A Kandi-Coated World
The kandi kid is rolling hard. His sweaty teenage face is bathed in a supernaturally bright light, even though the surrounding rave is lit only by colored lasers and black lights. The kid is obviously in a rapturous trance. His face is full of awe and gratitude, his eyes gigantic, his body completely void of tension. His wrists, ringed by the fluorescent plastic bracelets that unofficially mark him as a member of the kandi gang, hang tranquilly at his sides. He wants to hug the whole world, and that tangible vibe seems to stretch out before him infinitely. He is a perfect picture of Ecstasy.
The source of this young man’s total devotion? Another kid, his white clothes incandescent in the black lights, waving gloved hands in his friend’s face, the fingers tipped with multicolored LED lights.
This is not a scene from the famous Dallas clubs in the 1980s, but from an August weekend in a warehouse party in the shadow of downtown Fort Worth. And the new chemical-tribal ritual wasn’t connecting only these two kids. They were surrounded by hundreds of their peers.
In the last three decades, Ecstasy, known chemically as MDMA, has been in and out of favor as the drug of choice. Right now, it is raining Ecstasy in certain young Fort Worth circles. Local high school students and former students interviewed for this story guessed that a third to half of the kids in area high schools take Ecstasy regularly — as in every weekend.
Results of a survey of Fort Worth public school kids last spring suggest those numbers are much lower, that perhaps as few as 10 percent of Fort Worth teens have ever used Ecstasy. But the local students’ guesstimates don’t sound far-fetched to those who work with drug-using kids. “X is very, very popular,” said John Haenes, who works for Tarrant County Challenge, a nonprofit group combating substance abuse. “Kids enjoy four to six hours of turning off the inner critic… . They feel connected to their friends, and adolescence is all about finding an identity and connecting.”
The drug, which researchers believe has enormous potential for treating things like soldiers’ post-traumatic stress and married couple’s problems with emotional intimacy, was once completely legal, and Dallas was one of its first mass markets. But then the DEA, in a move that many now believe was over-reaction, used its administrative powers to make MDMA illegal, even for researchers. Now professional therapists are barred from using it in psychological treatment, although some risk their licenses and continue to give MDMA as part of therapy. Furthermore, researchers rarely get permission or funding to continue work to better understand Ecstasy’s long-term effects. As with other losing battles in the drug war, making MDMA illegal didn’t stop its flow nor make it any less attractive to recreational users.
A few years ago, Fort Worth filmmaker Tom Huckabee spent time in California with the chemist who popularized MDMA in the 1970s. In doing research for an as-yet-unproduced screenplay, Ecstasy, TX, he met the many of the original dealers and distributors who gave away the little pills to their “relatively enlightened” adult friends. “The fact that it was made illegal turned it into the problem it is,” he said.
This time around, however, it’s not parents or law enforcement agencies who are sounding an alarm but, to some extent, the kids themselves, who see their friends being affected by heavy use of the pills known to young users as “E,” “molly,” or just “X”
“The green unicorns [X pills] were the best night of my life,” said a current Southwest High School student. When the Fort Worth school district shut down due to a swine flu scare last year, he and a few friends spent the entire “swinecation” taking Ecstasy at a nearby lake. Since then, they have taken X, among all sorts of other things, at school. They can buy Ecstasy pills for as little as $4 in the hallways between classes.
“Getting drugs at school is the easiest thing you can do,” said one student.
“It’s an epidemic all around,” said a recent Paschal High School graduate, wearing purple rubber Paschal sunglasses. “Whenever I bring the word up, everyone agrees.”
In some ways, it’s a gentle epidemic. Most researchers believe that pure MDMA is relatively safe for occasional use. The problem is, only some of what’s on the street is pure.
“Forty percent of what’s on the street isn’t even X,” Haenes said. Many of the pills contain methamphetamines or DXM, and some have even turned out to be PCP. Ecstasy is not physically addictive, but some users get psychologically attached to it. Even its proponents believe that it can cause problems, especially when youngsters take it too often. Kids didn’t invent the phrase “E-tard” for nothing.
