By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
It's a frigid December night in West Oakland, and the sky is as black as slag. Rain pours down in thick, oily sheets, sweeping all kinds of detritus along the road. Outside Soundwave Studios, people are loading band equipment into their vans, or huddling under the awning to smoke cigarettes and listen to the rain. That's when a car swerves by from out of nowhere. It lurches haphazardly down the block, careening so far to one side that one of the smokers flinches. The driver does a tremendous B-movie turn that makes her brakes squeal and then pulls up in front of the mortified onlookers. She rolls down her window and smiles apologetically. "We were thizzin'," she later explains.
The driver, Brittany, and her passenger, Michelle, plan to drop into a liquor store before stopping at Mingles Martini and Champagne Lounge for "Jeans and High Heels," a weekly hip hop party sponsored by Thizz Entertainment. True to the night's theme, the two are indeed thizzin' -- meaning, in hip hop patois, that they're high on the drug Ecstasy.
Brittany's car is cluttered with fliers, one of which advertises Thizz Entertainment's forthcoming New Year's party. Blending garish neon lettering with lurid hip hop iconography including a "booty poppin'" contest complete with an illustration of said booty, it's a stunning example of how Ecstasy has been plucked out of the hippie-rave community and repackaged with a flashy hip hop veneer. In the center lies a picture of the cover image from the late Mac Dre's CD Thizzelle Washington, which shows the rapper in his '70s polo shirt, aviator glasses, and Afro do, busting a disco pose in front of a backdrop of psychedelic colors. The Thizz Entertainment logo appears at the bottom in hazy, pixilated letters, as though to convey the feeling of fuzzy disorientation that comes with an Ecstasy high.
Granted, these promotional materials stop short of directly merchandizing Ecstasy. Yet it's clear that Thizz Entertainment is capitalizing on the drug's popularity. B.M.R. Slim, who promotes "Jeans and High Heels" along with a host of other parties, credits Mac Dre for coining the word "thizz" -- a term that would come to define a new hip hop subculture. "It's about feeling yourself," Slim says. "If you listen to the music, you'll understand."
Brittany and Michelle would certainly agree. Barreling down Seventh Street, Brittany screeches through a red light into a rain-slicked intersection and nearly collides with another car. Both vehicles skid dangerously, but Brittany seems unbothered. "It was his right of way, but he didn't have to be driving that fast," she clucks. She turns up the heat and switches the radio dial to KMEL, the Bay Area's dominant hip hop radio station. The DJ is playing Mac Dre's ubiquitous "Feelin' Myself," followed by a sequence of visceral uptempo numbers that includes Mistah F.A.B.'s catchy "New Oakland," which contains the line, "High off purple, only thizzin' off a pill." Indeed, the song sounds as if it was written in a moment of intense bliss: F.A.B. is shouting screwball rhymes over a rickety beat that could be a recording of cowbells and hubcaps being clanged together. The mood is infectious. "Oh, I'm feeling my thizzle now," Brittany says.
Over the last couple of years, more and more people have been feelin' their thizzle. These days in hip hop clubs, the dance floors are a morass of swollen pupils and puckering "thizz faces." Pills were changing hands when the Team -- whose hit song, "I'm on One," includes the lyric, "Lil' weed, lil' Ecstasy/ Lil' Rémy with some lil' bitches next to me" -- performed at San Jose's Ambassador's Lounge last fall. In November, a girl lounging on the waterfront deck of Zazoo's Restaurant in Jack London Square bragged that she'd been thizzing for four days. If you type "thizz" into the "display name" search box at MySpace.com, you'll get no fewer than 120 pages, one of which is wallpapered with images of Ecstasy pills. And that's not counting all the variations on the theme -- like "Da One N.A.S.T.Y. F.R.E.A.K.," who lists his general interests as "dancing, reading, thizzing, smokin', drinking, and long walks on the beach on a pill like wahhhhh yadastand?"
