Ecstasy, Fake LSD, and Sort-Of Magic Mushrooms: The Future of Dance Music’s Drugs

“Many people are experimenting with the drug ecstasy. I heard you say once that a lie is sweet in the beginning and bitter in the end, and truth is bitter in the beginning and sweet in the end. I have been meditating, but I don’t have the experiences people report from the drug ecstasy. Is the drug like the lie, and meditation the truth, or am I missing something that could really help me?” – Osho, Life: A Song, A Dance

It’s late September and very early morning at a warehouse rave in Bushwick. There are a lot of vast, empty concrete buildings in Brooklyn’s hippest enclave, but this one is special. Closer to a mini-festival than anything the borough has seen before, its indoor and outdoor stage will quite literally disappear at the end of the summer. Until then, thousands of dancers, music fans, and friends of friends in town for the weekend flock here to lock their hips to the visceral quakes of tribal, tech-house bass. Though most attendees are clandestine about the controlled substances they’ve brought to elevate the experience, pockets of people snort and lick various powders and crystals off of keys and palms of hands. For many it’s a practiced movement, followed by the flick of a lighter to blaze a cigarette — or a joint if the coast is clear. For some, though, it’s a complete novelty. “I can’t believe so many people are doing drugs out in the open,” says one first-timer, tracking with her telltale enlarged pupils a seemingly oblivious security guard moving through the crowd.

Like the quote above from Indian mystic Osho — which is also read in a woman’s Nicotine-lipped croon at the beginning of DJ Koze’s sublime house hypnosis, “XTC” — the relationship between drugs and dance music revolves around the search for the highest plane of existence, or some revelation about one’s self. Its history is at once sweet and bitter: One need only to look at the contrast between EDM festival aftermovies, featuring fields full of the beaming, painted faces of those making heart hand symbols at the DJ, and New York Times articles about those unfortunate attendees that took a wrong turn somewhere on the path paved with drugs in an attempt to reach that point of, well, ecstasy.

Ever since California chemist Alexander Shulgin synthesized the compound MDMA in a garden shed in his backyard just about 30 years ago — in the process becoming one of the first so-called “psychonauts” (users who actively seek out and try new drugs) — the universe of controlled substances available to those who want to expand, or lose, their minds is truly tentacular. Though ecstasy remains the controversial and most commonly used controlled substance of choice for those who want to go dancing all day and all night long, psychedelics, hallucinogens, ketamine, and all of their chemically synthesized legal alternatives have been growing in popularity for a number of years now. In a new world where ayahuasca, a projectile vomit-inducing vine, is suddenly the substance du jour for both the Hollywood elite and road-tripping Coachella pilgrims, what will be dance music’s future drug of choice?

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Hazarding guesses on which mind-altering substances will be popular at future raves and festivals and in dance clubs depends on who — and what, exactly — you ask. “I have a completely, totally visionary answer for you, and I can give you a more practical answer based on trends,” says Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that educates about and advocates for United States drug policy reform. Emphasizing that she’s speaking “off the cuff” (an assertion made by most U.S.-based interviewees, some of whom cite America’s rigid drug laws as reason to tread carefully when speaking about substances) she offers her predictions to SPIN over the phone.

Jones predicts that MDMA will continue to be as popular as it is because it’s a “warm, community-oriented, exploratory, relationship-building type of drug experience,” and psychedelics, such as LSD, will start trending again. A government-funded survey published this past July in The Guardian supports her claims: Among those 16 to 24 years old, ecstasy and LSD use has skyrocketed in the previous year by 84 percent and 175 percent, respectively. Though evidence cited here and presented in other articles, books, and studies points to the many more people using ecstasy derivatives than dropping acid, more and more people are finding hallucinogens increasingly appealing.

“We think that’s something to do with the Dark Web and the ease with which people can buy and post LSD blotters,” says Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology at the Durham University and a frequent talking head on drug-related matters in the U.K. (The Dark/Deep Web is to the Internet what dark matter is to the universe: a secretive parallel that requires special equipment, or in this case software, to access.) “It’s a drug that’s probably particularly suited for people making Internet purchases, as opposed to many other types of drugs.”

She speaks from extensive experience in the field, which includes decades of clubbing herself and persuading club-goers that she’s not a police officer so they’ll talk to her about their altered mindset. “We are seeing the beginning of a new wave of interest in psychedelics, which makes sense because it’s probably been a good 20 years since we’ve seen that in the U.K., and they all come in cycles anyway,” she adds; Jones further explains that the majority of popular drug usage cycled from LSD in the 1960s to cocaine in the ‘70s to LSD and MDMA in the ‘80s — and then the latter, really, since.

