View attachment 38528 Ecstasy could be considered the last important street drug to be popularized. MDMA—first engineered way back in 1912 by the German chemist Anton Kollisch under the auspices of Merck pharmaceuticals—sits alongside LSD, heroin and cocaine in the pantheon of psychoactive substances that not only got an entire generation high but left an indelible stamp upon the wider culture. Ecstasy has had its own iconography, music, tabloid scares and legal crackdowns. When the “Second Summer of Love” exploded in the UK in 1998 (preceding the height of the drug’s popularity stateside), the middle ground seemingly vanished. Some became evangelists for this “wonder drug.” Others were apoplectic, demanding harsh action to protect “the kids” from this “killer pill.”
Professor David Nutt of Imperial College, London, the leading neuropsychopharmacologist and ex-chief drugs adviser to the UK government, famously declared in 2009 that taking ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse riding (naturally, he was fired for his excessive honesty). Horse riding, of course, always carries some risks—especially if you do it on a frightened horse, or without a helmet. DrugScience, an informative website founded by Nutt, notes: ”Some people taking MDMA have died following severe overheating and other medical emergencies. Deaths following the use of MDMA usually involve high doses and/or the simultaneous use of other substances. MDMA overdoses and drug combinations can also cause serotonin syndrome, which can be fatal. MDMA-associated deaths may alternatively involve overcompensation of the risk of dehydration by drinking much too much water, which coupled with the fact that MDMA may stop a person from urinating, causes fatally low concentrations of salt.”
Like all the “big” drugs, MDMA’s popularity has become cyclical. In the US, after an initial spike between 1999 and 2001, use had steadily declined. But its popularity has been on the rise again—with a 128% spike in MDMA-related ER visits among under-21s between 2005 and 2011, according to a SAMHSA report. Part of this is down to a successful rebranding job. Those of us who came of age during the first ecstasy boom associate it with smiley faces, baggy pants and acid house. The current generation of E-enthusiasts call it “Molly.” Everyone from Miley Cyrus to Kanye West is singing about it, and the media acts as if it’s a brand new drug.
Substance.com contacted 10 former and current ecstasy users to ask them two simple questions: Do you remember the first time? And where did your initial experience lead?
1. The Flying Cow
Frankie, 37, the CFO for a software company in Cupertino, California
View attachment 38529 My first time: I was in LA around 1998. It was Halloween and I was going to the parade with my then-girlfriend. She was really against drugs, so I didn’t tell her I’d done a pill. I was dressed in this ridiculous cow outfit, with these hideous rubber udders. When the pill kicked in I felt utterly incredible. I remember how clean the air tasted and how beautiful everyone looked. We ended up at a club and I remember turning to [my girlfriend] and saying, “I’m a cow on ecstasy.” It felt as if I were imparting some great cosmic secret. She laughed and we kissed. It felt like kissing for the first time. Even though she wasn’t high and she didn’t know I was high, we kissed for like an hour. The sex was incredible and I remember thinking, “This is the greatest drug I have ever done. I wish I could feel like this all the time.”
Where it went from there: I did E pretty regularly for a few years. Then the quality started getting bad and a lot of pills started feeling really speedy. It was never as good as that first time, and I kinda got bored with it. As I’ve gotten older the comedowns have become harder to deal with. I can’t just take a whole day off to recover any more. The last time I did it was at a New Year’s Eve party and I hadn’t done it in a while so I just took half a pill. It was disappointing, kind of weak, and I felt horrible the next day. I’ve not stopped, but I’ve not been in a hurry to do it again.
2. The Champagne Moment
Suzie, 27, a grad student in Seattle
View attachment 38530 My first time: New Year’s Eve 2009, in Downtown Los Angeles. It took about two hours to hit. Right after it started to come on, which felt like an overwhelming all-over body high, my friend who had also taken it threw up his champagne into a cheap fedora we had just purchased. I remember thinking I should be concerned, but all I could do was have us go back to our friend’s apartment. My friend was fine and we both had a great time hanging out and calling another friend on speakerphone. Other highlights: Took the best pee of my life, and really enjoyed sitting in chairs and laying on the bed. Every little movement or thought made me feel extremely happy. Everything felt good to the touch, especially the flapper-ish skirt I was wearing. I think we just passed out eventually.