A whole new crop of slang terms has sprung up from the Ecstasy craze. According to San Francisco Bay Viewwriter Apollonia Jordan, "thizzing" could also be substituted for "zoning," "bustin' your head," or "stuntin'." Pills are "stunnas," a word used liberally in hip hop to signify anything of material value. And Ecstasy references are common coin in rap lyrics: Twista's rap ballad "Girl Tonight" includes a verse beginning, "Make her feel like she popped a pill, got her feelin' Ecstasy/ Took her to the bedroom, about to make her an overnight celebrity." Meanwhile, in 2005, the Hunters Point MC Guce released an album whose back cover illustration depicts two outstretched palms filled with white, purple, and lime green tablets. The title? Pill Music: "The Rico Act" Vol. 1.
Ecstasy has become enmeshed in the social F.A.B.ric of hip hop. It is figuring into its sexual politics and amplifying some of the scene's sleazier values. Ravers may be content to cuddle and suck pacifiers, but intimacy in hip hop clubs tends more toward bumping and grinding. Put Ecstasy in a space where everyone is freaking to Ciara's "My Goodies" or Ying Yang Twins raps that tout the godlike powers of male genitalia, and the drug starts reflecting the psychology of the space.
"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.
As the stories wore on, Rosenbaum grew increasingly rattled. "They were generally very anti-drug, and they really wanted horror stories," she recalls. "It was such bullshit that it was hard to even listen." All this sermonizing struck her as both alarmist and facile. "Meth, crack -- maybe," she says. "But Ecstasy? You got it wrong."
Rosenbaum had first encountered Ecstasy back when it was identified by its chemical name, MDMA, and hardly known outside of small circles of Deadheads and yuppies. Few of them went dancing all night or took more than a single dose every few weeks or months. Rosenbaum certainly had never heard of anyone popping a pill and doing a drive-by. Barring the possibility that human brain chemistry had evolved dramatically in the last two decades, the thug drug she was hearing about that night surely wasn't the same little feel-good pill she'd started researching in 1987.
When the radio show ended, Rosenbaum called Sheigla Murphy of the Institute for Scientific Analysis and asked if her organization had ever found a link between Ecstasy and violence. Murphy said she'd seen no such correlation. Most Ecstasy experts in the academic community still perceive it as a sensual, even salutary drug -- the stuff that Deadheads, candy-ravers, and self-help devotees take so they can give each other rubdowns and talk about their feelings. Asked if Ecstasy ever induced aggression or bloodlust, UC Santa Cruz professor Reinarman also sides with Murphy and Rosenbaum. If Ecstasy truly is the new drug of choice for black urban youth, he says, "I would be very surprised if you went into hip hop clubs these days and didn't see less edge, and more glow."
In fact, we areseeing a little more glow. Around the time that Ecstasy hit the Bay Area hip hop community, the music shifted in tone: Rappers who once sounded nihilistic or dark and psychological suddenly became bubbly and infectious. The bay's famously cheeky E-40, who made his name with raps about being a rugged individual who could work around the system, is now best known for "Tell Me When to Go," a call-and-response number that sounds like the "Hollaback Girl" of hyphy, an often-vapid style of uptempo, club-friendly rap. E-40's new approach goes hand in hand with the "movement" mentality and cult of brotherly love that's sweeping through Bay Area hip hop. Once atomized and aggressive, MCs are now juvenile and boisterous, gamely talking up their DJs, promoting ginseng energy drinks, and getting down with their mostly teenage audiences.