When Joseph Palamar, in many ways Measham’s stateside counterpart — he’s a professor of tobacco, alcohol, and drug studies at New York University’s Langone Institute — was grooving “every Sunday” to DJs like Junior Vasquez and Frankie Knuckles in the late ‘90s at famed New York nightclub Sound Factory, now Pacha, his peers were still popping pressed ecstasy tablets. The popularity of these wonder pills, writes Michaelangelo Matos in his recently published treatise on dance and electronic music, The Underground Is Massive, reached a zenith along with a resurgence of LSD in San Francisco in the very early ‘90s — nodding to Professor Measham’s hypothesis that, in the mid-2010s, the popularity of psychedelics will cycle back. “All these hippies loved seeing younger people taking psychedelics again,” Matos quotes publicist Gamall Awad as commenting on the Bay Area scene at the time. “It was all happening again in the same time and the same place.”

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These days, however, the available LSD is often anything but its original formula, lysergic acid diethylamide. “Something that I’ve heard is that actual L-S-D doesn’t even exist anymore,” says Professor Palamar. Instead, according to both him and Professor Measham, there’s been a rash of users taking 251-NBOMe, a synthetic and technically lawful substitute that was recently spotlighted in a CNN special on new psychoactive substances, or NPS — such as drugs Americans might recognize as media chew toys bath salts and “meow meow” — that killed several people. (It should be noted that the network’s hour-long documentary inaccurately lumped MDMA and/or “molly” in this category, when it’s far more often chemically engineered substitutes to Shulgin’s original recipe that are responsible for the deaths.) In fact, Professor Palamar and Jones recently led a podcast on the hazards of these chemically engineered compounds, including synthetic marijuana, which in 2012 sent Demi Moore to the hospital with seizures after she smoked it. Like many drugs stirred up in laboratories in China, its toxicological properties can overwhelm the human system even when “dosed,” or taken in certain amounts, properly.

“The American war on drugs has created not only a market, but a motivation for both the sale and consumption of these drugs,” writes Michael Power in his 2013 book, Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High. “If a drug user wanted to experience something akin to LSD without being jailed they could simply buy these neo-legal alternatives.” He speculates that part of the reason this may be the case, at least in the U.S., is the increase in the number of drug tests — which these new chemicals pass — that are given to athletes, medical school students, and those in the military. And, as SUNY Buffalo associate professor Michael R. Frone argues in his comprehensively researched treatise on the subject, Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in the Workforce and Workplace, drug tests fail to “translate into modification of employees’ use of these substances.”

For a long time, the U.K.’s flagship synthetic drug of choice was mephedrone, or the aforementioned meow meow, which popped up on dance floors around the region. It’s a highly addictive alternative to MDMA that was engineered following what’s known as the Great MDMA Shortage of 2008, when the Cambodian government found and destroyed a cache of safrole oil, one of the primary ingredients in the party drug. The mass destruction of this illicit chemical coincided with an uptick in the availability of technically legal “party favors,” as some call them, that people could take to achieve the same effects as their illegal counterparts. Many of them, ironically, are also much more dangerous: In 2009, several users overdosed on a powerful amphetamine mislabeled as the psychedelic 2C-B-FLY that they had ordered online over the Dark Web.

To briefly illustrate the seemingly random alphabet soup of letters and numbers that comprise technically legal narcotics these days, here’s a list taken from Drugs Unlimited: JWH-018, AKB48, URB597… It goes on. Though more new chemicals are synthesized in labs around the world every day, Shulgin notes many of them in his comprehensive chronicles of psychedelic and psychoactive compounds — 1991’s PiKHAL and 1997’s TiHKAL, respectively — including 4-AcO-DMT, so relatively undiscovered it doesn’t even have a street name. In this lightly hallucinatory substance, Power sees potential for future festival-goers; before, once again, adamantly clarifying that his stance not be seen as an endorsement of these substances, but speculation and suggestion for one that might arise as an alternative to molly.

“It’s a slightly modified version of psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms,” he tells SPIN over Skype. “4-AcO-DMT is a short-acting psychedelic which in high doses is completely obliterating and will send you into outer space, but in small doses it is — according to people I’ve spoken to; I’ve never done the drug myself — just like having a very clean and uncluttered version of magic mushrooms. It makes things look colorful and funny and you have a laugh. Toxicologically it’s very safe: it’s active at five or six milligrams. I’ve read reports of people who have done 100 or 200 milligrams by accident and suffered no ill effects. That’s not to recommend you do it, but if you did, you’d survive. You’d die if you did that with NPS.”