“X puts you on pause,” the Paschal graduate said from personal experience. “You stop growing. You stop educating yourself. You get stuck, and you cannot evolve.”
He thinks parents need to understand what their kids may be doing. “They might think, ‘My kid goes to Paschal. He likes to hang out with his friends. He’s making good grades.’ They don’t want to admit it to themselves,” he said.
In short, it seems to be time to bring the Ecstasy issue out from under the carpet where it has been swept. For where Ecstasy goes, agony can follow.
The three young guys waiting in line at the warehouse party wonder out loud whether they will be permitted to enter. The beefy guy at the door is checking IDs, and these normal-looking kids in sideways baseball caps are only 15. The party is supposed to be for people ages 17 and older. They don’t seem worried. When it’s their turn, they explain that they’ve left their licenses in the car.
“No problem,” the man at the door answers as he marks their hands with a small black X. “I would just suggest you don’t leave the party because you’ll have to leave them your ID if you want to get back in.”
Unsurprised at getting in, the kids walk into a dark room packed with people, some not much taller than 4-and-a-half feet. A DJ spins drum and bass music mixed with African tribal rhythms. Lasers puncture the air. It’s hot, but there are fans and chairs for resting.
The 15-year-olds are ready to start partying. Their eyes skim over the teenage girls wearing little more than underwear and glow-in-the-dark body paint. Maybe later they’ll hook up, but for now they are searching for something else. No need to look, as it comes straight for them. The kids haven’t been at the party for three minutes when another teen, smiling and sweaty in a tank top, comes over and asks them how much X they want to buy.
“How much is it?” one kid asks.
“Ten bucks apiece” is the answer. “It’s pure.” No way to tell, of course.
Each swallows a pill with a water chaser, and for them the rave is underway. Unlike more hallucinogenic drugs, the effects of Ecstasy are pretty predictable. If the tablets contain MDMA, they produce euphoria by affecting the body’s processing of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which causes a ridiculously elevated, even transcendental, mood. In scientific terms, Ecstasy is classified as an expansive empathogen (a chemical that encourages the experiencing of something outside oneself) or entactogen (a chemical that encourages deep inner exploration). For many young users, enjoyment, not insight, is the goal. Within the 30 minutes to an hour it takes for Ecstasy to alter their brain chemistry, the teens should be embarking on a joyride of pleasure.
Others at the party are already in this state of bliss. Some are older, and there seem to be representatives from every race and subculture. A technohippie guy in Daisy Duke shorts dances with a hula hoop on a platform. In the far room, a DJ spins futuristic house music and electronic hip-hop, carefully syncopated at around 120 beats per minute, or the pace of a human heartbeat, which is perfect for dancing. The party visibly pulsates to the music. Most of the partygoers dance or sit in chairs placed by the walls. Some make out in the darkness, and not in a traditionally awkward teenage way — X softens hearts, thus intensifying teenage love stories and friendships. Others watch the performers spin fire meteors — ropes lit with fuel on the ends.
A girl wearing only her underwear walks through the party, touching strangers. Unbothered by her lack of respect for personal space, her new “friends” smile as she passes. Under the spell of Ecstasy, the world appears in its ideal state. Everyone gets along, and everyone is happy. The duties of maintaining life — and grades — are a million miles away, and enjoying the moment is the only priority. Kandi kids are defined by their blessed-out positivity and peacefulness. Teenage fights or stupid drunken behavior? Not here. One guy walks through the party carrying a 12-pack of beer, but no one else in the crowd of several hundred is drinking an alcoholic beverage. They seem content with the artificial lighting, music, and bottled water.
The tiniest stimuli can become triggers for joyous perception. Another desirable effect of MDMA is what scientists call experiential synesthesia. Rather than just listening to music being pumped out of the loudspeakers, ravers become one with the music. Because a switch has been flipped in the brain, music and touch pulse throughout every cell in the body. There is no separation between the dancers and the DJ or the lights and the eyes.
Raves like this one pop up around the Metroplex regularly, but kids don’t have to rely on underground parties to find unlimited supplies of chemically enhanced good times. Some drive to the after-hours spot Afterlife near Irving. Some make the trip to the DJ-centered Insomnia club in Dallas. “At the clubs, there will always be a dealer. Always,” said the guy in the sunglasses.
