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Those who take Ecstasy in San Diego

Love is the drug

San Diego cop: "It’s come to the forefront through raves, through parties, the local hip-hop scene and stuff. They’re the hip crowd, dressed well, have jobs, want to have a good time." - Image by Steven Cerio
San Diego cop: "It’s come to the forefront through raves, through parties, the local hip-hop scene and stuff. They’re the hip crowd, dressed well, have jobs, want to have a good time."

My connection, as it were, called to inform me there might be a "slight problem" with delivery because she was going out of town. To a "Southwestern beach resort." For her family's annual eight-day pheasant hunt.

“About a year later my friends started using it casually. It wasn’t the rave thing. It was an intimate group of eight or ten long-time friends hanging out."

It was then I understood the Ecstasy experience was something different from smoking rock cocaine in a '73 Ford parked beside a warehouse with a hostile crack fiend named Shorty.

"I don’t mind the killing,” my connection said. “With the higher mammals, I do mind — deer hunting, for example. Or rabbits.”

Shorty, I recalled, had not voiced similar reservations with regard to violence.

“The killing,” my connection continued. “Yes, well, that brings me to a question I always hate to ask. What size do you want?

There are, of course, different dosages — the differences being primarily length and intensity. So we have the big guy or the little guy. The choice is yours.”

Hers had been one of many perplexing phone calls that day.

“The big guy,” I said. “I want the big guy.”

“Whatever,” my connection replied.

My initial interest in Ecstasy, or MDMA, or X, as its aficionados like to call it, had been piqued by a number of articles that had appeared in the popular press over the past few years. P.J. O’Rourke had dubbed it “St. Joseph’s acid for children.” Others said it was the drug of the ’80s — the “yuppie drug,” or, as time passed, the drug of the ’90s. Thousands of young people were taking it in England, Europe, and the United States. And it was, the articles suggested, the love drug. It caused elation and induced feelings of warmth and understanding and a profound sense of oneness with humanity. Claims quoted in newspapers and magazines were expansive, glowing, prosaic:

“You call the Sabbath a daylight,” said a Philadelphia rabbi. “[Ecstasy] is like the Sabbath at the end of a long week.”

“Suddenly this great weight is lifted,” said a 33-year-old New York designer who tried it eight times. “That interior monologue — somehow all the chatter stops and you’re so relieved. You like yourself. You’re perfect the way you are.”

“This is the antidote to alienation, the connector,” said a 33-year-old New York writer who also had taken Ecstasy eight times. “It brings you in touch with I people. You can’t do it and feel alienated.”

A San Francisco marriage counselor, a victim of a violent crime that left her suicidal, said that MDMA, administered as part of psychotherapy, “helped me regain some measure of serenity and peace of mind and enabled me to begin living a normal life again.”

A 75-year-old victim of inoperable bone cancer stated, “After I had been on the drug for some time, I realized I was also completely free of pain. Zero pain. I was able to walk, go to the bathroom, love everybody. It gets rid of all your hopelessness and your helplessness as far as the cancer is concerned. It gives you a whole new feeling. I’ve worked through my own death. I have no anxiety or fear.”

Another individual, who described himself as studying to become a “psychedelic psychotherapist,” went so far as to say that after ingesting 25mg of Ecstasy, he was “able to appreciate Jerry Falwell for the first time. I was able to openly see his good points and not resist him. There is a sense of peacefulness. You move into the universal heartbeat of shared humanity. I guess you can say it’s part of a social movement.” In other words, it was a chemical compound that aided the brain to neatly circumvent the tragedy, pain, isolation, and moral ambiguity of everyday human existence.

The drug, the connector, the social movement, what have you, came in a small, dark-blue velvet bag closed with drawstrings.

“To keep it fresh,” my connection explained.

I took the fresh capsule with a glass of fresh orange juice and walked to the grocery store to buy dinner, to kill minutes until something happened. By the time I stood before the meat counter, I was starting to feel distracted. The choice between lamb or veal chops seemed unusually arbitrary. And while I did not feel any particular sense of oneness with the lamb chops, the veal chops, or with the butcher for that matter, the fruit in the produce section did seem to glow with an evanescent clarity. I chose the lamb chops. On my way to check-out, I stopped to consider the kale and mustard greens as potential side dishes — something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. But as far as irregularities go, these were hardly earth shattering. However, this was only the beginning.

On my way home I began to notice a wad of tension in my stomach — something familiar to anyone who’s had too much coffee. This tension was accompanied by brief tingly rushes that swept from the nape of my neck across my scalp. I became aware of how my throat felt when I swallowed. The lamb chops and my dinner seemed irrelevant.

Once in my apartment, I knew I was in the grip of something powerful. I couldn’t name it, but it was building in intensity. I felt warm, my skin began to feel hot. The tingly rushes, power surges, came in waves. I tried to play Nintendo, but Little Mario seemed erratic, the control of his vital, hectic behavior seemed beyond my grasp. And besides, my vision had gotten funny. The edges of the television screen glowed distractingly. They glowed, then blurred.

I wandered outside and accosted a passing neighbor. “Excuse me,” I asked, “do you notice anything odd about my eyes?”

“Well, I’m not an ophthalmologist,” he demurred. “But,” he peered into them, “it looks like your eyeballs are jiggling back and forth very, very rapidly. And your pupils are the size of dimes. There’s almost no iris left. You’re sweating. Would you like me to call an ambulance?”

“No, no,” I chuckled. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes,” I giggled. “I think it’s just the flu.”

Back inside my apartment, it was warm and dark. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the mood evoked by the Doors’ old hit “Light My Fire,” but without the menace. It was a very late-’60s/early-’70s kind of thing. My complexion had the shiny, slick quality of actors seen in the films of that era. I took off my clothes. Sweat sluiced down my back, and each icy bead was pungent. The soles of my feet were exquisitely sensitive; the nub of the carpet felt good under my toes. I decided I needed a shower.

I had never before realized how loud my shower was. Three distinct tones rattled through the stall: a high-pitched squeal from the hot water, I supposed, and another from the cold, and yet another that seemed to come from where the two met and came screaming toward my skull. Each droplet that struck my skin was unique. It was a torrent of noise and sensation. I felt lightheaded, literally, as if my brain had levitated four inches above my skull, and I began to experience that narrowness of vision, that hyper-lucid, tingly awareness that comes shortly before you pass out. I also remembered that most deaths in the American home occur in the bathroom, and at least one drowning had been attributed to Ecstasy taken by someone lounging in a warm tub. I clung to the shower head. The water poured down me. I felt slippery. I slid to the floor. I clutched myself. I felt so dizzy, hot, and slippery. I said aloud, “I feel exactly like an oily, hot, rubber Gumby.” I didn’t know quite what I meant, but the description seemed apt.

I slid to my bed, my eyeballs vibrating. I was in the thick of it, I realized, with an emotion that very much resembled regret. I glanced at the clock. It read 6:03. A few minutes later I glanced back. The clock read 7:54. What had I been doing? I had been concentrating on the sweat that formed on my back—it was so cold, so clear, and not altogether unpleasant. I had been concentrating on an unusual olfactory hallucination — my apartment was filled with a high, bright, citrusy-piney odor. But did I feel good? The question is so relative. If you enjoy feeling hot, dizzy, restless, and confused, with each of your five senses pumped past full volume, then yes, you could say I felt good. If, however, this state constitutes ecstasy, then Heaven is perhaps not for me. It would be exhausting, a sweltering paradise of jittery eyeballs and slippery skin serenaded by a febrile Heavenly Host of thousands of squealing, oily, hot, rubber Gumbys. I inhaled. My sinuses were miraculously clear. This seemed to me the chief benefit of the drug, although smart shoppers might disagree. A package of ten 12-hour Sudafed tablets can clear my sinuses and make me quite nervous for $5.95. My capsule of Ecstasy cost $15 and lasted about five hours.

I lay in bed, stunned. I embraced my pillow until the confusion waned. At around 10:30, I grilled my lamb chops and ate them with little enthusiasm, then went to sleep. The side effects, if that is what they were, came later. Until then, exactly what had happened remained unclear.

This lack of clarity seems central to Ecstasy and is partly due to the amorphous nature of youth “movements” and youth “fashions” and partly due to the fuzzy nature of drug culture itself. What is known is that the drug was discovered and patented in Europe in 1914. (Chemically, MDMA is 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, chemically related to hallucinogens and stimulants.) It surfaced in the Western United States in the late 1960s, when it gained limited popularity as an adjunct to psychotherapy. By the early and mid-’80s, it had become a recreational drug and was widely available, especially in Dallas, where university students could order it at bars and pay for it with their credit cards.

