (used by the brain for mood and memory, among other things) and in its neurotransmitter. The amount of ecstasy given to the subjects was standard, if not lower than the usual “raver” intake.

We need federal legislation to make young people safer. The RAVE bill would make it harder for drugs to enter raves and would impose serious consequences on club promoters hungry for profits. The legislation, currently in the US Senate, is a bipartisan effort (sponsored by Senators Durbin (D-IL), Hatch (R-UT), Grassley (R-IA) and Leahy (D-VT)) that expands the 1986 “crackhouse laws” to target promoters who “knowingly and intentionally” throw a party where drugs are present.

The rave culture of the 1980’s, as many would argue, was not about drugs—it was about the dancing. Sadly, today’s raves are almost always connected with rampant, widespread drug use. To return to the original culture—and to prevent greedy club owners from profiting from other people’s addictions—these legislative efforts are a move in the right direction. Coupled with strong prevention and education efforts—based on science, not urban myth—they have the potential to strongly impact the destructive rise in ecstasy use and deaths.#

Kevin A. Sabet is a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University currently working on his Ph.D. in drug policy.

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