Where it went from there: The next day was horrible. Everything felt terrible and we were incapable of happiness. Very depressed, also kind of numb…just dead inside. I was really disturbed by this because I felt like I had drained all my serotonin / dopamine and was worried it was going to take forever to restore itself—or never come back. My friend and I decided to start drinking to take the edge off but nothing really worked. A day or two later I felt back to normal. I haven’t done it since—but mostly because I haven’t had the chance. And that brain-chemical flush really bothers me.
3. The Man in the Mirror
Josiah, 31, a journalist and author in Denver
View attachment 38531 My First Time: 2002. I was 19 and visiting friends at Iowa State University. We’d all taken our dose at the dorms, with the plan to go out dancing. I ended up getting separated from the group on the walk through town and didn’t know my way around. A thin mist of rain began to fall. I put The Smiths’ “Louder Than Bombs” on my Discman and rubbed my cheek along the inside of my hoodie, the fabric feeling like a baby chinchilla. That’s how the night went. There was a brief respite where I hung out in the bathroom of a pizza shop, smiling into the mirror and giving myself compliments.
Where it went from there: I’d only taken one pill the first time, but after that two or three became standard: Drive out to abandoned farms, take a few pills and dance to some horrible drum and bass for seven hours. I was young with no ambition, sleeping with strangers in cornfields and riding in cars where the driver would pass out from too many whippits. I haven’t taken ecstasy in around a decade. A few months ago it was my roommate’s birthday and we discussed buying some E. But when the guy showed up to sell it I backed out. I just have no interest in being profoundly fucked up anymore. I’m content with mildly adjusting the thermostat of my mind with THC and small amounts of alcohol.
4. A Trip Up the Thames
Fatima, 41, a fashion production manager in New York
View attachment 38532 My first time: I was kind of a late bloomer: I didn’t try ecstasy until I was 30. I was in London and E was all over the place. It was cheap, too—around three pounds [$5] a pill. Cheaper than a pint of lager! I loved the way it heightened my perceptions and especially my appreciation of music. The first time I took it we were at a party on a boat going up the Thames. It was a beautiful night, the DJ was great and the city looked beautiful. I took half a pill, and when I was peaking took the other half. My friends were all very experienced with E and I felt safe around them. People complain about the comedown, but that was never a problem for me. I felt a bit blue and tired, but I’d take an E comedown over a booze hangover any day.
Where it went from there: E became part of my weekend ritual, and after a year of solid partying I worked my way up to 10 pills a weekend. We’d start on Friday night and club-hop. By Sunday we’d be at some pub, coming down. The last time I did it was a pretty typical weekender, and I can honestly say I never had a bad experience. I stopped when I found out I was pregnant, and after I became a mom there was never the time to drop E. It’s not like smoking pot—you have to have a clear 24 hours in your calendar if you’re planning on dropping a pill. I’m sure moms will agree that for us, there usually aren’t that many spare 24 hours to be had…
5. The Human Ashtray
Liam, 36, a journalist in New York
View attachment 38533 My first time: A friend sold me a pill at a house party when I was 18. I felt nervous, even though I was drunk, because of recent media coverage of ecstasy-related deaths. But it was one of the most pleasurable sensations ever, building from the arms and culminating in a warm glow all over my body and brain. As well as the stereotypical love for all, I felt unable to experience pain—and decided to prove it to my friends by stubbing out a cigarette on my chest. I still have a faint scar. Ecstasy felt like the answer.
Where it went from there: I continued using and enjoying it, though rarely hit the heights of that intro. By my early twenties, I was taking several pills once or twice a week at house clubs or parties. But my comedowns became vicious—abject feelings of depression and loneliness at the end of the night. And the anticipation of those comedowns even started to spoil the high, so I almost entirely quit. I’ve used ecstasy once in the last five years. Hearing certain music still gives me pleasure-flashbacks.