The party ended in July 1985. Moved by medical reports indicating that low doses of Ecstasy caused damage to rat brains, the DEA classified Ecstasy and its chemical cousins as Schedule 1 substances, like heroin and cocaine. This classification was altered briefly in 1988 when, at the behest of psychotherapists who claimed the drug was of legitimate medical value, Ecstasy was demoted to the less-restrictive Schedule 3. The DEA would hear none of this and in March 1988 reclassified MDMA Schedule 1.

Although San Diego is commonly known as the world capital of methamphetamine, a drug related to MDMA, no one seems entirely certain how or when Ecstasy came to the city. Police, however, are very aware that MDMA is here and that its popularity is growing.

“It’s a dangerous drug,” says a veteran narcotics investigator for the SDPD. “We as law enforcement officers are trying to pick up on the law enforcement end of it. We’re not sure, but we think it got here around 1988 or 1989. Within the last year and a half, its use has grown and we’ve become more knowledgeable about it. As we gain more knowledge, there’s going to be more arrests being made.

“The interesting thing about it is that the people who use it aren’t your typical drug abusers. It’s come to the forefront through raves, through parties, the local hip-hop scene and stuff. They’re people, 16 to 24, of all races, middle income, some wealthy. They’re the hip crowd, dressed well, have jobs, want to have a good time. They like to entertain and party. They’re into the new style of music. They’re not down-and-out types. People who use X won’t go within ten miles of meth or heroin or crack cocaine. They think of it as a ‘clean drug.’ You can’t buy it at 30th and Imperial.

“Like any clandestinely made drug, however, it’s not going to be consistent in its potency. You’re not really going to know what you’re getting — what impurities are in it, what it’s been cut with. From what we can tell, none of the stuff being sold here is manufactured in San Diego. It’s being manufactured in the Bay Area.

“Straight possession of X is a felony. So is selling, giving away, or supplying. Being under the influence is a misdemeanor. Personally, I’ve made half a dozen arrests involving Ecstasy. I’m interested in people who traffic in it. Given our resources, it’s not really practical for us to go after the casual users. There are a lot of them. At some of these concerts and parties, you can cop X ten times easier than you can get a cigarette. And regardless of what some of the medical literature might tell you about its abuse potential, there are people who use a lot of it. It’s like hot-roasted cashews.”

In fact, the literature on Ecstasy, particularly the clinical literature, is largely divided on whether or not the drug is harmful or addictive. Baboons, one study showed, when allowed to inject themselves at will with MDMA, did so repeatedly. Some research has indicated that MDMA does unpleasant things to spinal fluid, that its heavy use can result in irreversible damage to the brain’s chemistry, particularly to the neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of sleep, sex, aggression, and mood. At least one New York model was reported to have experienced severe bouts of paranoia after having taken many doses of the drug over a period of several months.

Other sources take exception to these grim claims. One of the country’s most vocal exception-takers lives and works in Orange County. Dr. Charles Grob, head of psychiatric education at UC-Irvine, is unusual in that his interest in and support for Ecstasy are not grounded in a crypto-religious belief in the drug’s soul-changing potential. In a persuasively argued editorial published last year in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Grob and several of his UC1 associates cast doubt on the methods and findings of studies that showed Ecstasy was brain damaging and addictive. Additionally, Grob asked, if Ecstasy were as toxic as these studies since 1985 have shown, then where are all the patients with damaged neurological systems? “Direct ‘evidence,’ ” the editorial declares, “linking MDMA to [neurological damage] remains uncertain.”

Grob is the kind of sober, cautious psychiatric researcher who is frequently pestered by the press for stories involving demented misbehavior. Whenever some fiend in Orange County slashes Armani suits in department stores or tortures an animal, reporters call Grob.

Although clearly someone who neither seeks nor enjoys notoriety, Grob has recently embarked on a project that will no doubt be the subject of some controversy. “Ecstasy,” he admits, “always arouses tremendous emotions one way or another.” And on November 4, 1992, the day after the presidential election, Grob received permission from the FDA to study the effects of MDMA on normal volunteers.

“We are still waiting for permission from the DEA and the California Research Advisory Panel, a state government organization that oversees all Schedule 1 research. The biggest hurdle was the FDA, and we feel that with its permission we should ultimately be successful.”

Of MDMA’s many effects, Grob is particularly interested in its ability to act as a pain inhibitor. If all goes well with his first study, designed to examine safety parameters for MDMA use and the subjective psychological experiences of MDMA users, Grob would like to investigate Ecstasy’s role in treating patients in the agonizing terminal stage of such diseases as pancreatic cancer. Beyond this, the doctor is fascinated by the drug’s love-inducing capacity.

“I don’t even like to hear it called Ecstasy. That’s not accurate,” he bristles. “I think a better name for it would be Empathy.

“MDMA appears to have a unique quality of inducing an empathogenid response. What’s intriguing is that while most of us believe or would agree that the emotional conditions of love or empathy can exist in an individual, we don’t know how the brain manufactures this. Since MDMA acts on the neurotransmitters, there’s a potential for some very interesting brain imaging research. We may be able to find out what part of the brain is involved in producing these emotions.

“A lot of very fascinating research on MDMA and drugs like it was already being done in the 1950s and ’60s. It showed there might be some potential and promise for using these drugs in situations that are not responsive to conventional therapy. MDMA was shown to be short acting, easy to control, with a low incidence of adverse psychological response. But by the ’70s, the general population had had such a negative reaction to these drugs that all research was shut down.

“Nonetheless, I have a lot of concerns about indiscriminate use of a drug like this with young people. You don’t know exactly what you’re taking. It might be an impure product. Many of these young individuals don’t understand the drug and don’t know to ensure that accidents won’t happen.

“In the past year there have been six or seven fatalities reported in England of young individuals who were at a club. These individuals were taking this substance and were dancing all night and got profoundly dehydrated and went into shock and died. What they needed to recognize is that it’s imperative that large amounts of water be consumed with MDMA when dancing. Also, with young people, there’s a pattern of substance abuse. You have a generally naive population. This is what they do at the raves. They mix it with alcohol. And with alcohol there is a potentially fatal outcome.”

While Grob may stress his objections to the casual, nonclinical use of MDMA and point to its popularization as one reason the DEA bumped it to Schedule 1, he remains unconvinced that there are a great number of people who use Ecstasy habitually. In the same editorial in which he took other researchers to task for their questionable findings and ill-designed studies, he stated, “In fact, MDMA appears to be unique among the so-called recreational drugs, in that most individuals who have taken the drug report a relative disinclination, rather than a craving, to take the drug repeatedly.”

Perhaps Dr. Grob would be interested to meet Louise. She takes X quite frequently and has a few wealthy friends who snort big, fat lines of it on weekends.

“They line it up just like coke,” she says, with a mixture of wonder and disgust. “And it hits much, much faster. Within seconds.

“Their faces are literally twitching, their eyeballs look like they’re going to bulge out of their sockets. I guess it’s a total rush. They’re shooting for that initial wave. 1 did it once that way and it was just awful. There was no mistaking it for anything but Ecstasy. Ecstasy has a distinct taste, and it’s inexplicably awful, it’s gag awful. And snorting it, I didn’t like the way it felt. An important part of the drug is how you come on to it. It’s kind of slow, it builds. It just wasn’t meant to be snorted. It wasn’t meant to be used that way.

“X is the one drug that really makes you feel like you’re on drugs. You’re all lying on the floor, touching one another, in LaLa Land, having a great time. It makes you really compassionate. It’s really the epitome of ‘a drug’ — the sort of thing your parents might imagine when they thought about drugs. When you’re on it, you look so spaced out and high that there’s no way that you could pass for normal. We call it the X-face — the texture of the skin, there’s a certain physical thing that happens, it’s a soft look, it’s a relaxed look, that gives it away. My parents are from the Midwest, and I could pass by them if I were on marijuana or cocaine or speed, even LSD, but not X. They’d know immediately that something was up.

“My first experience with it was about three years ago. I didn’t like it that much. I guess because I wasn’t familiar with the high, I didn’t know how to utilize the high. I took it at a Grateful Dead show. I just wanted to go to bed and smile. I felt great, my limbs just felt really weak. I was on Cloud Nine and just wanted to be left there. It wasn’t the right time and place.