Afterlife, which is an easy 30-minute drive from Fort Worth, is one of the unofficial headquarters of the local rave scene. Dallas police have targeted the club several times over the past three years, arresting people for possession of illegal drugs, mostly marijuana. In April 2008, amateur videographers caught Dallas police raiding a party called Candy Mountain at Afterlife. The footage, which is all over YouTube, shifts quickly from lasers, phosphorescent bracelets, and pounding dance music to angry screams of “Everybody get down.” According to firsthand accounts published on various internet sites, several thousand kids forced to lie on the ground started singing “Kum Ba Yah.”
The high school students dancing to Ecstasy now are not the first generation to be altered by MDMA. It was their parents, or at least their parents’ generation, that moved into that new territory.
The chemical was legal, and abundant in some circles, until 1985. Psychologists felt that MDMA represented a breakthrough — to them it was the miracle drug that could ease the suffering and isolation of the human experience.
Chemists at the German pharmaceutical firm Merck officially patented the formula as a blood-clotting agent in 1914, but it was largely forgotten until 1970, when California chemist Alexander Shulgin started manufacturing and distributing MDMA for experimental use by a close-knit group of progressive therapists.
By the beginning of Shulgin’s work with MDMA, which his friends dubbed “Adam,” the DEA had outlawed other mind-altering substances. Neuronauts (pioneers who willingly explore the frontiers of brain chemistry) and forward-thinking psychologists were prohibited from conducting research on any potential benefits of substances like marijuana and LSD, so they turned to MDMA as a possible path toward new ways for humans to relate to both themselves and one another. Shulgin and his cohorts were part of the Human Potential Movement, which sought to explore any avenue that might help people become more content, creative, and fully alive.
In 1976, Shulgin, was in love with MDMA. He called it his “low-calorie martini.” His group, including his therapist wife, Ann, used the chemical to help patients get in touch with powerful unconscious memories and to repair marriages in which lines of communication had become blocked. At that time, the MDMA pioneers wanted therapists to be able to use the drug in controlled settings.
Inspired by the possibility of profit, some chemists and entrepreneurs, first in California and soon after that in Texas, started selling MDMA to anyone who would buy it. Historians point to Michael Clegg, a former Catholic priest, as the original importer of Ecstasy to the Dallas scene. Clegg, who had longed his whole life to open a channel of communication with God, believed he had found that with MDMA. It was Clegg who changed its name to the more marketable Ecstasy.
In the early ’80s, according to news reports, Clegg believed so strongly in the therapeutic and spiritual potential of Ecstasy that he was giving it away, but the skyrocketing demand convinced him he could be making a fortune on the estimated 500,000 pills being consumed in Texas every month.
Though Ecstasy was legal at the time, early users knew they were marching into the unknown. At Tupperware-style parties, middle-aged professionals would praise Ecstasy for having saved their marriages and pass the pills along to their friends and neighbors. At popular clubs like the Starck in Dallas, younger adults were turning on to the possibility of Ecstasy as a party drug. Legends like the one about bowls of MDMA tablets sitting openly on the bar at Starck are an exaggeration, according to former manager Greg McCone. “The bar staff was way too busy and making too much money to jeopardize their jobs over that issue,” he wrote in an e-mail. But Ecstasy was certainly everywhere and easy to get, safe to purchase openly on a credit card during the ’80s.
In those years, the drug didn’t seem to cause many problems. Between 1977 and 1984, only eight people visited U.S. emergency rooms with X-related complications. MDMA can make users clench their jaws and have irrational thoughts, and it does strange things to fluid retention and body temperature. Fatalities, while not unknown, are extremely rare when MDMA is ingested by itself.