To top it all off, they've traded the self-centered, go-it-alone gangsta rap-style of the 1990s for an evocative "we" voice. Consider Oakland's Mistah F.A.B., whose "New Oakland" anthem is all about fraternizing and romping around town: "I is down with thizz/ Reppin' the bay, cuz you know it's town biz." But F.A.B. wasn't always a guy next door. His sophomore album, Nig Latin, featured a wrenching autobiographical song called "Worries," on which the MC talked candidly about crack addiction in his family, his brother's incarceration, and his father's untimely death from AIDS. When F.A.B. signed to Thizz Entertainment last year, he started spitting out lighter, commercially friendly club bangers -- rattle-trap, boom-and-slap beats coupled with slangy, percussive rhymes that err more on the side of levity than gravitas, and are peppered with references to "purple and a pill." Currently, the artist's most popular lyrics are about not having a charger for his cell phone, or getting so drunk and hyphy that he's kicked out of the club. Short on substantive content, the lyrics are quite catchy nonetheless: Last fall a toddler jumped onstage during one of DJ Backside's "Blockyard" barbecues at Moses Music and started singing F.A.B.'s "New Oakland" almost verbatim. F.A.B. seems to be getting a lot more mileage celebrating drug use and "going dumb" than he did when he was decrying crack use: These days he's played on KMEL all the time.
But a lot of people in the hip hop community see Ecstasy in a totally different light. When Youth Radio's Leon Sykes appeared on KQED's Forum the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he cited the popularity of "designer drugs" as one obstacle in promoting nonviolence. In a 2004 San Francisco Bay Viewarticle, "Ecstasy: Ruining the Future of Our Community," staff writer Jordan also compared the Ecstasy fad to the crack cocaine epidemic that plagued her mother's neighborhood in the '80s: "Ecstasy has hit our communities just like crack hit back when my mother was a teenager," she wrote, adding later, "We need to realize that this drug is bad, and whoever brought this into our community had plans on ruining the future of the black youth who reside in these communities." Jordan even attributed the recent spate of violence in hip hop clubs to the exhilarating effects of Ecstasy. "I think Ecstasy is another reason why so many people are being violent nowadays and not thinking twice before they do something," she wrote. "When you're zoning, you don't care about no one else's feelings but your own. Let's put it this way: It feels so good, makes you wanna slap yo momma."
But since Ecstasy is still new to the hip hop community, there's very little quality control around the drug. Many people aren't even sure what it's going to do to them, or how they're supposed to feel when they're on it. Even the mode of ingestion is different; whereas ravers tend to take E with other uppers like speed or cocaine, most people in the hip hop community seem to mix it with alcohol and weed, which changes the effect.
Perhaps most important, much of what they're taking isn't really Ecstasy. A lot of dealers are getting away with just selling whatever. Earth Erowid, who works at the pill-testing laboratory EcstasyData.org, explains the incentive for dealers to adulterate their product: It's cheaper. By cutting the drug with caffeine or speed, they're able to spread a little bit of Ecstasy a long way, thereby reducing production costs. Erowid attributes the mass-produced, impure character of Ecstasy to changes that have occurred in the market since the drug became illegal in 1986. In the 1980s, Ecstasy was a cottage industry run by small-scale producers, most of whom were either students, employees of pharmaceutical labs, or chemistry buffs with a garage setup. But after the DEA outlawed Ecstasy, Erowid believes that organized crime took over, driving out the mom-and-pops with economies of scale. "The mixing of different illegal drugs into a single distribution stream is one of the classic effects of prohibition" and results in "mixed, unregulated markets," Erowid wrote in an e-mail interview.
Duterte of the Institute for Scientific Analysis guesses that Ecstasy passes through three or four hands before it gets to the consumer. In other words, most users don't really know what they're taking, and most dealers don't even know what they're selling.
If you're not sure what you're taking, then you definitely can't foresee how you'll react to it. Bay Viewwriter Jordan ended her anti-Ecstasy screed with an anecdote about a friend whose family called the police when they saw him hallucinating on "bad" Ecstasy: "He was talking to himself, answering questions that no one had asked him, and he even got naked and tried to put himself into a small paper bag. When he was finally released from jail he had an assault on an officer charge along with resisting arrest."