“I remember that when 1 was first started getting into it, I’d be out at a club or something and I’d run into someone I knew who was on it, someone who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day, and they’d be all over me, hugging me, acting as though I was their long-lost friend. I remember my boyfriend and I would look at each other when we’d see this and say, ‘Gee, do we really want to get into this?’ I mean, in some ways it seemed so palsy-walsy, the emotion seemed so fake.

“About a year later my friends started using it casually. It wasn’t the rave thing. It was an intimate group of eight or ten long-time friends hanging out. We call it ‘the Club’ or ‘the Clique.’ Everyone has some kind of clique, even if they’re not aware of it or won’t admit it. It’s basically not being a snob or anything. We just filter out the assholes, the people who can’t just hang. You just get this nice group of people who love each other very much. My experience in that sense was very good. Once I understood what it was doing to me, I could sit around and gab or go to bars and dance. But we use it on a more intimate level. We go out dancing, then come back to the apartment.

“It’s a ‘white drug’ in the sense that you stay ‘up’ — you get everything that you get from doing cocaine except for that ugly, naughty, disgusted feeling. You can meet people more easily, and you don’t have that come-down kind of thing going on. Some people say it’s very lustful, that there are orgies going on when people take it, but to me, that’s the last thing on your mind. It’s deep and compassionate. You’ll look at a friend, for example, and think, ‘Life is short and I should touch that person and tell them that I need them more often.

“I have found that you do want more X. It’s, like, three in the morning and everyone will say, ‘Let’s do another one, let’s not let the party end.’ We call it ‘the Wave,’ when you first come on. It doesn’t really scare you. You think you’re going to get sick and you don’t. Then it hits the happy medium. I didn’t experience the happy medium until about the third time 1 took it. And the happy medium is where you want to be. You get this expression on your face, it’s kind of an intense look. It’s different from that hateful speed look.

“Fifty milligrams would last me about a good five hours. Although I could take three or four hits through the course of an evening — from seven o’clock on Friday night to seven in the morning on Saturday. After that you don’t seem to want more. I don’t feel any next-day effects. Sometimes if I do L[SD], I’ll come home, and even though I’m tired. I’ll pace. X seems more like back to normalcy, except for the lack of sleep.

“I have friends who do much more than that because they’ve used it more and it takes more for them to take off on it. If they take a lot, they reach a point of confusion — your eyes will go into REM. They’ll reach a point of confusion. I guess the reason that some of my friends will take it to that point is because it’s a state of confusion where there’s no paranoia. They’ll be sitting around and just randomly say something, some random thought. And everyone laughs. It’s a funny thing, as opposed to LSD where if you’re on it and start jabbering, everyone will think you’re freaking. They’ll also hear things or see things out of the corners of their eyes.

“I would say that it’s the best drug I’ve taken. Alcohol for me, I don’t like the buzz, and I feel like crap the next day. I don’t take any of my partying lightly. No needles, no heroin, nothing like that. No free-basing. It’s not just a getting-fucked-up kind of thing for me. Pot is my drug of choice. There’s nothing like a great high on the best marijuana. I’ve had a lot of LSD trips. I’ve never had anything gnarly happen on X. You can do X much more casually. It’s a much more easy drug to do, it may not just be the high I like about it, there’s no side effects.

“I’ve never seen anyone get hateful or unpleasant on it. There’s some chemical that it’s releasing that would tame someone like a mean drunk. At raves there’s thousands of people with very little anger and confrontation.

“Like I said, I didn’t get into X through the rave scene. I’ve been following the [Grateful] Dead for ten years. It didn’t show up in those circles until the past four or five years. Now at concerts, it’s about half and half; the younger people ‘on the bus’ are dosing, taking LSD, and the older people are on X. I mean, how many times can you trip? I’m 29. My brain and body just aren’t thrilled about it anymore. X is much easier on you. It’s not this 12-hour ordeal like L. It’s a nice, easy high. But if you’re 18 or so and into the Dead, you don’t want anything to do with X. I’m around a lot of45-, 46-year-old hippies that have been into the Dead since day one, and they do X. Maybe there’s such a thing as your brain getting too old and too worn for LSD. X is an easier high. There are some people, though, who, six or seven hours into LSD, they’ll take a hit of X. It takes the edge off the LSD, but the LSD keeps you from getting into the laying-around mode.

“I have to say that I really do enjoy X, and in order for me to stop I would probably have to feel some effect myself. Even if someone were to show me a chart that had diagrams of all the bad things it was supposedly doing to me, I might not believe them. If I felt any effects physically or mentally, then I would either stop or cut down. That’s the way it was with acid. As I get older, I feel the aftereffects. I think, wow, that hit me so much harder than it used to. So far, though, I haven’t had any aftereffects with X. And neither have any of my friends.”

Carlos, born in Ensenada, is a 24-year-old business major at SDSU. He admits to taking Ecstasy as often as he can get it. He likes its easy-to-handle effect and says a hair-raising episode in Baja California convinced him that Ecstasy was his drug of choice.

“I had been dating this girl for about three months, and she said that she had some Ecstasy. I had never done Ecstasy before, but I had taken acid. So I thought, whatever it is, I can handle it.

“School had just let out for the year, and we planned a weekend in Rosarito. Six of us, three couples. We went down on a Friday afternoon, and by three o’clock we were drunk on the beach. My girlfriend said that we should do the Ecstasy. I said I wasn’t sure because I had never done it before. I was a little worried and a little scared that it was going to be as powerful as some of the hallucinogens I had done, like mushrooms or acid. But I figured, what the hell, it’s the weekend, I just got out of school and, hey, I’m with friends. So I thought I had nothing to worry about.

“Well, she pulled out a foil envelope with white powder in it. I poured it into my mouth and slammed down the rest of my beer. It tasted awful, like a mouthful of chemicals. Even after I swallowed the rest of my Corona, the taste lingered. I sat down and waited for whatever was going to happen to happen.

“I was really excited because I had heard so much about X and how great it was. I couldn’t wait to come on to it. Having done most other drugs, there wasn’t a lot left to experience at the hardened age of 24. My mind raced through my worst drug scenarios. The tunnel scene from my bad acid trip in Santa Barbara. The come-down hell from too much meth. Or the migraines from too much cocaine. But everyone promised that none of this would happen on X.

“It’s hard to explain to people who don’t do drugs what it’s like waiting to come on to a new drug. Especially a drug that has the reputation of being a free ride — no headache, hangover, or payback the next day. If I could explain it, I’d say it’s like Christmas morning before you rip off the wrapping paper. It’s like a combination of fear and anticipation and excitement, all rolled into one. Spending hour after hour in accounting class listening to some bean-counting lecture on depreciation just can’t compare to taking your first dose of something.

“So I’m waiting to come on, and everyone else is drinking, having a good time, rubbing lotion on themselves. All this not far from the Rosarito Hotel. I started to come on to the X, and the sand felt weird beneath me. It’s like I could feel every grain of sand shift under my weight when I moved. And the sound of the waves pounding was pretty hypnotic. My scalp started to tingle. And my tongue felt slippery and small.

“At about this time one of my friends looks over at my face and says, ‘Dude, what’s the matter with your face?’ He’s all, ‘You’ve got icky-face.’

“I asked him what he meant, and he said that one side of my face looked asleep. I thought of a stroke victim. I asked my girlfriend if I looked okay.

“I looked at her and got my answer. Her pupils were totally dilated. And she had this strange contented expression. I guess X doesn’t go well with alcohol, at least not in my system. One side of my face was more relaxed than the other, but I could still see, smile, and wink with both eyes.

“A few of the girls started saying that they had to go to the bathroom. There were no bathrooms on the beach. We told them to go in the water, but it was too cold, and it was getting late. So we decided to go back to the hotel.

“The six of us were packed into a two-door Toyota hatchback. With one guy laying down in the hatch. On the way to the hotel, my girlfriend was slightly speeding — she was the one driving and she had to pee. Blue lights started flashing in the rear-view mirror, and we got pulled over by the Rosarito Municipal Police.

“The cop got out of the car and told my girlfriend she was speeding and wanted to see her I.D. I translated for her and explained to the pig that we were trying to get back to our hotel and that my girlfriend had misinterpreted miles for kilometers. He said that we had to follow him to the police station to sort things out.

“Everyone was totally freaking out. We had other drugs with us — pot, paraphernalia, probably some pharmaceuticals — who knows what everyone was into? So my girlfriend and I get out of the car and walk with the pig into the station.