However, when Ecstasy’s fan base shifted from professionals to partiers, DEA agents began to take notice. Worried about the explosive growth in use of the drug, DEA officials used emergency measures to make Ecstasy a Schedule I narcotic on July 1, 1985. Based on scientific studies that were later called into question, the DEA categorized Ecstasy as one of the most dangerous substances floating through society. Despite the recommendation of DEA Chief Administrative Judge Francis Young, who believed MDMA should be listed as a Schedule III drug with potential medical benefits, like prescription cough syrup, the DEA decided to make it illegal to everyone, including the medical community.
Most mass distributors gave up the chase or moved their operations out of the country or underground, but the drug’s proponents in the field of psychology were outraged. By 1985, therapists were making major strides in treating people with MDMA. Many military veterans, rape victims, and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder were able to make peace with their traumas after MDMA therapy sessions. People in dysfunctional relationships were able to stop the battles they had been waging against each other.
The DEA’s decision disregarded those breakthroughs and findings, however. And in the process, the agency changed the Ecstasy story from that of a potentially powerful tool for improving the human experience to just another currency in the war on drugs, and turned its users into criminals.
The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy publishes a series of anti-drug advertisements called Above the Influence. The Southwest students howl with laughter at them. “They are so lame,” one said.
So this is just a repeat of the better-living-through-chemistry scene from the 1960s, right? Kids peacefully getting high, hurting no one, but the over-30 types come on all uptight, and then the pigs bust in. Under that scenario, the only thing wrong with Ecstasy is that it’s illegal, which means you could end up with a criminal record and a body cavity search for getting involved with it. Buying X and hanging out with friends is easier than scoring alcohol or trying to sneak into a bar. If kids gather at somebody’s house with a parent present, their Ecstasy gathering could easily go undetected.
The difference, perhaps, is that, in this case, those in the midst of the “epidemic” are ready to point out its pitfalls.
Despite having taken MDMA just two days before the interview, the recent Paschal graduate said he wants to get out from under X. But, “It’s not easy,” he said. “I wish I could have had someone tell me to stop and look at the big picture … People don’t stop and think about the reaction you have when the drug is gone. Mentally, it brings you down. With MDMA, you get really depressed. Shit is hard at home, and you are failing at school because you want to sleep all day. It’s a snowball. It won’t stop.”
One problem with Ecstasy is that it can easily cause dangerous levels of dehydration because users may dance for hours, so content with life that they forget all about things like water. In fact most deaths attributed to X were the result of dangerously high temperatures and lack of fluids. On the other hand, having heard stories about dehydration deaths, some kids have consumed too much water, with equally deadly consequences. X overdoses are possible, too, although extremely rare. Statistically, riding in a car is far more dangerous.
The larger concerns about X lie beyond its immediate effects, partly in the psychological dependence that some users develop. The kids at Southwest who skip school in favor of rolling away the afternoon at an apartment complex across the street? They either can’t say no or really don’t want to, and underground chemists have been ensuring that “yes” is an easy option.
Europe — and most notably, lenient Holland — has traditionally provided a home for Ecstasy manufacturers, but a new player has entered the game. Many pill confiscations along U.S.-Mexico border lend credence to the idea that Mexican drug cartels may be looking for profit opportunities from the U.S. club scene — and the narcotraffickers have a multi-million-dollar vested interest in introducing kids not only to Ecstasy but to all the other things they may add to the MDMA along the way. The Southwest High School kids believe that some of their stash (and they know where to buy thousands at a time) is coming from Mexico, but they also insist that people in Fort Worth make Ecstasy, too. A Google search for “How to make Ecstasy” produced more than five million hits.
Regardless of where it comes from, all the X out there today is a product of the black market, so users seldom know what the pills with happy faces and clever imprints actually contain. Pure MDMA is difficult to produce and obtain, regardless of what the dealers at the raves may claim, so kids are often ingesting a chemical cocktail based on dirty, addictive meth or unresearched chemicals.
According to pillreports.com, which publishes the chemical composition of pills submitted from all over the world, recently tested “Ecstasy pills” were combinations of MDMA with anything from MDA (X’s speedier cousin), amphetamines and piperazines (more commonly used to de-worm horses), to DXM (the chemical used in cough suppressants that can induce a semi-conscious, impulse-driven state.) The purple pills imprinted with the Superman logo floating around the warehouse party, for example, supposedly have a high concentration of methamphetamine. Not good.
