Molly Deaths and the Failed War on Drugs

To Olivia Rotondo and Jeffrey Russ, the three-day 2013 Electric Zoo (EZoo) festival on New York’s Randall Island seemed like an idyllic end to a summer of part-time work, hanging out in suburban malls, and life with Mom and Dad.

These two 20-somethings—and nearly 100,000 others—planned a three-day trip to experience pulsating electronic beats spun by the world’s most famous electronic dance music DJs. “Am I ready for @ElectricZooNY or what,” Olivia tweeted in anticipation of the event. But on the second day of the festival, things went terribly wrong. Thirty-one ravers were arrested on drug charges, four were hospitalized, and Olivia and Jeffrey lay dead from Molly overdoses. (Molly is a powder form of MDMA that many consider to be purer, and ultimately more dangerous, than Ecstasy.)

Such tragedies are not uncommon. At a rave at Washington, D.C.’s Echo Stage nightclub the same day as Electric Zoo, Shelley Goldsmith, a 19-year-old college sophomore, died from Molly toxicity.

Years ago, 17-year-old Jillian Kirkland from Alabama overdosed on Ecstasy at a 1998 rave at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans. Her death motivated Congress, led by Senator Joe Biden, to pass a controversial law called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (commonly referred to as the 2003 RAVE Act) to halt a perceived rave-related Ecstasy epidemic. This anti-rave and clubs campaign would become the government’s latest battle in the War on Drugs.

The 2003 RAVE (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act prohibits “an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance, and for other purposes.” It constituted an expansion of a 1986 law wielded against the crack cocaine epidemic.

The 2003 Rave Act immediately put party promoters on notice for organizing events for drug-related purposes or sponsoring one knowing that drug use might occur. As sociologists Steven Tepper, Julie Baldwin and colleagues showed, copycat laws in cities like Chicago, Gainesville, and New Orleans extended the federal government’s fight to the local level.

But the 2003 RAVE Act is an ill-conceived law that has not only failed to prevent drug-related harm at raves but has inadvertently caused it to increase. By discouraging electronic dance music business promoters from providing health services to sick or dehydrated ravers, for fear of signaling to authorities that they have knowledge of drug use at their events, the RAVE Act, a relic of the last century’s War on Drugs, does more harm than good.

From Gen X to Millennial Ravers

Raves began after disco’s death in the early 1980s, according to Simon Reynolds’s book Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. A rave is an all-night dance party featuring different kinds of electronic dance music (EDM). Generation X teens and young adults created raves in abandoned warehouses and other spaces they gained access to surreptitiously. In the beginning, raves were small, but they quickly grew in size as promoters moved them to rural and suburban fields. Typically, organizers announced the gatherings at the last minute in order to keep them hidden from law enforcement.

Raves featured many different musical styles and lots of DJs. A room or tent might specialize in a musical genre, such as house, drum and bass, or techno, etc. Their general ethos was encapsulated by the acronym PLUR—peace, love, unity, and respect. Participants’ (ravers’) aesthetic style included bright and neon-colored track or parachute pants and t-shirts with rave or antiestablishment messages. Common props were bracelets, pacifiers, lollipops, and stuffed animals—a nod to the ravers’ celebration of the lost utopianism of childhood. Illegal drug use was an early defining rave characteristic, and so-called “club drugs” permitted all-night dancing, such as Ecstasy, (a form of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, or MDMA), acid, ketamine, and GHB.

Though widely popular as an illegal, underground phenomenon in the 1990s, raves eventually declined after the RAVE Act was passed. Generation X’ers (born between 1965 and 1980) aged out—or burned out—of raves. Older members of Generation Y, or Millennials (born between 1977 and 2000) preferred other music scenes, such as hip hop, and were often turned off by raves’ excessive debauchery and drug use. The legal assault on raves at the federal and local levels had a chilling effect on the scene, discouraging club owners and promoters. The commercialism of raves also deterred potential participants by banning alcohol consumption among those under 21 years old, or making the events cost-prohibitive. Large, illegal raves gave way to smaller club-based events that specialized in one type of music, featuring fewer, and less costly, DJs.

Today, rave parties are coming back to life in a more commercialized form. A global EDM industry, dominated by entertainment companies like Made Events, Go Ventures, and Insomniac Productions, has brought raves to corporate-branded festivals, stadiums and mega-nightclubs. EZoo, Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), and Ultra Music Festival, in major metropolitan areas, draw thousands of young people to the heart of Las Vegas, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami.

Raves showcase the youngest Millennials—not Generation X. These avid fans of today’s commercial dance music turn out in droves for the parties, festivals, and superclub events where the music is played. As 21-year-old Rotondo announced in a tweet on the day of her death: “The amount of traveling I’ve done today is unreal. Just get me to the damn zoo.”