“I was scared. I had just done Lord-knows-what-kind of drug, I had been drinking, and now I had to talk to the sergeant. My girlfriend asked to use the bathroom. And this is the part where you can see what a different kind of drug X is. Because I was on X, I could totally handle the situation. It wasn’t fun. But it wasn’t like being on acid or even being really, really drunk. I mean, imagine this, here I am with five other friends, we’ve got all these drugs in the car, it’s my girlfriend’s car, we’re in fucking Mexico, and I’ve just taken X for the first time. It’s not the best way to be introduced to a new drug.

“I explained to the sergeant how we were on the beach, without bathrooms, so we were on our way back to the hotel. And I told this sergeant— he’s got this huge mustache and a Rolex—and I told him that I was the nephew of the governor of Baja California.

“And in my mind I’m thinking, God, if the drug is going to totally take me over, please don’t let it happen now, in the middle of this huge lie.

“Then I felt this wave, the X start tingling down my spine. The sergeant asked what my uncle’s first name was. Luckily, and the X didn’t interfere with this at all, I remembered his son’s name, from having partied with the son in Mexicali. The sergeant said we were released, and another wave from the X rushed through my body.

“Since then I’ve done X at house parties, the beach, bars, concerts, with good friends, even at school. What’s good about it is that it’s reliable. It’s not unpredictable or scary like acid or mushrooms. If there were a way to have an orgasm for hours at a time, this is what it would feel like. Just wave after wave of pleasure. Without a hangover the next day. Or loss of muscle control.” Or as Louise said, “It seems to be such a positive thing that no one can find anything bad to say about it.”

Well, almost no one. For some, Ecstasy’s apparent lack of consequences poses difficult questions.

Karen, who lives in Mission Hills, was forced to rethink her attitudes toward drugs after taking MDMA. At first she was reluctant to discuss her experience, because she wasn’t “sure that it is the kind of thing that should be encouraged. Moral considerations aside, there are probably very good, practical reasons why kids, or anyone, but especially kids, shouldn’t take drugs.

“I’m an English teacher at a South Bay high school. I graduated USC with a degree in literature, and I came back to San Diego because I hated Los Angeles. For the most part I used drugs recreationally in college but stopped shortly after graduation. While getting my credential, my interest in drugs tapered off. I think I kind of grew out of it. It wasn’t until a short time ago when a longtime friend was talking to me about this new drug that I became interested in Ecstasy.

“The way it was explained to me, it sounded like the perfect drug. Minimal side-effects. No long-range repercussions. I thought I could take it on a Saturday and be back in form for Monday. I convinced my boyfriend to do it with me, which wasn’t hard — he’s usually the one trying to get me to do drugs. We took it, and, boy, was it heavy. Not only we have sex for hours and hours, but I went to the fridge and scraped the ice off the sides of the freezer and started rubbing it all over my body. It felt so good. And I didn’t even think about it.

“I mean, my God, on Monday there I was in front of my kids, wearing a Scotch-plaid skirt, high-knecked, long-sleeve blouse, and pearls, teaching a James Baldwin short story—something about two brothers in the ghetto who lie to their parents—and I’m reading this to this class of wannabe gang members, chronically truant, silently rebellious teenagers. And I’m sure that they see me as being uptight. I mean, I hear them calling me cremita, which means creamy little white woman. And it’s not lost on me, what they think of me. I went to USC , after all. And I took Spanish—two years, prerequisite for graduation. And I’m thinking, my God, if they could only seen me Saturday night.

“Anyway, while taking roll three weeks ago, I overheard two cholas talking to each other. Part of being a teacher is being able to do two things at once. For me, listening and taking roll is a breeze. So this one girl with too much mascara and hair spray, dressed in a black, baggy T-shirt and black fingernail polish, says to the other girl, who also looks gang-memberish, she tells her how important it is to do Ecstasy with close friends, in case you’re feeling friendly.

“I knew what she meant by ’friendly’ and was amazed how similar her advice was to advice I got from my friend. I got this sinking feeling inside. Fourteen-year-olds should be worrying about a lot of other things besides who to do Ecstasy with. I felt guilty. Because I had succumbed to the same temptation that I asked them to avoid.

“I’m sure many teachers do drugs. I saw one of my colleagues smoking pot at a Santana concert in Tijuana, for cryin’ out loud. I mean, if they’re going to indulge in some sort of remedy at the end of the day, alcohol is simply not practical. I mean, to even be credentialed you have to pass a federal clearance and a drug test. It may be a conflict that they feel comfortable with. But it’s not one that I can live with. Because the children are constant reminders of purity.

“this of course, puts me in a strange position. My boyfriend uses drugs, but he has a regular job, a college education. For him it’s kind of fun and doesn’t really have any effect on his day-to-day life. But the kids I teach don’t have the resources that my boyfriend and I have. We come from stable, white, upper-middle-class families. There was money there for us for education, for in case we screwed up, for vacations. For us, I guess you could say, something like Ecstasy could be considered an ‘innocent’ drug.

“My kids at school don’t have that luxury. It’s hard enough for them to stay in school, to finish it, to graduate. It’s almost impossible to get them to do their homework. They don’t need any more distractions in their lives. And do when I heard this 14-year-old girl, this baby, going on about how great and how cool Ecstasy was, and it was obvious she’d taken it, I thought, ‘My God, even these kids are doing it/ and it’s such a pleasurable, carefree introduction to drugs.’ I thought, ‘My God, these kids shouldn’t be doing that.’

“I guess you could say I felt like the worst kind of hypocrite.”

It is difficult to offer a cautionary message grounded in personal experience without sounding heavy-handedly paternal. Personal experience is filtered through so many things—taste, attitude, education—that its value rarely rises above what researchers call the anecdotal. Personal experiences of Ecstasy haven’t been replicated in a clinical setting, so there is no standard gauge for measuring its quality, quantity, and duration. In the world of science, personal experience is probably, although not certainly, worthless.

I would not mention what happened to me if I hadn’t found someone whose experience strangely mirrored my own.

For days and weeks following my damp and urgent experience of Ecstasy, I had strange dreams. Not nightmares, not life-changing dream, but strange ones, unlike any strange dreams I’ve had before. They were brief, violent epics. They involved death. They were about coastal storms that swept people out to sea, about brutal freeway mishaps. And they were strange because of the placid emotional remove from which I watched them pass through my mind. These dreams bothered me. From time to time I wondered if the Ecstasy hadn’t done something odd to my brain. I kept these doubts to myself, though; I worried alone, until I confessed them to an old friend.

He confided he had used MDMA regularly in the past.

He stopped using the drug because he had similar dreams. He remembered one in which he followed a murderer and watched him commit his crimes. He remembered another in which he watched parts of a dismembered dog bubble up from inside a sewer. My friend reported that in these dreams he felt no revulsion, that he observed the events with an implacable calm. It was this peace in the presence of horror, he said, that disturbed him. It was because of this he stopped using the drug.

This information is only anecdotal. It went ‘round in my head like a puzzle, and I tried for a long time to find some logic to it that might serve as a solution. In the end, frustrated, I returned to the material I had collected on MDMA, the dozens of newspaper clippings, especially to the testimonies that claimed Ecstasy was a kind of spiritual medication. I decided to enter into the logic of these claims on their own peculiar level.

It is not uncommon for drinkers or pot smokers to say their habit relaxes them. People who use LSD or other hallucinogens will tell you the effects of these substances are at least novel and at best yield insight or greater powers of imagination. But relaxation and imagination are hardly spectacular side effects when compared to those attributed to Ecstasy.

Happiness, intimacy, or even a sense of well-being, much less ecstasy, are states of mind relatively hard to come by in day-to-day life. The most minor pleasures are often serendipitous, and anything grander—joy, for example—comes at some cost, is a reward of perseverance or hard work. That we could, without sacrifice or struggle, seize these rewards as our own, would seem to run counter to what we know of life. This is the contradiction at the heart of the more extravagant, transcendent claims for Ecstasy. To feel simple empathy for someone else is not to engage a benign, warm sense of intimacy. It is to some extent to shoulder another’s pain, to entertain their sorrow. If Ecstasy is a drug that induces a sense of oneness with humanity or the world, then it seems odd that it would also induce elation. To embrace the world is not necessarily to embrace many billion smiling faces. Such lave is, after all, historically ascribed to martyrs.

Perhaps bad dreams are the inevitable cost of compassion divorced from reality. It is possible in the real world of human endeavor to cheat, evade, or freeload with impunity. But perhaps in the mind there are no free lunches. In the realm of thought and emotion, I imagine, the bookkeeping is much less creative.