While some observers are obviously tempted to suggest that Ecstasy was planted in the black community specifically to make people revert to violence, more likely the reason people are freaking out is that they're taking whatever-the-fuck and thinking it's Ecstasy. But Jordan was definitely right about one thing: The culture of Ecstasy is changing dramatically as the drug transitions from white and Asian rave scenes to black hip hop clubs.
Smuggling drugs into San Francisco's 1015 Folsom club isn't extremely difficult, but it's still nerve-racking. Like most large venues in the Bay Area, 1015 installs two bouncers at the door; one for pat-downs and bag searches, the other to check ID. But no amount of fortressing is enough to discourage Javier, who follows a strict personal rule of never popping pills until after he gets inside the club. "I've had too many experiences of standing in line high out of my mind, and then crashing at 3 a.m.," he explains.
On a Saturday night in early January, Javier goes to 1015 to catch a show featuring the German DJ Talla 2XLC. He brings a large entourage: several cohorts from the trance scene, plus a few hip hop heads -- including an MC named Pablo -- lured to 1015 by the promise of really good Ecstasy and anorexic white girls. Musical tastes are still a bone of contention: Driving across the Bay Bridge, Javier and a friend sit in front bumping propulsive, atonal trance music, while a hip hop head in the back issues threats of launching a "hyphy jihad." None of this fazes Javier, who steps into the club at the witching hour, ready for the night to begin. "I always wait until midnight to take my first hit," he says.
Once everyone passes the security check and enters the dizzying never-never land that is 1015 Folsom -- three floors of strobe lights, junk-your-trunk beats, and gyrating bodies -- all conflicts evaporate. Even some of the hip hop heads concede that after watching DJ Talla perform, they are ready to lock horns with anyone who denigrates trance music: Look, try this shit on designer drugs, man. Talla's set is an incredible swirl of sensations. Laser projections and video streams turn the walls into a giant matrix of amoeba swirls and splashy comic-book colors. Slinky women in Catholic-school skirts and fishnet tops dance on either side of the stage. People in the audience bob their heads in intense concentration, flashing glow sticks and gazing at the DJ with giant doe-in-the-headlights pupils. And Talla is the centerpiece.
The DJ's job doesn't look that labor-intensive, but nonetheless, he has the entire audience in thrall. "Talla's sets build on each other," explains Javier -- an assessment that makes sense to someone under the influence of Ecstasy. The sounds come in layers, with each new beat crosshatched onto the one before. Every time Talla makes a slight modulation in the tone or rhythm of his music -- in trance lingo, a "break" -- he points an admonishing finger at the audience, as though preparing everyone for something really momentous. And when the break comes, the crowd heaves a collective sigh of deliverance.
Trance is an intensely visceral form of music; its low, throbbing beats and tweaky, repetitive tones are designed to amplify your Ecstasy high. The effect is both sedative and euphoric, causing people to dodder around smiling and hugging each other. Le Sheng Liu of DanceSafe -- an organization that promotes drug awareness in the rave community -- says he first gravitated to the scene because it exuded so much tenderness and sensitivity. "I grew up listening to hip hop -- and when I say hip hop, I mean Top 40 radio music," he says. "The rave scene seemed radically different. It wasn't about looking sexy, trying to show off your money, or being better than the next person."
Michelle, who started taking Ecstasy at raves and eventually migrated to the hip hop scene, remembers how her old raver buddies would dress up to express their personal credos: The most flamboyant accessories were angel wings, pacifiers, and charm bracelets that read "I love you" or "I love E." The night she popped her first pill, Michelle found a California ID on the dance floor and spent hours looking for its owner. "I finally found her in a crowd of 300," she chuckles. "That was a little too generous of me. I could have just given it to the front desk."