Carissa Cornwell of Madison, Wis., a national spokeswoman for a group called DanceSafe, learned this lesson the hard way. Her friend took a handful of pills he thought were Ecstasy, but unknowingly he had just swallowed a handful of PCP. Over a decade later, “He’s still kind of screwed up,” she said. This experience, and the fear that this sort of thing might happen all the time, led Cornwell to start a Madison chapter of DanceSafe, which works to reduce harm in the underground party community.
Perhaps the scariest aspects of Ecstasy are the unknowns — and critics of government drug policy lay those problems at the door of the DEA. Because of Ecstasy’s status as a Schedule I narcotic, research into its effects, both positive and negative, has been slowed to a hair-tearing crawl. Most researchers and users believe, at the very least, it encourages depression. Brains adjust quickly to new chemical compositions and take a long time to regain a natural equilibrium. Users can also have trouble reconciling the high of an ecstatic experience with the humdrum routine of school and daily life.
“There are a limited number [of serotonin sites] in the brain,” said Haenes. “Heavy use burns out those re-uptake sites. … This can lead to long-term depression,” and make the depression harder to treat. Over time, a brain can regenerate its ability to regulate serotonin and thus mood, he said, but heavy Ecstasy use can leave permanent neurochemical scars that reduce the effectiveness of anti-depression medicines.
Kids, we have a problem.
When she started volunteering with DanceSafe in 1998, Cornwell and her fellow volunteers across the U.S. would test pills for purity at parties, hand out Ecstasy information cards, and offer water to any dancer who might be getting dehydrated. But in 2003, federal legislation dubbed the “RAVE Act” pulled the carpet out from under DanceSafe and similar programs.
Then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden sponsored the Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act in an effort to quash the Ecstasy club scene. The law, aimed at rave promoters and the operators of rave venues, made it a federal crime to lease or manage any premises used for making, distributing or using any controlled substance.
Under the statute, authorities have prosecuted people like the owners of New Orleans’ State Palace Theater, which occasionally hosts electronic music parties. After the law went into effect, DanceSafe volunteers could no longer pass out drug information cards at raves for fear of being prosecuted. “It’s information. I didn’t think that was illegal,” Cornwell said. “It’s so hard for kids to get accurate information.”
With research into Ecstasy’s effects almost at a standstill thanks to the DEA’s policy, society’s “knowledge” of Ecstasy consists mostly of rumors, which swirl around local high schools. The belief is widespread among local X users, including the kids from Southwest, that Ecstasy has made holes in their brains, but the article on which the belief is based was retracted in 2002 by Science magazine. Turns out Dr. George Ricuarte’s entire study, which claimed Ecstasy had horrible short- and long-term effects, was based on a vial full of an unrelated chemical. An urban legend that claimed Ecstasy causes Parkinson’s disease was also discredited.
More research needs to be conducted to better understand what Ecstasy users are doing to their bodies and minds. The DEA has issued a permit to Dr. Charles Grob to test the positive benefits of MDMA on war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and on end-stage cancer patients. According to a piece in Playboy by Steven Kotler, others are conducting private trials without official approval. More scientists hope the DEA will loosen its stance toward the compound and allow further legal research to shine light on all sides of the Ecstasy epidemic.
No rational person thinks that excessive use of X by high school kids is a good idea. An adaptable mind is no toy, and many 16- and 17-year-olds don’t understand the long-term consequences of habitually escaping from everyday consciousness. After a kid uses Ecstasy, his or her brain is completely depleted of serotonin. As memories of the weekend party fade, responsibilities of regular life crowd in, but the brain is unable to naturally regulate mood. Many X users experience the Tuesday syndrome, since the effects of depleted serotonin usually don’t kick in until two and a half days after the drug is taken.
The Paschal graduate recently lost a friend who was once a happy Ecstasy user. The friend couldn’t shake his depression after X binges, so he did the unthinkable and shot himself in the head.
