san francisco -- george zimmer, unabashed CEO of the Men's Wearhouse, the king of perfectly tailored suits, smokes a cigar and squints through purple-tinted sunglasses as a magenta-and-platinum-haired boy anxiously tries to explain raves.
"So, do people actually talk at raves?" Zimmer asks incredulously.
Zimmer has taken ecstasy before, he hesitantly tells me when I corner him for an interview, but only for "therapeutic purposes" with his wife. He is here today, at the State Of Ecstasy conference, touted as the "first of its kind," a place where researchers, academics, therapists, drug advocates and anti-drug crusaders -- along with a healthy dose of blissful drug users -- can sit down and talk about the love drug and its rise in American culture.
Sponsored by the Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation and the San Francisco Medical Society, the conference has the aura of medical legitimacy but the vibe of a love-in.
About 300 people from all walks of life have assembled here for eight hours to listen to experts discuss everything from how MDMA is addling our brains to the ways rave culture is demonized to how we all need to join forces against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
For example, across the lawn from Zimmer is Ann Shulgin, kind of the Mother Goddess of e-therapy and wife of research chemist Alexander Shulgin, the "godfather of MDMA," who is generally credited with rediscovering the drug in 1965. In those days, before ecstasy was made illegal, the Shulgins guided hundreds of people through therapy sessions with the drug. Shulgin was given leave to fiddle with over 200 psychedelics that he synthesized himself. He and his wife were their own guinea pigs.
Ann Shulgin sits on the grass with her white, witchy locks splayed about her. "Most of the drug experimentation community is young people, college age or younger, unfortunately," she sighs in exasperation. "For the most part, they are completely unaware of the professional people who are involved in this. One of the things about the young community is, they don't do homework. They take these drugs and depend on their peer group to tell them to mix this with that. They should be reading to find out exactly what it is they're doing."
But today, for once, the kids are listening. This conference has brought a bizarre mix of people -- from New Agey types to pink-haired ravers who swap tips on tonight's best parties.
The day is split into three sections, roughly tailored to each of the three core demographics battling it out here. The morning is dedicated to the therapeutic uses of ecstasy, where the Shulgins reign supreme and ecstasy is extolled as a wonder drug that can bring couples together, heal parent-child rifts, solve depression and -- hell, why not? -- bring about world peace.
Inside the conference room, where everyone -- pink- or grey-haired -- is munching on the unifying force of chocolate croissants, I am seated beside academic types. On my right is Russell Stabler, a medicinal chemist in a rumpled houndstooth jacket and shaggy hair who works for Roche (the pharmaceutical company that gave the world Valium, which we used to take before we discovered ecstasy).
I ask Stabler whether Roche is considering medical uses of MDMA and he says, "Too much liability." Besides, since you can't take ecstasy every day or it will simply stop working, corporate pill-pushers don't see much of a market (they prefer drugs you have to take 12 times a day). He's here out of purely personal interest, he says.
The morning's highlight -- and the recipient of the day's first standing ovation -- is a young redhead named Sue Stevens who launches into a painful tale about her own ecstasy usage. Stevens's marriage fell apart when her husband was diagnosed with cancer at age 22; using ecstasy together, she says, enabled them to rediscover their profound love. She credits those ecstasy sessions with her husband's surprisingly prolonged life. "He just decided to live again!"
Stevens also credits ecstasy with saving her from suicide after he died. She cries on the podium. So does half the audience, including me.
Compared to the sunny morning of pro-ecstasy cheerleading, the afternoon is decidedly grim. For three gruelling hours, researcher after researcher stands up to give dense academic presentations about MDMA's effects on the brain. The screen fills up with neat multicoloured charts full of chemical symbols and bar graphs depicting rat brains and jargon about isotopes and stereochemistry and neurotoxicity. It's as mind-numbing as some of the researchers say MDMA is.
The upshot -- ecstasy is bad for your brain. Among the nasty stuff it does: it kills all your serotonin and "prunes" the axons that release the chemical so that your brain will never function the same way again. It also gives you hypothermia, prevents your body from regulating its core temperature and inhibits long-term memory function. Or maybe not.
Dr. George Ricuarte, the Grim Reaper of the MDMA world, with his dark suit, neatly trimmed black hair and scornful, dismissive stare, is the controversial researcher behind much of the most negative findings. Apparently, he has his detractors, some of whom are on the same panel. Many of them claim he's inflammatory and biased; it is his research, after all, that the DEA is using to justify increasing the penalties for MDMA-related crimes and harm-reduction education.
During the question-and-answer period, a number of pro-ecstasy attendees come to the microphone to dispute Ricuarte's findings, including one 80-year-old bald man in a purple turtleneck and blue cardigan. "I've been taking MDMA for 24 years, and have probably taken it 100 or 150 times," he brags, as the audience looks at him incredulously. "Last time I took it I was 77 years old, and at the time I had a doctor scan my brain. He told me it was the brain of a man much younger. I'm at the top of my cognitive function. So where's the brain damage?"
Ricuarte blurts out a vague non-answer referring to future research and data that still needs to be parsed.
After about 20 pro-drug researchers have stood up to debunk and challenge the academics, we're an hour behind schedule.
The ravers are getting shafted out of the time promised them, but that doesn't keep Dustianne North from encouraging the audience to sit through a few minutes of electronic music so that they can understand where ravers are coming from. North, with her pink hair and faux-Chanel suit, is a PhD candidate at UCLA and a proud advocate of dance culture. She shows slides of blissed-out ravers and argues lucidly that dance culture is not about teens zonked out of their heads at raves but about tribalism, community and collective love.
"We share the goal of safety and health among youth," she insists. "Understand that the world they face today is more complex, perhaps, than at any other time of history. So please don't pretend to advise us on issues that youth may be understanding better than you do. Respect people's right to determine their own choices."
North gets the second standing ovation of the day.
The consensus at the conference is that, yes, ecstasy may damage your brain in some undetermined way, but it's also a powerful drug that can lead to useful kinds of enlightenment. "Just say no" has failed at least two generations of teenagers, and it's clear that ever-stricter laws and anti-drug propaganda aren't deterring disaffected youth distrustful of authority and out to have a good time. *