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San Diego cop: "It’s come to the forefront through raves, through parties, the local hip-hop scene and stuff. They’re the hip crowd, dressed well, have jobs, want to have a good time." - Image by Steven Cerio
San Diego cop: "It’s come to the forefront through raves, through parties, the local hip-hop scene and stuff. They’re the hip crowd, dressed well, have jobs, want to have a good time."

My connection, as it were, called to inform me there might be a "slight problem" with delivery because she was going out of town. To a "Southwestern beach resort." For her family's annual eight-day pheasant hunt.

“About a year later my friends started using it casually. It wasn’t the rave thing. It was an intimate group of eight or ten long-time friends hanging out."

It was then I understood the Ecstasy experience was something different from smoking rock cocaine in a '73 Ford parked beside a warehouse with a hostile crack fiend named Shorty.

"I don’t mind the killing,” my connection said. “With the higher mammals, I do mind — deer hunting, for example. Or rabbits.”

Shorty, I recalled, had not voiced similar reservations with regard to violence.

“The killing,” my connection continued. “Yes, well, that brings me to a question I always hate to ask. What size do you want?

There are, of course, different dosages — the differences being primarily length and intensity. So we have the big guy or the little guy. The choice is yours.”

Hers had been one of many perplexing phone calls that day.

“The big guy,” I said. “I want the big guy.”

“Whatever,” my connection replied.

My initial interest in Ecstasy, or MDMA, or X, as its aficionados like to call it, had been piqued by a number of articles that had appeared in the popular press over the past few years. P.J. O’Rourke had dubbed it “St. Joseph’s acid for children.” Others said it was the drug of the ’80s — the “yuppie drug,” or, as time passed, the drug of the ’90s. Thousands of young people were taking it in England, Europe, and the United States. And it was, the articles suggested, the love drug. It caused elation and induced feelings of warmth and understanding and a profound sense of oneness with humanity. Claims quoted in newspapers and magazines were expansive, glowing, prosaic:

“You call the Sabbath a daylight,” said a Philadelphia rabbi. “[Ecstasy] is like the Sabbath at the end of a long week.”

“Suddenly this great weight is lifted,” said a 33-year-old New York designer who tried it eight times. “That interior monologue — somehow all the chatter stops and you’re so relieved. You like yourself. You’re perfect the way you are.”

“This is the antidote to alienation, the connector,” said a 33-year-old New York writer who also had taken Ecstasy eight times. “It brings you in touch with I people. You can’t do it and feel alienated.”

A San Francisco marriage counselor, a victim of a violent crime that left her suicidal, said that MDMA, administered as part of psychotherapy, “helped me regain some measure of serenity and peace of mind and enabled me to begin living a normal life again.”

A 75-year-old victim of inoperable bone cancer stated, “After I had been on the drug for some time, I realized I was also completely free of pain. Zero pain. I was able to walk, go to the bathroom, love everybody. It gets rid of all your hopelessness and your helplessness as far as the cancer is concerned. It gives you a whole new feeling. I’ve worked through my own death. I have no anxiety or fear.”

Another individual, who described himself as studying to become a “psychedelic psychotherapist,” went so far as to say that after ingesting 25mg of Ecstasy, he was “able to appreciate Jerry Falwell for the first time. I was able to openly see his good points and not resist him. There is a sense of peacefulness. You move into the universal heartbeat of shared humanity. I guess you can say it’s part of a social movement.” In other words, it was a chemical compound that aided the brain to neatly circumvent the tragedy, pain, isolation, and moral ambiguity of everyday human existence.

The drug, the connector, the social movement, what have you, came in a small, dark-blue velvet bag closed with drawstrings.

“To keep it fresh,” my connection explained.

I took the fresh capsule with a glass of fresh orange juice and walked to the grocery store to buy dinner, to kill minutes until something happened. By the time I stood before the meat counter, I was starting to feel distracted. The choice between lamb or veal chops seemed unusually arbitrary. And while I did not feel any particular sense of oneness with the lamb chops, the veal chops, or with the butcher for that matter, the fruit in the produce section did seem to glow with an evanescent clarity. I chose the lamb chops. On my way to check-out, I stopped to consider the kale and mustard greens as potential side dishes — something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. But as far as irregularities go, these were hardly earth shattering. However, this was only the beginning.

On my way home I began to notice a wad of tension in my stomach — something familiar to anyone who’s had too much coffee. This tension was accompanied by brief tingly rushes that swept from the nape of my neck across my scalp. I became aware of how my throat felt when I swallowed. The lamb chops and my dinner seemed irrelevant.

Once in my apartment, I knew I was in the grip of something powerful. I couldn’t name it, but it was building in intensity. I felt warm, my skin began to feel hot. The tingly rushes, power surges, came in waves. I tried to play Nintendo, but Little Mario seemed erratic, the control of his vital, hectic behavior seemed beyond my grasp. And besides, my vision had gotten funny. The edges of the television screen glowed distractingly. They glowed, then blurred.

I wandered outside and accosted a passing neighbor. “Excuse me,” I asked, “do you notice anything odd about my eyes?”

“Well, I’m not an ophthalmologist,” he demurred. “But,” he peered into them, “it looks like your eyeballs are jiggling back and forth very, very rapidly. And your pupils are the size of dimes. There’s almost no iris left. You’re sweating. Would you like me to call an ambulance?”

“No, no,” I chuckled. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes,” I giggled. “I think it’s just the flu.”

Back inside my apartment, it was warm and dark. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the mood evoked by the Doors’ old hit “Light My Fire,” but without the menace. It was a very late-’60s/early-’70s kind of thing. My complexion had the shiny, slick quality of actors seen in the films of that era. I took off my clothes. Sweat sluiced down my back, and each icy bead was pungent. The soles of my feet were exquisitely sensitive; the nub of the carpet felt good under my toes. I decided I needed a shower.

I had never before realized how loud my shower was. Three distinct tones rattled through the stall: a high-pitched squeal from the hot water, I supposed, and another from the cold, and yet another that seemed to come from where the two met and came screaming toward my skull. Each droplet that struck my skin was unique. It was a torrent of noise and sensation. I felt lightheaded, literally, as if my brain had levitated four inches above my skull, and I began to experience that narrowness of vision, that hyper-lucid, tingly awareness that comes shortly before you pass out. I also remembered that most deaths in the American home occur in the bathroom, and at least one drowning had been attributed to Ecstasy taken by someone lounging in a warm tub. I clung to the shower head. The water poured down me. I felt slippery. I slid to the floor. I clutched myself. I felt so dizzy, hot, and slippery. I said aloud, “I feel exactly like an oily, hot, rubber Gumby.” I didn’t know quite what I meant, but the description seemed apt.

I slid to my bed, my eyeballs vibrating. I was in the thick of it, I realized, with an emotion that very much resembled regret. I glanced at the clock. It read 6:03. A few minutes later I glanced back. The clock read 7:54. What had I been doing? I had been concentrating on the sweat that formed on my back—it was so cold, so clear, and not altogether unpleasant. I had been concentrating on an unusual olfactory hallucination — my apartment was filled with a high, bright, citrusy-piney odor. But did I feel good? The question is so relative. If you enjoy feeling hot, dizzy, restless, and confused, with each of your five senses pumped past full volume, then yes, you could say I felt good. If, however, this state constitutes ecstasy, then Heaven is perhaps not for me. It would be exhausting, a sweltering paradise of jittery eyeballs and slippery skin serenaded by a febrile Heavenly Host of thousands of squealing, oily, hot, rubber Gumbys. I inhaled. My sinuses were miraculously clear. This seemed to me the chief benefit of the drug, although smart shoppers might disagree. A package of ten 12-hour Sudafed tablets can clear my sinuses and make me quite nervous for $5.95. My capsule of Ecstasy cost $15 and lasted about five hours.

I lay in bed, stunned. I embraced my pillow until the confusion waned. At around 10:30, I grilled my lamb chops and ate them with little enthusiasm, then went to sleep. The side effects, if that is what they were, came later. Until then, exactly what had happened remained unclear.

This lack of clarity seems central to Ecstasy and is partly due to the amorphous nature of youth “movements” and youth “fashions” and partly due to the fuzzy nature of drug culture itself. What is known is that the drug was discovered and patented in Europe in 1914. (Chemically, MDMA is 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, chemically related to hallucinogens and stimulants.) It surfaced in the Western United States in the late 1960s, when it gained limited popularity as an adjunct to psychotherapy. By the early and mid-’80s, it had become a recreational drug and was widely available, especially in Dallas, where university students could order it at bars and pay for it with their credit cards.