As in the 1990s, the popularity of raves today has been overshadowed by drug-related tragedies. Fourteen young adults and teenagers died between 2006 and 2013 at large raves organized by Insomniac Productions in Los Angeles. Since the passage of the 2003 RAVE Act, participants’ MDMA use has fluctuated, declining in the immediate aftermath of the law, and then increasing markedly six years later. Since then, the use of hallucinogens has either plateaued or dropped, especially among teenagers, but also among 18-25 year olds—the age range of Rotondo, Russ and most other EZoo attendees.

While the number of MDMA users has declined, health complications from the drug have increased. There has been a 128 percent uptick in emergency room visits among MDMA users between 2005 and 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). The growing incidence of overdose among young college students worries people like C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California. After a 2011 rave at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, which led to 17 students being taken to the hospital, Nikias wrote to the USC student body: “I wish to warn you about a specific danger that has become increasingly prevalent in the city of Los Angeles: raves. Occasionally, these are held close to our campuses, often at the Coliseum or the Shrine, and they present serious risks to all who attend. Therefore, with the collective support of the university’s senior administration—and as the father of two USC students—I strongly discourage your participation at rave events.”

Rants and Raves

The 2003 RAVE Act places young ravers at great risk of harm. Because the act treats raves’ cultural traits as evidence that promoters are permitting drug use and sales, it places festival stakeholders in a bind over how to protect ravers without being shut down. For example, rave promoters are perceived to sanction drug use if they permit cultural props such as glow sticks, lollypops, and massage oils to be sold at their event, or if they provide chill rooms and free bottled water to ravers. Since MDMA use (in either its Ecstasy or Molly varieties) and dancing at raves can produce extreme dehydration, critics interpret the distribution of free bottled water as a sign that promoters are trying to hydrate, and therefore accommodate, ravers’ drug use. Promoters even told me that “rave” language on flyers or other promotional materials could serve as evidence of a legal violation.

If they offer drug intervention services, such as drug testing and education, promoters may be at even greater legal risk. Rotondo died from MDMA toxicity; a MDMA/Methylone combination killed Russ. Had drug testing and education been offered at EZoo, Rotondo might have learned not to take so many hits of Molly and Russ would have learned that his Molly had been mixed with extremely dangerous methylone (“bath salts”).

In short, the RAVE Act discourages rave promoters and production companies from taking the precautions needed to protect their customers. Party promoters walk a fine line between steering clear of the law and putting on a safe and profitable event. A few weeks prior to the EZoo deaths, at the Paradiso Music Festival in Washington, a young man died from Molly complications. A local harm reduction group, Stay Safe Seattle, had approached the festival’s organizers to permit them to test for drugs and educate ravers about the drugs they planned to consume, but the owners and organizers of the Paradiso festival turned the group down. By affording them access, they feared they would “self-incriminate” or admit to violating the RAVE Act.

As Nathan Messer, a spokesman for the national organization DanceSafe explained, “If we are there educating people about drug use, whether or not they’re using drugs at that particular venue, that might indicate to law enforcement that the venue is being operated for the purpose of drug use and it will make them liable [to the RAVE Act] so they just want to avoid it all together.”

Ten years ago, journalist Will Doig wrote about the very same dilemma: “Because the RAVE Act’s effectiveness rests on prosecutors’ proof that club owners and party promoters ‘knowingly and intentionally’ made their space available for drug use,” he wrote, “even mild harm reduction efforts could be used against the people throwing the parties.” Therefore, promoters may decide to “eliminate even the most basic safety measures, such as on-site ambulances, for fear that they could be used in court later to prove that promoters knew drugs were present.” In a 2003 Salon article, Janelle Brown put it even more succinctly: “The backward logic of this thinking punishes club owners and rave promoters for trying to keep their customers safe.”

Researching and writing my book Rave Culture, I often witnessed this dilemma firsthand. In a techno room at a rave, I once saw a young woman vomiting a white frothy liquid over and over again. When I alerted a security guard to the situation, thinking he might be able to get the woman some help, he picked her up, dragged her to the back door, and dropped her outside. Astounded by his actions, I asked the guard if he could call 911 for a medic. He told me he could not, and then told me that the club could be liable for her drug use.

As Benjamin, a long-time promoter on the rave and dance scenes said, “The RAVE Act has taught us that we [promoters and club owners] have to say that there is a zero-tolerance policy and that there are no drugs going on inside the club. This is, of course, turning a blind eye to what is actually happening, but we can’t admit that it’s even going on, let alone saying, ‘We want to have a medic here just in case what isn’t going on is actually happening.’”