6. Manchester United
Tommy, 39, a DJ in Manchester, England
View attachment 38534 My First Time: I was 16. Up until then I’d mostly just go out on the piss. Back then pills were expensive. My mate Chris sorted ‘em out and told us they were the bollocks—proper quality, you know? We were at the Hacienda in Manchester, Mike Pickering was DJ’ing and when it came on it was like nothing I’d ever felt before. This feeling that the whole club was one big organism, all on exactly the same wavelength. You know how everyone who grew up in the ’60s acts like if you weren’t there, you missed out? I remember thinking, “This is our ’60s!” Before, it was all about getting pissed up, scrapping and all that shite. Once E hit, it was more about the music. Just dancing, you know? Proper peace an’ love.
Where it went from there: E really changed things for me. Before E came along I’d have probably ended up doing what a lot of my mates did—get some bird pregnant and do fuck all with my life. But I got really into the music and decided that this is what I wanted to do. I started selling pills. Saved up enough money for my first pair of decks by dealing. As far as negative effects go, so far I’m alright. I’ve got mates who did it way too much and it did fuck ‘em up a bit, in terms of memory and that. I don’t do it like I used to, but I’ll still pop a pill if the timing’s right. I do feel sorry for teenagers now, ‘cos more often than not their first proper drug experiences is with that Bubbles shite. E should be legal. Should be mandatory, actually. We wouldn’t be at war as much if we made the Prime Minister do an E before work.
7. Cold Turk-E
Xavier, 40, a musician in Trenton, New Jersey
View attachment 38535 My first time: My first experience was about as bad as it could get. In ’98 we went to play some New York shows with our band. I had a pretty substantial smack habit. I took about a gram with me, figuring it’d last the four days. I had no idea you couldn’t buy syringes in NYC back then and I ended up smoking the lot on my first day. By Day Two I was in trouble, playing a show at The Continental with a little bucket to puke into behind my amp. The band thought they were being helpful by not telling me where to score: I was a West Coast dope fiend—NYC might as well have been the moon. I went home with a girl and all she had was GHB and ecstasy—I hoped the E might mask my symptoms, so I popped two. Bad idea. It was like cold turkey times 10, while tripping balls on E. I don’t know which horrible symptoms—fever, vomiting, hallucinations—were down to the E and which were down to the cold turkey. And this poor chick who’d brought me home—instead of romance she gets a dope-sick maniac who gobbles up her pills and spends the night screaming about devils, obsessively scrubbing his feet in the shower. I came out of it around eight the next morning outside a pizza joint on St Mark’s Place. Our singer had found me and we had a profound heart-to-heart about how I needed to get clean. That said, when our plane landed back at LAX I had my girlfriend waiting for me in the parking lot with a spike loaded with black tar.
Where it went from there: I never really enjoyed E until after I got away from dope. I’ve done it now and then although I’ve always been wary—bad associations. The last time was a year ago at a house party in Jersey City. I like it, but I’m more into stuff like speed, stuff that’ll let me stay awake longer and keep drinking. I don’t like that feeling of…liking everything. I remember being high as fuck at that Jersey City party and someone put that fucking… what’s that Hot Topic band? Paramore? Anyway, for a hot second I was actually thinking, “Man, this isn’t bad…the chick’s got a good voice!” That’s the bad thing with E. It kinda blunts your critical facilities.