The party ended in July 1985. Moved by medical reports indicating that low doses of Ecstasy caused damage to rat brains, the DEA classified Ecstasy and its chemical cousins as Schedule 1 substances, like heroin and cocaine. This classification was altered briefly in 1988 when, at the behest of psychotherapists who claimed the drug was of legitimate medical value, Ecstasy was demoted to the less-restrictive Schedule 3. The DEA would hear none of this and in March 1988 reclassified MDMA Schedule 1.

Although San Diego is commonly known as the world capital of methamphetamine, a drug related to MDMA, no one seems entirely certain how or when Ecstasy came to the city. Police, however, are very aware that MDMA is here and that its popularity is growing.

“It’s a dangerous drug,” says a veteran narcotics investigator for the SDPD. “We as law enforcement officers are trying to pick up on the law enforcement end of it. We’re not sure, but we think it got here around 1988 or 1989. Within the last year and a half, its use has grown and we’ve become more knowledgeable about it. As we gain more knowledge, there’s going to be more arrests being made.

“The interesting thing about it is that the people who use it aren’t your typical drug abusers. It’s come to the forefront through raves, through parties, the local hip-hop scene and stuff. They’re people, 16 to 24, of all races, middle income, some wealthy. They’re the hip crowd, dressed well, have jobs, want to have a good time. They like to entertain and party. They’re into the new style of music. They’re not down-and-out types. People who use X won’t go within ten miles of meth or heroin or crack cocaine. They think of it as a ‘clean drug.’ You can’t buy it at 30th and Imperial.

“Like any clandestinely made drug, however, it’s not going to be consistent in its potency. You’re not really going to know what you’re getting — what impurities are in it, what it’s been cut with. From what we can tell, none of the stuff being sold here is manufactured in San Diego. It’s being manufactured in the Bay Area.

“Straight possession of X is a felony. So is selling, giving away, or supplying. Being under the influence is a misdemeanor. Personally, I’ve made half a dozen arrests involving Ecstasy. I’m interested in people who traffic in it. Given our resources, it’s not really practical for us to go after the casual users. There are a lot of them. At some of these concerts and parties, you can cop X ten times easier than you can get a cigarette. And regardless of what some of the medical literature might tell you about its abuse potential, there are people who use a lot of it. It’s like hot-roasted cashews.”

In fact, the literature on Ecstasy, particularly the clinical literature, is largely divided on whether or not the drug is harmful or addictive. Baboons, one study showed, when allowed to inject themselves at will with MDMA, did so repeatedly. Some research has indicated that MDMA does unpleasant things to spinal fluid, that its heavy use can result in irreversible damage to the brain’s chemistry, particularly to the neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of sleep, sex, aggression, and mood. At least one New York model was reported to have experienced severe bouts of paranoia after having taken many doses of the drug over a period of several months.

Other sources take exception to these grim claims. One of the country’s most vocal exception-takers lives and works in Orange County. Dr. Charles Grob, head of psychiatric education at UC-Irvine, is unusual in that his interest in and support for Ecstasy are not grounded in a crypto-religious belief in the drug’s soul-changing potential. In a persuasively argued editorial published last year in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Grob and several of his UC1 associates cast doubt on the methods and findings of studies that showed Ecstasy was brain damaging and addictive. Additionally, Grob asked, if Ecstasy were as toxic as these studies since 1985 have shown, then where are all the patients with damaged neurological systems? “Direct ‘evidence,’ ” the editorial declares, “linking MDMA to [neurological damage] remains uncertain.”

Grob is the kind of sober, cautious psychiatric researcher who is frequently pestered by the press for stories involving demented misbehavior. Whenever some fiend in Orange County slashes Armani suits in department stores or tortures an animal, reporters call Grob.

Although clearly someone who neither seeks nor enjoys notoriety, Grob has recently embarked on a project that will no doubt be the subject of some controversy. “Ecstasy,” he admits, “always arouses tremendous emotions one way or another.” And on November 4, 1992, the day after the presidential election, Grob received permission from the FDA to study the effects of MDMA on normal volunteers.

“We are still waiting for permission from the DEA and the California Research Advisory Panel, a state government organization that oversees all Schedule 1 research. The biggest hurdle was the FDA, and we feel that with its permission we should ultimately be successful.”

Of MDMA’s many effects, Grob is particularly interested in its ability to act as a pain inhibitor. If all goes well with his first study, designed to examine safety parameters for MDMA use and the subjective psychological experiences of MDMA users, Grob would like to investigate Ecstasy’s role in treating patients in the agonizing terminal stage of such diseases as pancreatic cancer. Beyond this, the doctor is fascinated by the drug’s love-inducing capacity.

“I don’t even like to hear it called Ecstasy. That’s not accurate,” he bristles. “I think a better name for it would be Empathy.

“MDMA appears to have a unique quality of inducing an empathogenid response. What’s intriguing is that while most of us believe or would agree that the emotional conditions of love or empathy can exist in an individual, we don’t know how the brain manufactures this. Since MDMA acts on the neurotransmitters, there’s a potential for some very interesting brain imaging research. We may be able to find out what part of the brain is involved in producing these emotions.

“A lot of very fascinating research on MDMA and drugs like it was already being done in the 1950s and ’60s. It showed there might be some potential and promise for using these drugs in situations that are not responsive to conventional therapy. MDMA was shown to be short acting, easy to control, with a low incidence of adverse psychological response. But by the ’70s, the general population had had such a negative reaction to these drugs that all research was shut down.

“Nonetheless, I have a lot of concerns about indiscriminate use of a drug like this with young people. You don’t know exactly what you’re taking. It might be an impure product. Many of these young individuals don’t understand the drug and don’t know to ensure that accidents won’t happen.

“In the past year there have been six or seven fatalities reported in England of young individuals who were at a club. These individuals were taking this substance and were dancing all night and got profoundly dehydrated and went into shock and died. What they needed to recognize is that it’s imperative that large amounts of water be consumed with MDMA when dancing. Also, with young people, there’s a pattern of substance abuse. You have a generally naive population. This is what they do at the raves. They mix it with alcohol. And with alcohol there is a potentially fatal outcome.”

While Grob may stress his objections to the casual, nonclinical use of MDMA and point to its popularization as one reason the DEA bumped it to Schedule 1, he remains unconvinced that there are a great number of people who use Ecstasy habitually. In the same editorial in which he took other researchers to task for their questionable findings and ill-designed studies, he stated, “In fact, MDMA appears to be unique among the so-called recreational drugs, in that most individuals who have taken the drug report a relative disinclination, rather than a craving, to take the drug repeatedly.”

Perhaps Dr. Grob would be interested to meet Louise. She takes X quite frequently and has a few wealthy friends who snort big, fat lines of it on weekends.

“They line it up just like coke,” she says, with a mixture of wonder and disgust. “And it hits much, much faster. Within seconds.

“Their faces are literally twitching, their eyeballs look like they’re going to bulge out of their sockets. I guess it’s a total rush. They’re shooting for that initial wave. 1 did it once that way and it was just awful. There was no mistaking it for anything but Ecstasy. Ecstasy has a distinct taste, and it’s inexplicably awful, it’s gag awful. And snorting it, I didn’t like the way it felt. An important part of the drug is how you come on to it. It’s kind of slow, it builds. It just wasn’t meant to be snorted. It wasn’t meant to be used that way.

“X is the one drug that really makes you feel like you’re on drugs. You’re all lying on the floor, touching one another, in LaLa Land, having a great time. It makes you really compassionate. It’s really the epitome of ‘a drug’ — the sort of thing your parents might imagine when they thought about drugs. When you’re on it, you look so spaced out and high that there’s no way that you could pass for normal. We call it the X-face — the texture of the skin, there’s a certain physical thing that happens, it’s a soft look, it’s a relaxed look, that gives it away. My parents are from the Midwest, and I could pass by them if I were on marijuana or cocaine or speed, even LSD, but not X. They’d know immediately that something was up.

“My first experience with it was about three years ago. I didn’t like it that much. I guess because I wasn’t familiar with the high, I didn’t know how to utilize the high. I took it at a Grateful Dead show. I just wanted to go to bed and smile. I felt great, my limbs just felt really weak. I was on Cloud Nine and just wanted to be left there. It wasn’t the right time and place.