Those kinds of parties still exist, but they're much harder to find these days. Javier expected to see a lot of people at a Terra Gallery trance event featuring DJs from Germany, Holland, and Britain, and was disappointed when virtually no one showed up. The scene at a recent weekend-long Love Parade benefit at San Francisco's SomArts Gallery reflected the current demographics of the rave community. Friday night's kickoff party reeled in a crowd of teens and young adults who looked like ravers of 10 years ago: They wore button-up Adidas pants, had shocking pink hair, and spent a lot of time hanging out in the parking lot, huffing from aerosol cans. But the following night's show -- which featured the darker, artier trance music subgenre "psi-trance" -- attracted a much older crowd of Burning Man types and SOMA loft yuppies sporting new tweed coats or text-messaging into their T-Mobile Sidekicks.
Now that ravers have grown up and their music has gotten on the radar, the scene appears to have splintered. Parties that used to be held in abandoned buildings or graffiti'd industrial warehouses are now situated in licensed, commercial venues where drugged-out 17-year-old techno fans must mingle with the well-heeled. The demographic and vibe of these aboveground parties are often nothing like the underground rave utopias of the mid- to late '90s that Le and Michelle remember.
On the night DJ Talla performs at 1015, the club seems conspicuously meat-market-ish and largely reflects a Top 40 sensibility that Le says he reviles. People floss their midriffs and bling jewelry; the women try to look sexy while the guys front like ballers or mack daddies. The trance devotees are relegated to a small pocket in the basement, where attendance is sparse throughout the night. Meanwhile, most patrons gather upstairs on the ground level, where they are treated to a numbing hip hop and reggaeton soundtrack that could have been ripped directly from Wild 94.9.
A little past 1 a.m., when DJ Talla is just picking up steam, a fight breaks out in the back of the room. The DJ tries to ignore it, even after a small army of security guards is dispatched to tear the guys off each other. Though he manages to look pretty oblivious, Talla isn't able to stave off a creepy feeling that's beginning to percolate through the room. Some of Javier's cohorts see the melee and are more transfixed by it than by the trance DJ himself. Pablo turns to the girl next to him and whispers, "Hey, if anyone messes with you, tell me. I'll kick their ass."
She grins and elbows him in response: "I'm feelingmyself," she says. "Are you feeling yourself, too?"
"Yeah," he says, quoting Mac Dre, hip hop's most famous Ecstasy enthusiast. "I'm in the building."
Meanwhile, DJ Talla's fans tiptoe toward the stage, perhaps thinking that by huddling close together they'll seal themselves off from the outside world.
A few weeks later, a 29-year-old man will be shot to death at the very same club.
Twelve hours after leaving "Jeans and High Heels," Brittany was still thizzin', but no longer wanted to be. She sat at home smoking blunts and watching TV, letting the hours vaporize. "I just wanna know if this is actually crack or something," she said.
There was only one sure way to find out. I decided to buy two pills from Brittany's dealer and test them myself. I purchased them at the bargain price of $10 apiece, which is conspicuously cheaper than the $20-per-pill rate prevalent at the UC Berkeley co-ops in 2002. Nobody is quite sure why the price has dropped so much in the past four years. At any rate, I called Le and asked to use his DanceSafe pill testing kit.
Le lives in the same East Oakland apartment building where he grew up, a three-story brick tenement that also houses a Vietnamese noodle house and a DIRECTV shop, both plastered with posters advertising the Lunar New Year celebration in Reno. Inside, Le's apartment is warm and clean. Piercing solution and citrus toothpaste clutter the bathroom sink, and there's a low-backed divan in the living room. The kitchen is stocked with a variety of herbal teas, and the walls are decorated with posters depicting all the different strains of several drugs, including Ecstasy. The afternoon I stop by, Le is lounging in the living room wearing baggy warm-up pants, a Puma jacket, and flip-flops. He has three or four piercings in each ear. He has laid out a table with all the paraphernalia DanceSafe typically uses to test pills at parties: a jar of pens, a bowl of condoms, earplugs in sealed baggies, a sound meter to test the decibel level of the speakers, a thermometer to test the room temperature, stacks of splashy, laminated fliers with information about every recreational drug found in the club scene (plus one on heatstroke and one on protecting your hearing), and a drug testing kit consisting of three reagents -- Mecke, Marquis, and Simon, which change color when combined with Ecstasy; speed; the psychedelic 2CB; and DXM, an opiate found in many over-the-counter cold medicines. The test can tell if your pill is completely fake, but won't indicate its purity or how much Ecstasy you're taking.
