In the Summer of 1985, while fulfilling some pre-med prerequisites at the University of Pennsylvania, I came across an interesting magazine article. There was a new drug on the scene! Originally used in psychotherapeutic sessions, it had "leaked out" onto the club scene, and was especially popular in Texas. I was majoring in psychopharmacology and biological psychiatry at Penn and was immersed in the club scene in Philadelphia, so needless to say, my curiosity was piqued.
I began to read everything I could get my hands on about MDMA, and then called the authors of the articles to speak directly to their sources: other authors, psychiatrists and basic researchers. It was during this flurry of phone calls that I was fortunate to come across Rick Doblin, now my comrade for the past 8 years in the quest to promote MDMA research.
By the end of the summer, I had created a forty-page paper containing everything I had learned about the "new" drug ( originally concocted in 1912), and I had been on two television shows following the first media bandwagon hyping "Ecstasy". As a college sophomore being introduced as the "regional expert", it was evident to me that there were few people who know much about MDMA, and there were countless questions that needed to be answered. It was obvious to me that the research opportunities and possibilities were wide open. The potential of this powerful, promising, psychotropic seemed limitless: MDMA could be used during any sort of therapy-single, couples, family; as an anti-depressant; an analgesic; to facilitate creative visualization, stress reduction, possibly immune system enhancement; to assist in cognitive restructuring. Who could benefit from a few treatment sessions using MDMA as a chemotherapeutic adjunct? Who couldn't! What about use in psychosis? In autism? Addiction counseling? As an adjunct to hypnotherapy? I felt like I had just found an "untapped market". I was planning on a career in psychopharmacological research and I had found my area of interest. But it wasn't going to be that easy.
I rushed back to my psychiatric residency in New York City and met with the chairman to discuss my many research ideas. I was so encouraged and excited by the FDA's approval. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was not mirrored by my chairman, who basically dismissed my eight year interest in MDMA as a fad, and hype. My request to pursue my own human studies was denied. However, surveying MDMA users was a different story...
Together, Dave and I administered the survey to over 700 people on two consecutive nights (April 16 and 17), at two raves. A high percentage of ravers took time to fill out the survey, in fact virtually every person we asked to fill out the survey did so. Most of the people were extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of MDMA research, and they were eager to help out. While we cannot say that we have a scientifically determined random sample of the participants at the rave, we feel that our sample is at least a close approximation of the total population those nights. Of course, those people who dropped out of the rave scene due to problems or boredom or any other reason would not be represented in our survey.
At one point during the first night of the survey, at NASA, I looked over at the bar and there were at least a dozen ravers, in a row, in their hats and goggles and backpacks, filling out our survey. It was a beautiful sight to see. I had often thought of surveying the people of the rave scene and my dream was finally coming true. Dave and I slapped each other a "high five;" if was a highly successful night.
The second night we handed out surveys at a larger venue with live music. I was approached by several people from magazines and one person from the ABC News Day One show, all interested in the survey and our results. It seems that the second wave of media hype/coverage surrounding MDMA is in full swing. The connection of MDMA to raves and rave culture is a new angle.
The survey itself started out by asking some basic demographic questions, then went on to quantify and qualify drug use-what drugs, how often, in what setting. There were also more open-ended questions where people were asked to describe their best and worst experiences at raves, with MDMA, and what they did to maximize benefits and minimize side effects. The results are still being analyzed but some preliminary results are obvious at this time (complete results will be reported in the next MAPS newsletter).
As for drug use, a very large percentage of regular ravers (about 75%) have taken LSD at raves. About the same number have taken MDMA at raves. Marijuana was used less frequently (about 60%) , alcohol was much less (about 20%). There was very infrequent use of cocaine (about 10-15%), and almost no use or heroin or amphetamine. However, while drugs are often used at raves, not everyone does so. Many of the ravers reported that they completely abstained (around 15%). Of those people who do use drugs, many do not do so at every rave they attend. There were very few problems reported as a result of drug use and those problems that were reported were minor; typical problems were losing track of friends at a large rave. There were a wide variety of reported benefits ranging from simple recreation to profoundly moving and insightful experiences. There was a disturbing amount of misinformation concerning MDMA, including the amazingly resilient myth that MDMA drains spinal fluid.
The survey results suggest primarily that the rave scene itself is not likely to burn out in the near future because perceived benefits greatly outweigh perceived harms. Because of people's overwhelmingly positive experiences at raves, people reported that they intended to continue to go to them, and that they were more likely to use drugs at raves than outside of raves. We found that there is a definite need for the distribution of accurate educational materials at raves both to clear up misinformation and to minimize potential problems such as have occured in the British rave scene. To that end, I have started a column in a local monthly rave magazine addressing drug education and harm reduction.
The show went very well, I thought. The audience members were a mixture of ravers and talk show audience types, somewhat judgmental but open-minded. There was plenty of conflict, heated discussion, and some yelling - just what the producers want to keep the home audience tuned in. The bottom line of the show's message was that hundreds of thousands of people are taking MDMA worldwide and it is imperative that research be conducted to explore its potential and to have more definitive answers to the questions being brought up by the audience.
I have been advised to "distance myself emotionally" from my subject material, so that I may be taken seriously by other research scientists. Trying to focus myself and maintain objectivity could turn out to be my biggest project yet! I certainly have high hopes for the knowledge to be gained by MDMA research, and I am thankful for the role that MAPS plays to that end.