The popularity of electronic music in Ottawa is rising — as is its go-to drug, MDMA. This article, in which author David Meffe explores the local scene following the tragic death of a friend, first appeared in OTTAWA Magazine’s May issue. We’re releasing it online following two recent drug-related incidents in the city.
By DAVID MEFFE
I was on the dance floor when the drugs kicked in. Caught between the elevated DJ booth and a crowd of hundreds, I was aware that something primal was happening in my body, in my brain. I had taken the pill almost an hour earlier, and the telltale signs were manifesting in the tips of my fingers.
Barrymore’s Music Hall on Bank Street was packed solid: punks, ravers, hipsters, jocks, students, greasers, preps — you name it. German electro-trance duo Cosmic Gate had just commandeered the booth to the rising shouts and screams of the audience begging for what they had paid to hear.
Just about everybody was on something, but MDMA — an amphetamine better known as ecstasy — was electro’s all-powerful soup du jour, the raver’s panacea. Pills, caps, or powder, it was everywhere — in pockets, under tongues, on gums, up noses, and in drinks.
I had spent the past hour misinterpreting every shiver I felt as a manifestation of the drug, but doubt evaporated as my senses aggressively sharpened against a rapidly revolving whetstone in my mind. Movements felt exaggerated and elongated, as if they were expressions of a buried instinct.
Cramped together in our communal womb, floating in the nurturing amniotic fluid of bass and electronic sounds, our tribe was moving in unison. Every brush against my skin was a cascade of warmth, a bathing baptism of the cortex, an orgasm of the mind. Flashing lights danced around my dilated pupils, and I lost myself, feeling content to stay there forever if need be.
The side effects I had feared — hallucinations, paranoia, grogginess — were absent. No stifling feelings of deep synthetic insight or forced introspective revelations, just an overwhelming feeling of oneness with the grinding mass. It felt like an endless rabbit hole of unbridled euphoria, an overarching sense that whatever we were doing was right, that nothing could ever be wrong as long as we all kept dancing. But only if it was with others; oh God, I couldn’t do it alone.
At that time, I had no idea that in a few months, the death of a friend would expose the narrow line that separates youthful excess and the dark side of amphetamine use, the short ride from a rave to the grave.
Ottawa + Electro + MDMA
Music and drugs have always seen eye to eye, but if MDMA married electro music, Ottawa — despite a short stint in the rave days of the 1990s — showed up late to the reception, long after regular party guests (i.e., Toronto and Montreal) had already passed out drunk at the bar.
Over the past five years, Ottawa has found itself an emerging hotbed for electronic-music concerts. Top artists who previously ignored the nation’s sleepy capital in favour of more established party hubs are beginning to recognize the interest in their brand of music. The summer Escapade Music Festival, which started in 2010, has now become a Canada Day staple that draws concertgoers from across the province to see iconic acts such as DJ Tiesto, Deadmau5, and Avicii.
“More people are willing to come to the city, artists we originally thought would never want to,” says Maninder Virk, of Ottawa-based concert promoter DNA Presents, the company behind Escapade. He says agents are beginning to trust that promoters can ensure a packed audience when their headliners take the booth.
“When people see that Ottawa can sustain a large atmosphere and has a lot of support for the electronic movement, we’re only going to keep getting bigger concerts,” says Virk. “You’re going to see more electronic music incorporated into events like Bluesfest.”
My own MDMA trip started on a street corner — one hand held the ubiquitous raver’s water bottle, the other fidgeted nervously. It was time to take the dive. I kept looking at my chest, where a little plastic bag lay in my left breast pocket.
A friend, and self-proclaimed electro nut, offered to be my guide that night. She had put me on the guest list and gotten me the drugs we would need for a proper trance concert experience — a cheap date if you know the right people. Cosmic Gate, she told me, had been making music since the turn of the millennium.
With MDMA, the method of ingestion changes not only the way you feel it but for how long. The synthesized crystals can be packed or pressed into capsules, mixed into a drink, rubbed onto gums, snorted, or “parachuted.” Tonight we were parachuting. The MDMA powder was wrapped tightly in a little cylinder of cigarette rolling paper, barely larger than a grain of rice. Makeshift didn’t even begin to describe it.
