By Tom Charles
Photo by Sweeps McCullen
It’s not news that drugs are associated with certain music genres. But when EDM gained popularity at Syracuse University, the drug culture that came with it resulted in the normalization of taboo behavior.
“Can I hold your hand? I’m sorry. Am I annoying you? I just want to hold someone’s hand!”
As she stamps her bare feet into the ground, Ally Bonner’s neon green shoelaces camouflage themselves against the lush summer grass from beneath a growing pile of clothes deemed too constraining for the task at hand. Behind her, two short blonde girls, each wearing an American flag as a blouse, smile while whispering back and forth. Their whispers turn to playful shouts when Bonner throws her bracelet at them as the DJ drops Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At.”
“What was that for?” they shriek.
“A bead fell off and it was annoying me,” she responds, yelling to be heard over the music. “I don’t know. I just thought it was time you two started dancing!”
“Can we leave our bags in your hippie circle?”
“Of course! It is a hippie circle, isn’t it? It’s for everyone!”
No sooner do the girls join the circle than Bonner vanishes in the crowd. After three hours, she’s yet to tucker out. She stops only to dance mockingly behind the most muscular of men, greeting them with an NFL-caliber stiff arm the moment they turn around.
Parched from the relentless movement, Bonner takes a break in front of an ice tray sitting on the floor way back in the crowd. She scoops a handful, brushes aside a few grass-smeared cubes, pops a couple others in her mouth, and rubs the rest on her shoulders and chest. She offers the remnants to her friends. They decline, much like they had at the start of the day when she offered to share the contents of a mysterious bag of white powder she found on the floor as they entered the concert grounds. Everyone involved assumed the powder to be Molly, the colloquial term for MDMA.
Calvin Harris is on stage, headlining SU’s 2012 Juice Jam. It is his first time playing a college campus, as had been true for Avicii the year prior. The scene has been personified, both nationally and locally, by agro-dubstep poster boy Skrillex: He went from playing the 700-person-capacity Westcott Theater in February 2011 to selling out the NYS Fairgrounds in October—less than an eight month growth period. Likewise, Kaskade set attendance records for the Carrier Dome at last year’s Block Party just three months before becoming the first electronic artist to headline the Staples Center in front of a sold out, 18,000-person audience. Molly has both steered and defined the EDM explosion.
Bonner’s behavior at Juice Jam is not out of the ordinary in her hometown of Portland, Oregon—one of the remaining places for non-permitted dance parties stateside. These are “raves,” even by the most purist definitions: open air gatherings lasting from sunset to sunrise with less emphasis placed on the DJ and more placed on free expression. Without proper licensing, the parties are frequently shut down by the police, typically in response to noise or loitering complaints. Bonner attended her first rave in the eighth grade, and the number of times she’s taken Molly and Ecstasy approaches triple digits.
Until recently, drugs were not electric dance culture’s focal point. They were highly present, says Bonner, but used mainly to elicit an ego death: an experience where one loses touch with external pressures (what’s “cool” and what isn’t) and focuses instead on introspection and empathy. “Whatever drug you chose,” says Bonner, “it used to be the spontaneity of the situation. Not knowing is one of the greatest beauties in life and that’s how it should be. That changed at some point.”
“Molly definitely escalated super fast,” says Morgan Craig, a freshman in the Bandier program, “to the point that now I feel like it’s just about on the same level as weed.” Craig has never tried MDMA of any sort, despite having attended more EDM concerts than she can recall, often with friends using the drug. “I think a lot of people don’t look at it as a mind-widening experience. It seems like more of a party thing.”
When rave culture developed, concertgoers would intentionally dress in bright colors and baggy clothes to remove themselves from mainstream fashion trends and to further amplify their ego-death. The mantra “PLUR” emerged—Peace, Love, Unity, Respect—as a lifestyle code dictating rave etiquette, holding precedence over substance use. “I definitely don’t think the average fan at a Tiesto show or even someone smaller like Paper Diamond knows about PLUR,” Craig speculates, admittedly having a vague knowledge of the credo. “New fans only dress that way because they see everybody else doing it.”
Longtime ravers like Bonner think that the culture got lost in translation as festivals grew larger, allowing more genre overlap and exposing fresh young faces to a counterculture they didn’t understand. Experimenting with drugs quicker than their bodies could adjust, some youths lost their lives. Tragedies were highly publicized, most notably the death of a 15-year-old girl from an Ecstasy overdose at Electric Daisy Carnival’s final Los Angeles event in 2010, which prompted the city to ban the festival permanently. The narrative was established: raves are drug-fueled cornucopias of excess.
