Feelin' Their Thizzle

How the culture of Ecstasy has changed as the drug moved from raves to hip hop

"If you're taking Ecstasy at a hip hop club, you're going into it knowing you're in a setting where people are gonna be picking up on each other," says Michie Duterte, a researcher at the Institute for Scientific Analysis, a San Francisco nonprofit that studies drug policy, among other topics. Indeed, one guy who popped his first pill at a Fillmore show featuring the Team and Mistah F.A.B. spent a good portion of the night hanging out in the lobby, languidly staring at girls and mumbling about how he wanted to take someone home and make it pop off. In Dr. Dre's "Let's Get High" -- a song that's already five years old -- sex, Ecstasy, and machismo are all part of the program: "Yeah -- I just took some Ecstasy, ain't no tellin' what the side effects could be/ All these fine bitches equal sex to me, plus I got this bad bitch layin' next to me/ No doubt, sit back on the couch, pants down, rubber on, set to turn that ass out." The story is nothing new; we're already accustomed to hearing rappers bluster about all the fine bitches they've spiked. But now Ecstasy is part of the plot.

Not everyone in hip hop is popping pills, however. In fact, some people are condemning them. Crack may be on the decline, but it has wrought enough damage on black communities to make most people gun-shy around any other illegal substance -- even a "designer drug" typically festooned with a spiffy logo and a nice neon patina. Confronted with a new drug epidemic, many folks are paranoid of being rubbed raw all over again.

"From what I know, thizzin' has something to do with drugs," insists DJ Lash, who presided over the now-defunct "Jeans and High Heels" party nights at Mingles. "I don't support no thizzin', if it's used as far as drugs. It's just slang, as far as I know." A local underground MC summed up everybody's fears while driving through West Oakland's Lower Bottoms neighborhood on a recent Friday night, his car radio blaring KMEL's street-oriented hip hop mix program On the Block. Listening to a string of standard-issue turf songs that sounded like updated Stagger Lee boasts spat over teeth-chattering Pro Tools beats, the MC sighed audibly. "All the songs are about how many pills they're pushing," he observed. "Ecstasy is the new crack."

Actually, it's not. UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Craig Reinarman, an expert on drugs and drug policy, explains that since crack is a fundamentally different drug than Ecstasy, the analogy is "overwhelmingly self-limiting." He writes that there is zero evidence of any criminogenic effects, and almost no evidence of danger at the dosage levels ingested by the vast majority of users. "Crack is a one- to two-minute rush that's extremely intense, followed by a fairly intense low," Reinarman says. "People who are hooked on crack engage in increasingly violent behavior. But that's not true of Ecstasy. People use Ecstasy to have five to six hours of bliss."

Granted, not everyone buys into the idea of rave culture being tender and harmonious. Officer Keith Graves of the Livermore Police Department says he's spent several years patrolling the Bay Area's underground rave scene, where he's pretty much the only guy not dangling a pacifier or rainbow Mardi Gras beads. Graves laments that a lot of school dances have turned into miniraves with light shows and heavy house music. "I've arrested cheerleaders, cops' kids, and kids who have stature in the community for using this type of drug," he says. The officer admits he's freaked out by the sight of so many kids shedding all their hang-ups.

Still, there's no evidence that the behavior Graves has observed has become a problem on the order of crack. Tina Bray, the nurse manager at Oakland's Highland Hospital, says Highland is still a heroin and cocaine shop. Ecstasy hasn't yet shown up in the emergency room. In 2003, the latest year for which data has been released, the Drug Abuse Warning Network recorded 91 deaths resulting from "drug misuse" in the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont region, most of which involved a combination of several drugs. Forty-eight of those deaths involved opiate use, 27 involved cocaine, 26 alcohol, 22 anti-depressants, and 20 stimulants. None involved Ecstasy.

In other words, Ecstasy isn't quite the new crack. But it's definitely not the old Ecstasy either.

Of course, try saying that to people who saw the best minds of their generation lost to a drug that all but decimated urban neighborhoods across the United States. Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the reform-minded Drug Policy Alliance, confronted such fears last year when she was interviewed in conjunction with a story titled "Ecstasy, the New Crack?" that aired on KMEL's Street Soldiers, a popular black upliftment program. Rosenbaum had never dreamed that one day a string of angry radio listeners would be badgering her to explain why Ecstasy was causing violence in the black community. She certainly wasn't prepared to see her two decades of research experience so thoroughly questioned and challenged.

Rosenbaum had always thought of Ecstasy as a sensual, lovey-dovey drug -- nothing like the hard-core, speed-oriented substance callers were describing that night. It seemed as if everyone had a gripping personal testimonial about "somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who took that stuff and went on a rampage." People spoke of friends who'd "fallen victim to the epidemic." One person who was interviewed asserted: "I'm sure that it got to do with the government flooding our community and it being coordinated," echoing the spurious conspiracy theory that suggests the CIA intentionally spread crack cocaine across black America via Los Angeles.

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