“I remember that when 1 was first started getting into it, I’d be out at a club or something and I’d run into someone I knew who was on it, someone who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day, and they’d be all over me, hugging me, acting as though I was their long-lost friend. I remember my boyfriend and I would look at each other when we’d see this and say, ‘Gee, do we really want to get into this?’ I mean, in some ways it seemed so palsy-walsy, the emotion seemed so fake.

“About a year later my friends started using it casually. It wasn’t the rave thing. It was an intimate group of eight or ten long-time friends hanging out. We call it ‘the Club’ or ‘the Clique.’ Everyone has some kind of clique, even if they’re not aware of it or won’t admit it. It’s basically not being a snob or anything. We just filter out the assholes, the people who can’t just hang. You just get this nice group of people who love each other very much. My experience in that sense was very good. Once I understood what it was doing to me, I could sit around and gab or go to bars and dance. But we use it on a more intimate level. We go out dancing, then come back to the apartment.

“It’s a ‘white drug’ in the sense that you stay ‘up’ — you get everything that you get from doing cocaine except for that ugly, naughty, disgusted feeling. You can meet people more easily, and you don’t have that come-down kind of thing going on. Some people say it’s very lustful, that there are orgies going on when people take it, but to me, that’s the last thing on your mind. It’s deep and compassionate. You’ll look at a friend, for example, and think, ‘Life is short and I should touch that person and tell them that I need them more often.

“I have found that you do want more X. It’s, like, three in the morning and everyone will say, ‘Let’s do another one, let’s not let the party end.’ We call it ‘the Wave,’ when you first come on. It doesn’t really scare you. You think you’re going to get sick and you don’t. Then it hits the happy medium. I didn’t experience the happy medium until about the third time 1 took it. And the happy medium is where you want to be. You get this expression on your face, it’s kind of an intense look. It’s different from that hateful speed look.

“Fifty milligrams would last me about a good five hours. Although I could take three or four hits through the course of an evening — from seven o’clock on Friday night to seven in the morning on Saturday. After that you don’t seem to want more. I don’t feel any next-day effects. Sometimes if I do L[SD], I’ll come home, and even though I’m tired. I’ll pace. X seems more like back to normalcy, except for the lack of sleep.

“I have friends who do much more than that because they’ve used it more and it takes more for them to take off on it. If they take a lot, they reach a point of confusion — your eyes will go into REM. They’ll reach a point of confusion. I guess the reason that some of my friends will take it to that point is because it’s a state of confusion where there’s no paranoia. They’ll be sitting around and just randomly say something, some random thought. And everyone laughs. It’s a funny thing, as opposed to LSD where if you’re on it and start jabbering, everyone will think you’re freaking. They’ll also hear things or see things out of the corners of their eyes.

“I would say that it’s the best drug I’ve taken. Alcohol for me, I don’t like the buzz, and I feel like crap the next day. I don’t take any of my partying lightly. No needles, no heroin, nothing like that. No free-basing. It’s not just a getting-fucked-up kind of thing for me. Pot is my drug of choice. There’s nothing like a great high on the best marijuana. I’ve had a lot of LSD trips. I’ve never had anything gnarly happen on X. You can do X much more casually. It’s a much more easy drug to do, it may not just be the high I like about it, there’s no side effects.

“I’ve never seen anyone get hateful or unpleasant on it. There’s some chemical that it’s releasing that would tame someone like a mean drunk. At raves there’s thousands of people with very little anger and confrontation.

“Like I said, I didn’t get into X through the rave scene. I’ve been following the [Grateful] Dead for ten years. It didn’t show up in those circles until the past four or five years. Now at concerts, it’s about half and half; the younger people ‘on the bus’ are dosing, taking LSD, and the older people are on X. I mean, how many times can you trip? I’m 29. My brain and body just aren’t thrilled about it anymore. X is much easier on you. It’s not this 12-hour ordeal like L. It’s a nice, easy high. But if you’re 18 or so and into the Dead, you don’t want anything to do with X. I’m around a lot of45-, 46-year-old hippies that have been into the Dead since day one, and they do X. Maybe there’s such a thing as your brain getting too old and too worn for LSD. X is an easier high. There are some people, though, who, six or seven hours into LSD, they’ll take a hit of X. It takes the edge off the LSD, but the LSD keeps you from getting into the laying-around mode.

“I have to say that I really do enjoy X, and in order for me to stop I would probably have to feel some effect myself. Even if someone were to show me a chart that had diagrams of all the bad things it was supposedly doing to me, I might not believe them. If I felt any effects physically or mentally, then I would either stop or cut down. That’s the way it was with acid. As I get older, I feel the aftereffects. I think, wow, that hit me so much harder than it used to. So far, though, I haven’t had any aftereffects with X. And neither have any of my friends.”

Carlos, born in Ensenada, is a 24-year-old business major at SDSU. He admits to taking Ecstasy as often as he can get it. He likes its easy-to-handle effect and says a hair-raising episode in Baja California convinced him that Ecstasy was his drug of choice.

“I had been dating this girl for about three months, and she said that she had some Ecstasy. I had never done Ecstasy before, but I had taken acid. So I thought, whatever it is, I can handle it.

“School had just let out for the year, and we planned a weekend in Rosarito. Six of us, three couples. We went down on a Friday afternoon, and by three o’clock we were drunk on the beach. My girlfriend said that we should do the Ecstasy. I said I wasn’t sure because I had never done it before. I was a little worried and a little scared that it was going to be as powerful as some of the hallucinogens I had done, like mushrooms or acid. But I figured, what the hell, it’s the weekend, I just got out of school and, hey, I’m with friends. So I thought I had nothing to worry about.

“Well, she pulled out a foil envelope with white powder in it. I poured it into my mouth and slammed down the rest of my beer. It tasted awful, like a mouthful of chemicals. Even after I swallowed the rest of my Corona, the taste lingered. I sat down and waited for whatever was going to happen to happen.

“I was really excited because I had heard so much about X and how great it was. I couldn’t wait to come on to it. Having done most other drugs, there wasn’t a lot left to experience at the hardened age of 24. My mind raced through my worst drug scenarios. The tunnel scene from my bad acid trip in Santa Barbara. The come-down hell from too much meth. Or the migraines from too much cocaine. But everyone promised that none of this would happen on X.

“It’s hard to explain to people who don’t do drugs what it’s like waiting to come on to a new drug. Especially a drug that has the reputation of being a free ride — no headache, hangover, or payback the next day. If I could explain it, I’d say it’s like Christmas morning before you rip off the wrapping paper. It’s like a combination of fear and anticipation and excitement, all rolled into one. Spending hour after hour in accounting class listening to some bean-counting lecture on depreciation just can’t compare to taking your first dose of something.

“So I’m waiting to come on, and everyone else is drinking, having a good time, rubbing lotion on themselves. All this not far from the Rosarito Hotel. I started to come on to the X, and the sand felt weird beneath me. It’s like I could feel every grain of sand shift under my weight when I moved. And the sound of the waves pounding was pretty hypnotic. My scalp started to tingle. And my tongue felt slippery and small.

“At about this time one of my friends looks over at my face and says, ‘Dude, what’s the matter with your face?’ He’s all, ‘You’ve got icky-face.’

“I asked him what he meant, and he said that one side of my face looked asleep. I thought of a stroke victim. I asked my girlfriend if I looked okay.

“I looked at her and got my answer. Her pupils were totally dilated. And she had this strange contented expression. I guess X doesn’t go well with alcohol, at least not in my system. One side of my face was more relaxed than the other, but I could still see, smile, and wink with both eyes.

“A few of the girls started saying that they had to go to the bathroom. There were no bathrooms on the beach. We told them to go in the water, but it was too cold, and it was getting late. So we decided to go back to the hotel.

“The six of us were packed into a two-door Toyota hatchback. With one guy laying down in the hatch. On the way to the hotel, my girlfriend was slightly speeding — she was the one driving and she had to pee. Blue lights started flashing in the rear-view mirror, and we got pulled over by the Rosarito Municipal Police.

“The cop got out of the car and told my girlfriend she was speeding and wanted to see her I.D. I translated for her and explained to the pig that we were trying to get back to our hotel and that my girlfriend had misinterpreted miles for kilometers. He said that we had to follow him to the police station to sort things out.

“Everyone was totally freaking out. We had other drugs with us — pot, paraphernalia, probably some pharmaceuticals — who knows what everyone was into? So my girlfriend and I get out of the car and walk with the pig into the station.