8. The Experiment
Christopher, 55, a psychotherapist in London
View attachment 38539 My first time: My first experience with ecstasy was in a sense rather clinical. Not being into recreational drugs beyond the occasional glass of red wine, I experimented with MDMA because I was intrigued by its empathic qualities. This was five years ago. A colleague recommended that I try it. He found that his experiences with MDMA had helped him professionally. He’d read much of the literature from the 1970s, when MDMA was given to patients suffering from PTSD, depression, etc. He was interested in getting my take, so we took it together. It was in my house: myself, my colleague and our respective partners. I’m sure my reaction was quite different from if I had taken it in a club, but certainly I felt the heightened appreciation of music—we began listening to my LP collection and I found I had a new appreciation for albums I’d been somewhat ambivalent about. Later we took a walk on Hampstead Heath. I was struck by the beauty of the heath in a way that I had not experienced since first moving to London. We stayed up for most of the night talking. The next day I did feel somewhat irritable, which I put down to dopamine depletion. But overall it was an interesting experience, and largely positive. I believe that the drug has a huge potential benefit as a psychoanalytical tool, and hope that one day the restrictions on using it in a clinical setting might be loosened.
Where it went from there: That was the first and last time. I felt it best to leave it there. I worried that next time around I might have a negative reaction, or simply a disappointing one. My colleague continues to use the drug, albeit sparingly. He rather enjoys it, which is unusual for him because he doesn’t smoke tobacco or even drink.
9. The H-Bomb
Rex, 35, a marketing professional in Brooklyn
View attachment 38537 My first time: It was in 1996, before the MDMA phase. This was more like a combination of drugs thrown together and pressed into a tablet. It was a big, white, wafer-looking pill with brown chunks in it. They called it “H-Bomb” because the brown chunks were heroin. It was a strange experience, sitting in a dark room with friends listening to The Grateful Dead, not sure what we were supposed to be feeling. I was high, very high—but not in an ecstasy euphoria, more like a speedy heroin stupor. So we lay around until we had come down enough to drive home. That was enough ecstasy for a few years until they had figured out how to make it really good.
Where it went from there: I lived in Miami from 1999 to 2001—the pinnacle of ecstasy production and culture. My friends and I worked in nightclubs and would take it right before getting out of work, around 3 am every weekend, and go to after-hours clubs. I stopped doing it around 2003. I quit booze in 2011 and have been in recovery since then. Ecstasy wasn’t addictive like booze. But the comedowns are super-rough: You feel miserable for a few days, way worse than a hangover. I’m not sure if they have worked out that part since ecstasy has become MDMA.
10. The Graveyard Shift
Thomas, 32, a tattoo artist in Brooklyn
My first time: Man, I must have been like 16. I grew up in Maspeth, Queens and was in this little gang of no-good kids who liked to get fucked up. We were the neighborhood hoodlums. The easiest stuff to get was weed or pills—booze was difficult ‘cuz you needed an ID. We didn’t know what to expect. My friend Artie told me it was kinda like acid, which turned out to be total bullshit. I liked acid better. I was a real garbagehead—the goal was always obliteration. There’s this big graveyard close to where I grew up and we spent the afternoon running around and hiding and jumping out from behind the tombstones. There were some girls with us and I was fooling around with this one chick, Shawna, and we were behind one of these big mausoleums. She was really into all that Goth shit, you know? Man, I got so confused trying to figure out how to undo all the fuckin’ zippers and stuff that I just started laughing. Well, she thought I was laughing at her and smacked me right in the face and stormed off. I remember laughing so hard that the next day everything hurt, like I’d been beaten up.
Where it went from there: I’d been talking about slowing down for ages. Someone had given me a pill when I was at a tattoo convention in LA and it ended up the pocket of a pair of jeans that went into the washing machine. I remembered just as the cycle started. I pulled the jeans out but the pill was already wet and disintegrating. This was like 11 in the morning on a Tuesday. I figured it might be dangerous to eat because of the cleaning product. Instead of throwing it out like a normal person I put it in a medicine cup, added water until it dissolved, sucked it into a medicine dropper, greased up the old poop chute and squirted it up there. “Plugging” they call it—hits fast and hard. I spent the afternoon high as shit watching The Dark Crystal, grinding my teeth and shit. It was that really crappy, speedy E. As I was coming down I remember thinking, “Why are you doing this?” I felt like such a fucking loser that I finally did it: Quit. I took a month off everything, and now I don’t get fucked up as much as I did for sure. I haven’t done E since then.
01 May 2014