“If you are depressed and take X, you feel fantastic for a day. Come down, and you think, ‘God, geez, I want more of that,’ ” filmmaker Huckabee said. “There are no psychedelics to help you figure out depression. X is not a good replacement for antidepressants. Anything you take too much of causes problems.”
The Paschal graduate agreed and wondered aloud about what the overuse of Ecstasy will do to his generation. “It’s stopping their growth,” he said about his peers who roll regularly. “They don’t learn anything except for what’s fun. Nobody understands moderation, consequences.”
One of the consequences of experimentation with Ecstasy is the unintended exposure to highly addictive methamphetamine, with its well-documented dangers. The Southwest students know that most of the Ecstasy they have used is mixed with meth, but they do it anyway. One, 18 years old, is already a recovering meth addict. All these kids who are going out on weekends to dance and have a good time may unintentionally be developing nasty addictions that could plague them well into their adult lives.
Figuring out what street drugs actually contain is possible, but it takes effort. Both pillreports.com and Ecstasydata.org publish chemical analyses of submitted pills. Reporting actual concentration percentages is illegal, but these California labs publish pictures of the pills with substances found in them. However, just because a pill looks familiar on a web site doesn’t mean it is safe.
“There is no way to tell, so do a test,” Cornwell said. “You can have pills that look exactly the same but contain totally different things.” DanceSafe.org sells pill testing kits on its web site. She said they get several orders for those every day.
Cornwell and others believe that with Ecstasy, as with so many other drugs, legal bans and a DEA war on users and suppliers have totally failed. They think a new approach is in order.
“It’s not going away,” Cornwell said. “I wish there wasn’t such a stigma.”
“Psychoactive drugs are important tools. They ought to be legal and regulated,” Huckabee said. “If I had a kid, I would want them to do it with me there. It’s probably better to wait until 18 or 19. Some people are not mature enough.”
Haenes isn’t sure it’s safe even then. “I struggle with anyone under 25 using X,” Haenes said. “The damage that can occur is phenomenal, and the adolescent brain isn’t well-suited for long-term planning.”
For now, with most legitimate research into the drug still stymied, kids in effect have become the subjects of the Ecstasy experiment.
The Paschal graduate now works at an auto repair shop. He wants to eventually study botany and take a more active role in shaping the future. “The 21st century still has 90 years left,” he said. He has been using drugs since his sister’s death eight years ago and is just now beginning to rethink those decisions. He is due to appear in court soon on a felony possession charge involving Ecstasy.
Two of the Southwest High School students interviewed for this story are seniors who both hope to go to SMU and join the ROTC. For now, though, they will continue living the party lifestyle and choosing whichever drug suits the mood of the moment. “We’re not in any trouble,” one said. “We keep to ourselves and do our regular business. … I don’t regret doing drugs at all. I honestly don’t think that they are bad.”
Many kids share this belief that drugs are OK. But as anyone will tell them who has done drugs and looks back honestly, this is not always the case — especially not when drug use changes from an occasional adventure to a way of life.
“People should make their own decisions about Ecstasy,” Huckabee said. “But it’s not something you want to do every day. I was doing it once a year.”
Experiences with substances like Ecstasy can change users at the core. These kids — and their parents — need to understand how big a risk that is for teenagers. The drugs change what is possible to experience in life, so they change what is expected.
The 20-year-old Paschal graduate has already learned that. “It’s all about temporary stuff,” he said. “You have to think about paying the price.”
The price, for many, is more than they imagined it would be. A study released last week by a group called Defining the Addiction Treatment Gap claims that one out of every 10 Americans over the age of 12 is a known alcohol or drug abuser. How many more are living in the shadows?
Ecstasy and its cousin addictions are very adult friends for high school students. For kandi kids, high school culture is far different from what previous generations experienced, regardless of how much beer or grass their parents or grandparents consumed in their own dissolute youth.
The bottom line is, anyone who has done Ecstasy is a lab rat. Anyone with wisdom on the subject needs to speak openly about drug experiences, so kids can deal realistically with how these experiences have altered and could alter their lives.
If our government won’t provide honest information, we need to find it for ourselves. The future depends on it.
You can reach Caroline Collier at firstname.lastname@example.org