“I was scared. I had just done Lord-knows-what-kind of drug, I had been drinking, and now I had to talk to the sergeant. My girlfriend asked to use the bathroom. And this is the part where you can see what a different kind of drug X is. Because I was on X, I could totally handle the situation. It wasn’t fun. But it wasn’t like being on acid or even being really, really drunk. I mean, imagine this, here I am with five other friends, we’ve got all these drugs in the car, it’s my girlfriend’s car, we’re in fucking Mexico, and I’ve just taken X for the first time. It’s not the best way to be introduced to a new drug.

“I explained to the sergeant how we were on the beach, without bathrooms, so we were on our way back to the hotel. And I told this sergeant— he’s got this huge mustache and a Rolex—and I told him that I was the nephew of the governor of Baja California.

“And in my mind I’m thinking, God, if the drug is going to totally take me over, please don’t let it happen now, in the middle of this huge lie.

“Then I felt this wave, the X start tingling down my spine. The sergeant asked what my uncle’s first name was. Luckily, and the X didn’t interfere with this at all, I remembered his son’s name, from having partied with the son in Mexicali. The sergeant said we were released, and another wave from the X rushed through my body.

“Since then I’ve done X at house parties, the beach, bars, concerts, with good friends, even at school. What’s good about it is that it’s reliable. It’s not unpredictable or scary like acid or mushrooms. If there were a way to have an orgasm for hours at a time, this is what it would feel like. Just wave after wave of pleasure. Without a hangover the next day. Or loss of muscle control.” Or as Louise said, “It seems to be such a positive thing that no one can find anything bad to say about it.”

Well, almost no one. For some, Ecstasy’s apparent lack of consequences poses difficult questions.

Karen, who lives in Mission Hills, was forced to rethink her attitudes toward drugs after taking MDMA. At first she was reluctant to discuss her experience, because she wasn’t “sure that it is the kind of thing that should be encouraged. Moral considerations aside, there are probably very good, practical reasons why kids, or anyone, but especially kids, shouldn’t take drugs.

“I’m an English teacher at a South Bay high school. I graduated USC with a degree in literature, and I came back to San Diego because I hated Los Angeles. For the most part I used drugs recreationally in college but stopped shortly after graduation. While getting my credential, my interest in drugs tapered off. I think I kind of grew out of it. It wasn’t until a short time ago when a longtime friend was talking to me about this new drug that I became interested in Ecstasy.

“The way it was explained to me, it sounded like the perfect drug. Minimal side-effects. No long-range repercussions. I thought I could take it on a Saturday and be back in form for Monday. I convinced my boyfriend to do it with me, which wasn’t hard — he’s usually the one trying to get me to do drugs. We took it, and, boy, was it heavy. Not only we have sex for hours and hours, but I went to the fridge and scraped the ice off the sides of the freezer and started rubbing it all over my body. It felt so good. And I didn’t even think about it.

“I mean, my God, on Monday there I was in front of my kids, wearing a Scotch-plaid skirt, high-knecked, long-sleeve blouse, and pearls, teaching a James Baldwin short story—something about two brothers in the ghetto who lie to their parents—and I’m reading this to this class of wannabe gang members, chronically truant, silently rebellious teenagers. And I’m sure that they see me as being uptight. I mean, I hear them calling me cremita, which means creamy little white woman. And it’s not lost on me, what they think of me. I went to USC , after all. And I took Spanish—two years, prerequisite for graduation. And I’m thinking, my God, if they could only seen me Saturday night.

“Anyway, while taking roll three weeks ago, I overheard two cholas talking to each other. Part of being a teacher is being able to do two things at once. For me, listening and taking roll is a breeze. So this one girl with too much mascara and hair spray, dressed in a black, baggy T-shirt and black fingernail polish, says to the other girl, who also looks gang-memberish, she tells her how important it is to do Ecstasy with close friends, in case you’re feeling friendly.

“I knew what she meant by ’friendly’ and was amazed how similar her advice was to advice I got from my friend. I got this sinking feeling inside. Fourteen-year-olds should be worrying about a lot of other things besides who to do Ecstasy with. I felt guilty. Because I had succumbed to the same temptation that I asked them to avoid.

“I’m sure many teachers do drugs. I saw one of my colleagues smoking pot at a Santana concert in Tijuana, for cryin’ out loud. I mean, if they’re going to indulge in some sort of remedy at the end of the day, alcohol is simply not practical. I mean, to even be credentialed you have to pass a federal clearance and a drug test. It may be a conflict that they feel comfortable with. But it’s not one that I can live with. Because the children are constant reminders of purity.

“this of course, puts me in a strange position. My boyfriend uses drugs, but he has a regular job, a college education. For him it’s kind of fun and doesn’t really have any effect on his day-to-day life. But the kids I teach don’t have the resources that my boyfriend and I have. We come from stable, white, upper-middle-class families. There was money there for us for education, for in case we screwed up, for vacations. For us, I guess you could say, something like Ecstasy could be considered an ‘innocent’ drug.

“My kids at school don’t have that luxury. It’s hard enough for them to stay in school, to finish it, to graduate. It’s almost impossible to get them to do their homework. They don’t need any more distractions in their lives. And do when I heard this 14-year-old girl, this baby, going on about how great and how cool Ecstasy was, and it was obvious she’d taken it, I thought, ‘My God, even these kids are doing it/ and it’s such a pleasurable, carefree introduction to drugs.’ I thought, ‘My God, these kids shouldn’t be doing that.’

“I guess you could say I felt like the worst kind of hypocrite.”

It is difficult to offer a cautionary message grounded in personal experience without sounding heavy-handedly paternal. Personal experience is filtered through so many things—taste, attitude, education—that its value rarely rises above what researchers call the anecdotal. Personal experiences of Ecstasy haven’t been replicated in a clinical setting, so there is no standard gauge for measuring its quality, quantity, and duration. In the world of science, personal experience is probably, although not certainly, worthless.

I would not mention what happened to me if I hadn’t found someone whose experience strangely mirrored my own.

For days and weeks following my damp and urgent experience of Ecstasy, I had strange dreams. Not nightmares, not life-changing dream, but strange ones, unlike any strange dreams I’ve had before. They were brief, violent epics. They involved death. They were about coastal storms that swept people out to sea, about brutal freeway mishaps. And they were strange because of the placid emotional remove from which I watched them pass through my mind. These dreams bothered me. From time to time I wondered if the Ecstasy hadn’t done something odd to my brain. I kept these doubts to myself, though; I worried alone, until I confessed them to an old friend.

He confided he had used MDMA regularly in the past.

He stopped using the drug because he had similar dreams. He remembered one in which he followed a murderer and watched him commit his crimes. He remembered another in which he watched parts of a dismembered dog bubble up from inside a sewer. My friend reported that in these dreams he felt no revulsion, that he observed the events with an implacable calm. It was this peace in the presence of horror, he said, that disturbed him. It was because of this he stopped using the drug.

This information is only anecdotal. It went ‘round in my head like a puzzle, and I tried for a long time to find some logic to it that might serve as a solution. In the end, frustrated, I returned to the material I had collected on MDMA, the dozens of newspaper clippings, especially to the testimonies that claimed Ecstasy was a kind of spiritual medication. I decided to enter into the logic of these claims on their own peculiar level.

It is not uncommon for drinkers or pot smokers to say their habit relaxes them. People who use LSD or other hallucinogens will tell you the effects of these substances are at least novel and at best yield insight or greater powers of imagination. But relaxation and imagination are hardly spectacular side effects when compared to those attributed to Ecstasy.

Happiness, intimacy, or even a sense of well-being, much less ecstasy, are states of mind relatively hard to come by in day-to-day life. The most minor pleasures are often serendipitous, and anything grander—joy, for example—comes at some cost, is a reward of perseverance or hard work. That we could, without sacrifice or struggle, seize these rewards as our own, would seem to run counter to what we know of life. This is the contradiction at the heart of the more extravagant, transcendent claims for Ecstasy. To feel simple empathy for someone else is not to engage a benign, warm sense of intimacy. It is to some extent to shoulder another’s pain, to entertain their sorrow. If Ecstasy is a drug that induces a sense of oneness with humanity or the world, then it seems odd that it would also induce elation. To embrace the world is not necessarily to embrace many billion smiling faces. Such lave is, after all, historically ascribed to martyrs.

Perhaps bad dreams are the inevitable cost of compassion divorced from reality. It is possible in the real world of human endeavor to cheat, evade, or freeload with impunity. But perhaps in the mind there are no free lunches. In the realm of thought and emotion, I imagine, the bookkeeping is much less creative.

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