Party and dance drugs — especially MDMA, or versions of it, like ecstasy and Molly – have been around for a long time, but as raves and dance parties have gone from underground to mainstream in recent years, the drugs have gotten more popular, raising their risk for problems and abuse. “Ecstasy [popular in the ’80s and ’90s] and the current iteration of it, Molly, are just marketing terms,” says Missi Wooldridge, MPH, executive director of DanceSafe, a harm reduction organization promoting health and safety within the electronic music community headquartered in Denver. “They are all terms for MDMA.”The drug became popular at raves and dance events for its “effects, [which] include feelings of mental stimulation, emotional warmth, empathy toward others, a general sense of well-being and decreased anxiety,” says the National Institute on Drug Abuse website.
In recent years, MDMA has moved onto college campuses. In March 2015, 11 students at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, were taken to the emergency room owing to a bad reaction to Molly. The incident got a lot of publicity and emphasized the harm the drug can do. The main safety issue with MDMA and its off-shoots is that users frequently don’t get the drug they think they’re getting, says Wooldridge. Pills or powders that masquerade as MDMA are often cut with dangerous synthetic drugs from labs in China and other parts of the world, and most of the product has not been tested and is produced in widely varying strengths. MDMA acts as a stimulant and hallucinogen and can cause increased heart rate, heavy sweating, teeth-clenching, chills, and in some instances, a very sharp increase in body temperature, according to CASAColumbia.
But, says DanceSafe, the idea of an overdose is a misnomer. Any dire consequences experienced by users aren’t a result of taking too much of the drug; they typically occur because of other factors, such as heat stroke, high blood pressure, water toxicity and combining with other drugs and alcohol, as well as from adulteration.
What DanceSafe is Doing
DanceSafe was formed in the late ’90s to keep safe those who do opt to take these drugs. Volunteer members of the organization go to large dance and music festivals around the US to help ensure the safety of attendees by testing drugs for adulteration and distributing information about the effects and risks of various substances. Their goal is not just harm reduction, but also peer-based education. DanceSafe has been able to reduce drug misuse and help young people to make better choices, it says. Over this Memorial Day weekend, DanceSafe volunteers will be at the Lightning in a Bottle event in Bradley, California; Summercamp Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois; Mysteryland 2015, in Bethel Woods, New York; and the Movement Electronic Music Festival in Detroit.
“Drug testing is only one aspect of what DanceSafe does,” says Wooldridge. “We are mostly interested in having conversations with people regarding what a specific drug does, what are the risks, what is the dosage. And we also talk to people about many other things, including [using] the buddy system, sunblock at outdoor festivals, hydration, how to [accept] medical help if you need it.” DanceSafe offers, free water-electrolyte drinks, safe sex tools and earplugs too. When they can, they will do drug testing on site, but it isn’t always possible. The organization is often hired by private party-givers to do testing, but things get more complex when the venue is public, Wooldridge says.
The RAVE Act
In 2004, after several deaths from MDMA-like drugs, the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act (RAVE) Act was enacted. (The name was later changed to the Anti-Illicit Drug Proliferation Act, but it’s still mostly referred to as the RAVE Act by those in the field.) The legislation made event producers liable for any harm that comes from drugs taken at their event, having the probably unintended consequence of making it difficult to do drug testing on-site, when attendees could arguably be prevented from having a bad reaction to a drug or be injured. “The RAVE Act is the elephant in the room,” says Wooldridge. “It has existed so long that event planners are hesitant to allow drug testing on-site. They are scared and feel stuck; they want to develop safe practices, but they are all working alone because of this law.”
Wooldridge says that DanceSafe has good relationships with some event producers they’ve worked with, and with law enforcement and health service providers at some sites that do allow drug testing. There’s also a movement to amend the RAVE Act; it would protect promoters while also allowing drug testing and other harm-reduction practices. The movement is driven by Dede Goldsmith, whose daughter Shelly died from heat stroke after taking MDMA.
Safer Dancing, Globally
The US lags far behind the rest of the world in helping people in the electronic dance and festival communities stay safe. “Many countries have an early-warning system before consumption of drugs, to help promoters know what’s in them so that they can work with law enforcement and health care providers. And they also have drug testing on-site that’s paid for by the government,” says Wooldridge.
“There is a whole network of harm reduction elsewhere in the world,” adds Stefanie Jones, Nightlife Engagement Communications Manager at the New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance. “For instance, in Portugal, where personal drug use is legal, people can get drugs tested on-site easily. And in the Netherlands there are drug-checking offices where people can go during business hours. In Prague, drugs are checked as part of a academic study. You can go to an office, get a drug tested and the results come up online.”
Are we getting any closer to safer dances and raves in the US? It’s not like the use of many of these drugs is hugely declining, after all: While Molly’s heyday may have waned (it seems to have been most popular between 2009 and 2011,) there are still plenty of Americans trying it and using it. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 751,000 people used ecstasy for the first time that year, more than the number of new LSD and PCP users combined. The number of new ecstasy users is also greater than that of new users of cocaine, stimulants and inhalants. The average age for first-time users was 20.5 years old – smack dab in the middle of the college years for many young adults. Says Wooldridge, “We need to figure out where the drug users are, what they are taking and get them the education they need to be safe. The ban [put in place by the Rave Act] exists, but it still won’t solve the problem; it will go underground. I am hopeful that we are getting things moving in the right direction.”