At least, it would be popular if most people at large musical events liked psychedelics, which aren’t as popular as ecstasy and its derivatives in that environment because there are too many uncontrollable factors — crowd size and density, for example — for such an intensely mind-altering drug. Like Measham and Palamar, Power predicts that MDMA will continue to be as embraced as it has been throughout the ages. Acknowledging that the substance has killed people because “it’s a drug; it’s not safe,” he says that its chemical makeup and effects make molly the ideal festival drug. “It lasts three or four hours, it makes you dance, hear the music wonderfully, it helps you feel a sense of closeness and connection with people and a lack of self-judgment.” Merely explaining its effects without endorsing it is obviously difficult (“I’m not evangelizing it, and I wouldn’t want my comments to presented in that light,” he says), but a slight analogy could be drawn to marijuana: While “overdoses” of weed derivatives like edibles haven’t directly caused anyone’s death, they have certainly caused significant psychological distress. At least ecstasy wouldn’t be mistaken for a candy bar.

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The uncharted road to legalizing marijuana could serve as a template for regulating MDMA, which these days seems feasible within the loose 15- to 30-year time span in which future festival drugs might arise. Here’s where Jones’ “visionary” prediction might already be coming true — at least, in some European countries. She hopes that law-making and -enforcing bodies will eventually admit that people are always going to want to take drugs, so, “let’s just create something that provides that to them in a safer, less risky fashion,” she says. Initial reports that this year’s Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE) would allow attendees to carry on-person up to five ecstasy tablets without getting arrested were incorrect, but the organization is still notable for its attention to its safety and education measures that are still out of the question in the U.S.

One need only look at 2003’s RAVE Act, a widely criticized bill meant to reduce ecstasy-related deaths by categorizing all rave accessories, such as glow sticks and drug-testing kits, as drug accessories and therefore illegal. Because venue managers and festival promoters didn’t want to be penalized for offering attendees something like on-site counseling for someone going through a bad trip just in case they were hit with a fine for providing drug paraphernalia, the RAVE Act actually made situations more dangerous for drug-taking concertgoers by removing drug education and safety measures.

“It would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago to see a legal recreational cannabis market regulated and controlled for recreational use in the U.S.,” says Power. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable or unlikely to suspect that MDMA will become available, at least somewhere in the world, as a recreational drug. When used the right way, they can be remarkably safe compared to something like peanuts, for example.” The predominant opinion among those surveyed for this piece and interviewed elsewhere is that if pure MDMA were accessible to interested parties who were educated — perhaps by government-funded programs — users might be less likely to turn to the Dark Web’s black market of “legal” drugs that are actually far more lethal, especially when used in secret by people fearful of legal repercussions for their personal choices.

“My hope is that the U.S. re-examines the policies, that they’ll look to Europe and say, ‘That’s the model we’re going to be focusing on,’” says criminal defense attorney Cameron Bowman, a.k.a. the Festival Lawyer, who makes himself available to answer questions about relevant issues like the legality of drug testing kits. To him, the most interesting question is not which controlled substance of choice of future dance music fans will choose — be it ketamine, or 4-AcO-DMT, or new iterations of MDMA that arise, such as the extremely pure batches that have recently been observed in circulation — but what will happen to the controlled substance policy surrounding them. “The drugs are going to change depending on the music and the culture and the particular subculture,” he says. “On the one hand there is this move by some festivals to be realistic and say, ‘Some of our patrons are going to have this,’ and then on the other hand you got this very prohibitionist, reactive, increased-security approach.”

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Then again, drugs might not be a priority for a growing minority of the dance population that wants to party a la the Loft’s non-alcoholic juice bars in the ‘80s (illustrated in books about the era such as The Underground Is Massive and Energy Flash); that is, clean. The past few years have seen a surge in early morning raves with more of a focus on exercise and well-being than transcending corporeally via narcotics. These several-hour dance parties feature fuzzy-booted ravers but also kale smoothies and good vibes, and have spread to cities like Washington, D.C. “There’s dance music events strictly focused on holistic healing that are yoga-based, aerobic-based featuring totally modern, contemporary dance music,” says DJ and producer Ted Krisko of Brooklyn-via-Detroit techno collective ATAXIA. “There was one at [New York club] Verboten that had hundreds of people doing yoga and aerobics and dancing with no drugs, alcohol, nothing of that sort being welcomed into that kind of atmosphere.”

For everyone, but especially the less sober among us about to rock (or rather, rave) under the influence, the future of drug policy and practice is much more uncertain. Movements like Amend the RAVE Act (which aims to increase drug safety and education, as opposed to venue and festival security), the widespread use of drug tests at Manchester’s regularly occurring nightly party the Warehouse Project, and the ADE’s changed ecstasy rules point to a more liberal future. Legislation may be changed to reflect that pills are going to be popped and lines snorted no matter how much jail time awaits, so we may as well make those substances as safe and their users as educated as possible. Regardless of the overarching legal framework, most people looking to get f**ked up in the future will probably continue to see molly — unless, of course, they’re tripping their faces off on 4-AcO-DMT. “That’s the first thing policymakers, and critics, and all of us have to understand,” says Powers. “People are doing it to get high and have fun. It’s not a blight on their life. They’re doing it just for kicks.”

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