In an effort to shield themselves from responsibility and stigma, industry stakeholders blame the EZoo or EDC tragedies on the RAVE Act’s constraints—and the hedonistic actions of a few ravers like Rotondo, Russ and Goldsmith. They do not speak of their own complicity. For example, in the FAQ section of EZoo website, there is little discussion about drugs; nowhere on the EZoo webpage is there a clear and compelling message prohibiting illegal drugs. Instead, there is a single entry called “illegal substances” on a long list of things attendees cannot bring to the festival. On the EZoo webpage a blog post entitled, “Helping each other stay safe” contradicts the company’s benign prohibition policy. “Electric Zoo strongly advocates against the use of drugs. Avoiding drug use is the only way to completely avoid drug-related risks,” it announces. “You don’t need drugs anyway when world class music is swirling all around you. Know that mixing drugs and alcohol, or frequent and increased use, will increase your risks of life-threatening problems. Here’s some math to go with that: Drugs or alcohol + Non-stop Dancing + Sun Exposure = Dehydration and a whole spectrum of other dangerous conditions. So stay safe, stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, remember to eat, and you will successfully pull off having the time of your life! If you suspect that someone is ailing from a medical issue or the overuse of drugs or alcohol, seek immediate medical attention.”

This warning sends contradictory messages to attendees. It discourages people from using drugs rather than prohibiting them from doing so, and fails to warn them about penalties for drug use, sales or possession. It cautions attendees that it is risky to use drugs and drink alcohol when dancing in the sun, but reminds them to stay hydrated, eat, and take frequent breaks— assuming they will take those risks. A stronger prohibition policy and anti-drug educational message on the EZoo webpage may have served as a clearer warning to Rotondo, Russ and friends about taking drugs into the festival—but posting such information may have served as evidence of a RAVE Act violation.

Ezoo’s webpage remains mostly unchanged for its 2014 festival. However, promoters have responded to last year’s tragedies by requiring participants to watch a short educational video on the dangers of drugs when purchasing their tickets online. This video is likely to warn attendees about drug-related dangers, but it may also signal the inevitability of drugs at Ezoo and ultimately a RAVE Act violation. The addition of drug-sniffing dogs, however, might just keep Ezoo promoters on the right side of the law.

Repairing the Damage

Electronic dance music is widely popular among young people today. The commercial EDM industry is thriving because fans like Olivia Rotondo and Jeffrey Russ are turning out to hear world-famous DJs at massive raves that garner huge profits. MDMA use will probably continue to be popular at such events, spurred in part by pop celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, Kanye West, Madonna and others, whose song lyrics endorse Molly use.

But as young people journey to EZoo, EDC, Ultra Music Festival, and other raves, the 2003 RAVE Act will keep EDM business folks in an impossible position, forcing them to balance abiding by the law and protecting partygoers.

Today, most observers acknowledge that the War on Drugs was ineffective in stamping out Americans’ drug problem, and often makes a bad situation much worse. Collectively, we are now repairing some of the damage it wrought. We are reforming marijuana laws, narrowing sentencing disparities, endorsing approaches that treat drug abuse as a medical rather than a criminal problem, campaigning against mass incarceration, and restoring drug offenders’ right to vote and retain funding for higher education.

The 2003 RAVE Act has eluded such reforms. By seeking to prohibit parties where drug use takes place, it fails to reduce drug use, and continues to endanger young ravers more than it protects them. Instead, we need a cooperative strategy that is organized to reduce harm, one that entails beefing up health resources at parties and educational efforts to warn about drug-related dangers and other health risks, banning participants from events if found with drugs rather than arresting them, and establishing partnerships among EDM business professionals, local law enforcement, and community officials. It’s our best hope for protecting young ravers like Olivia and Jeffrey.

Recommended Resources

Collin, Matthew. Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, updated version (Serpent’s Tail, 2010). Definitive text on ecstasy culture, told by some of the central characters in the scene’s early days. It focuses the drug use, ideologies, criminal activities, and deviant image that ravers adopted to launch a spectacular youth movement of the twentieth century.

Hunt, Geoffrey, Maitena Milhet, and Henri Bergeron. Drugs and Culture: Knowledge, Consumption and Policy (Ashgate, 2013). Volume offers diverse perspectives on psychoactive drugs, focusing on the socio-cultural features of drug use and how they are controlled in contemporary societies, and how consumption of specific psychoactive substances becomes associated with particular social groups.

Reynolds, Simon. Generation Ecstasy: Into the Worlds of Techno and Rave Culture (Routledge,1999). Comprehensive discussion of the origins of rave culture in the UK and US. It chronicles the rise of raves, the pioneers of the scene and the cultural traits that would earmark this global youth phenomenon of the 1990s.

Tepper, Stephen. “Stop the Beat: Quiet Regulation and Cultural Conflict,” Sociological Forum (2009), 24 (2): 276-306. Analyzes raving in the city of Chicago, how moral crusades can take on a form of “quiet regulation,” and how opponents linked raves with drugs, sex, and deviance in order to control them.