We decide to test my pills with the first two reagents, since that's all Le has on hand. The pills look a little suspect: One is pink with darker speckles, and not even totally round -- Le murmurs that it doesn't look as if it was pressed properly. The other is blue with multicolored speckles and a horizontal line pressed into one side. Neither has a logo. Le takes a ruler and measures them. The pink one is 8 millimeters in diameter and 5 millimeters deep; the blue is 8 by 4.5 mm. With a razor, he carves a tiny sliver of the pink pill onto a plate and smothers it with a drop of the Mecke reagent. After a couple of seconds the pill fragment turns blue and then black, indicating the presence of Ecstasy. This would be a normal reaction, except that Le detects spots of pink in the puddle whose presence he can't explain. "It might be from the speckles," he guesses. "I've never seen a speckled pill before." The Marquis reagent also indicates Ecstasy, though again with strains of some unknown substance – this one produces tiny yellow dots in the reaction. The blue pill is no better: Combined with the Mecke, it tests positive for Ecstasy, though the reaction glitters with tiny yellow and pink dots that defy explanation. Likewise, the Marquis reaction turns up Ecstasy-positive, but flecked with yellow spots.
Although the tests aren't very reassuring, the sight of two virginal Ecstasy pills lying before me on Le's coffee table is difficult to resist. I decide to take the pills. I cut them in half, take half of the pink one, and wait 45 minutes. When nothing happens, I take half of the blue one, too.
Having taken my fair share of Ecstasy in college, I know how warm and fuzzy it's supposed to feel. And I expect only the best -- especially after Brittany's gushing review. So I wait. Another half-hour passes. Then I start to feel flighty, though the sensation is no more intense than a caffeine rush, or two glasses of red wine on an empty stomach. My palms and the soles of my feet are sweating. Le is bumping a fizzy techno soundtrack on his stereo, and I demand that he switch over to the hyphy mix on Wild 94.9 -- after all, I want to feel myself. When we can't settle on the appropriate background music, I decamp; I catch a BART train at Lake Merritt and sit in a corner of the car by myself, feeling twitchy. Within two hours of having taken the pill, I'm morbidly depressed. Officer Gates had said something about "Suicide Tuesday" being the day that every raver comes down from his Ecstasy high. I'm not exactly ready to slit my wrists, but I can see why some people have called Ecstasy "crack for the malcontent."
We decide to try again. I buy two more pills from the same dealer, and this time they look more legit: They're light blue with Christmas tree logos, and measure a healthy 8.5 by 4.5 mm, although they still have speckles. I send one to a Sacramento lab to be tested with a mass spectrometer, which determines the relative amounts of certain substances, including caffeine, ketamine, methamphetamine, and ephedrine, but not the actual quantity of each. On its Web site, EcstasyData.org explains: "The DEA has made an unpublished administrative rule that licensed labs are not allowed to provide quantitative data to the public, reportedly for fear of providing 'quality control' to dealers and suppliers of black market products."
I take the other pill to Le's house. Once again, the Mecke and Marquis reactions both reveal Ecstasy. Without giving the matter much thought, I decide to pop this pill, too.
This one's a little better. An hour later I feel light and floaty; I'm gnashing my teeth, listlessly watching rodeo footage on TV, and trying to fraternize with Le's fellow trance scenesters -- albeit without much success. A few weeks later I check EcstasyData.org and find that my pill is one part Ecstasy, one part diphenhydramine (best known as the antihistamine Benadryl), and one part phentermine (a speedy diet pill).
I want my 40 bucks back.