This portrayal is nothing new; it’s remained the same since the origins of acid house. “There’s been a market for MDMA for thirty years,” says Tibor Palfai, an SU psychology professor and author of Drugs and Human Behavior. “The only trouble is that the market is very unreliable because it’s made by home chemists.” Without government regulation and quality control, manufacturers cut the drug with other substances: PCP, heroin, caffeine, confection powder—some more dangerous than others. This is often what leads to unpredictable overdoses. “MDMA is a nice drug,” says Palfai surprisingly. “It’s not as evil as people make it out to be. It’s evil because you buy it on the street and you don’t know what you’re getting. It’s Russian Roulette.”
Referring to himself as “a solution for common problems,” an SU senior under the pseudonym Sweeps McCullen prides himself on the purity of his Molly, which he claims contains 86 percent MDMA—the highest potency possible after factoring in oils and other necessary ingredients used during the cooking process. He says pure MDMA is a much more mellow high than most users come to expect. He boasts because he knows it’s safer than what people sell at shows. “I have morals. I have my own business codes,” says McCullen, “and that’s a big one: making sure that people remain safe while using it. I even hit them up the next day to see how everything went.”
McCullen orders his Molly from a popular online black market network. Prior to big-name DJ sets in Syracuse, he’ll order as much as 150 grams at a time. He never struggles to sell it.
Having moved pounds of drugs—more than just Molly—on and off since high school, McCullen observed a shift in clientele asking from Ecstasy for club use to wanting Molly at concerts and festivals. “Maybe the community isn’t based around rolling,” he says, using the term for being high on MDMA. “I can’t say that electronic music came because of Molly. That’s not what it is at all. But it’s hard to separate the music from the scene.”
The attachment between the drugs and the music may make ravers uneasy, explaining that the drugs are just superficial, but the connection isn’t totally baseless. As the production value of electronic concerts increases, the shows become more and more extravagant. Squarepusher openly claims the visuals at his live show are meant to evoke synesthesia; Datsik admitted to wanting “to make the trippiest possible thing I could” with his spiraling vortex stage setup. These environments create an ideal place to ride out an altered consciousness.
When Ecstasy first penetrated clubs in Ibiza in 1987, it was meant to keep energy levels high throughout the night. But as demand to see live DJs increased, so did the size of the venues, shifting from warehouses and nightclubs to massive stadiums and outdoor festivals, leading to tighter curfews. Today in Syracuse, DJ sets rarely run past 2 a.m., making the “up” from the amphetamine less necessary.
Doug Marsh* experienced this firsthand when Tiesto, one of the world’s most popular DJs, performed at the OnCenter in February. Marsh, 22, graduated from SU in spring 2012; this was his first time rolling since then. “When I used to go out I would ball out,” Marsh says. “I’d take, like, a gram a night.” Accounting for his decreased tolerance, Marsh took less than half that dosage in his car before entering the venue. He felt good throughout the show, but it wasn’t until just before 1 a.m. that he truly started feeling the effects — around the same time the show came to an end. Sped up with nothing to do, Marsh headed home with a long night ahead of him.
His evening was uncomfortably everlasting, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Sarah Brown’s*. A senior in her final semester, Brown is taking 19 credits in order to finish her major and two minors on time, one of which being in addiction studies. She dedicates 16 hours a week to an internship she has through the university, as well as an additional 20 working in Schine. She lives her life on a schedule, stressing to manage her workload while maintaining a social life. She’s also facing a class-A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison.
Little about Brown set her apart from her peers at Tiesto; contemporary raves are perhaps the only place where hot pink American Apparel leggings, Converse shoes, two sports bras, and a white “Bass Down” crop top seem inconspicuous. But the bag of Molly hidden in her chest would ruin her night before she could hit the dance floor.
Security escorted Brown to a room backstage where Syracuse city police interrogated her. Quiet and compliant, she felt harassed by the extent of questioning. “I really don’t believe that anybody who’s going to be taking Molly has the intention of stabbing or raping someone,” says Brown, comparing possession of MDMA against the brutality of the crime reports she sees every day as part of her internship. “Here are all these police officers that seem more interested in finding ways to get college students in trouble than being out in the community finding people that have the intention of harming others.” Brown will meet the judge again in an approaching third court date.
Despite her dissatisfaction with the way the police handled the situation, Brown only blames herself for the charges placed against her, though it hasn’t necessarily deterred her from future use. “Would I do it again?” she ponders. “Everything’s situational. I take things as they come and I’ll make decisions accordingly. I definitely think it is something you have to think about, though.”
Drug experimentation is unavoidable in an environment like SU’s, where kids are not under their parents’ supervision and partying is prevalent. Music and drugs are intrinsically tied, and popular music largely determines a generation’s drug of choice: Hippies bonded through psychedelics, disco dancers jittered on cocaine, heroin overdoses plagued grunge rock. EDM is paired with Molly. As the genre becomes more pervasive, the drug touches new demographics, forcing each to relearn a decades-old rhetoric.
*Names changed to protect privacy