I envisioned myself hanging out the sliding door of a low-flying World War Two bomber. “Ready, men?” the pilot would yell as I strapped on a pair of oversized goggles. I would give him the hearty thumbs-up before barrelling out of the plane and straight into the concert, feet first onto the dance floor.
I threw the little bundle into my mouth and drained the bottle of water, just to make sure the drug went all the way down.
Behind the High
MDMA — or 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, street name ecstasy — is one of the most popular drugs associated with electronic music and remains one of the most widely used recreational drugs on the planet. This is due in part to its wide accessibility and cheap manufacture.
According to the RCMP, most of the production and wholesale distribution in Canada is controlled by organized-crime groups with ties to China and India; however, other criminals and biker gangs also have their hand in the trade. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that 17 ecstasy labs across the country were busted in 2010–2011. In 2009, nationwide seizures of MDMA totalled an estimated 955,000 tablets and 166 kilograms — and that’s just the stuff they know about.
As an amphetamine, MDMA acts on neurotransmitters in the brain, causing an increase in the release of serotonin, and it increases the effects of norepinephrine and dopamine. The effect? A complete lack of social inhibition coupled with intense euphoria, a temporary lack of cares or worries, and often an uncontrollable urge to dance. Increased serotonin — the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and emotion — acts like a wave of liquid happiness pumping through the user’s skull for two to six hours.
All this for about 10 bucks a pill, depending on from whom and where you get it and in what quantity. And it doesn’t have the stigma of shooting something into your arm; you can stand in front of a line of cops and take it without any of them being the wiser — quite different from bumping a line off a key in the middle of a bar. In short, it’s a stressed-out student’s dream drug.
In 2009, Ottawa’s negligible rate of arrests for MDMA possession more than quadrupled and has remained at those levels ever since, coinciding with the popularity of the electro/dance scene in the city.
“If it’s a stimulant, an upper, you don’t want to blend it with stoner music but something that’ll make you feel pumped,” says John Weekes, adjunct professor of addiction psychology at Carleton University. “Dance music interacts with the nature of the drug, in particular how the drug affects certain centres of the brain.”
Indeed, my experience at the Cosmic Gate show went beyond beats and a few amphetamines. So I contacted Frank Russo, a researcher in musical cognition and director of the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology lab at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“When you get people to move in a coordinated fashion to music, you get this co-operation,” Russo says. “If we’re in an environment where music is the dominant stimulus and we’re all there to listen to the music, then all of our brains are going to be initiating this movement action pattern that is in synch, our bodies are going to move in synch more easily, and we’re all going to believe that on some level, the person next to me who is dancing like me is like me because we’re moving in a similar way.”
He adds that people go to concerts looking to fill a void. “People are going there, in part, to get this feeling of love and trust with other people, this transcendent feeling where it’s more than just me — I’m part of something,” says Russo. “And the music allows for that, and the drugs allow for that.”
The drug has been referred to as Adam, E, X, XTC, Molly, Love Drug, Hug, Beans, Clarity, and Lover’s Speed, among other things. I remembered all the silly names that educational pamphlets told me dealers would call it. It seems this was all bullshit. Most didn’t call it by those names — not in Ottawa, at least. No, here you took either ecstasy or MDMA.
Ecstasy was a staple of New York party culture throughout the 1980s but eventually developed a negative junkie connotation. The rebirth of MDMA began in the late 1990s, when it began to be sold as white or brown powder, seen as a purer and safer alternative to ecstasy tablets, which could be cut with any number of unwanted additives.
However, Patty Allen, a mental health nurse at Carleton University, called foul on this common misconception. Weekes also laughed when asked if there’s any difference at all.
Allen describes the shift in terminology as a trend, more to do with marketing than anything else. “When they took away the name ecstasy and called it MDMA, to a lot of young people, it’s a different thing,” she says.
The idea seemed almost funny. I envisioned an underground assembly of the world’s most nefarious drug chemists and dealers huddled around a thick oval oak table, smoking cigars and plowing through an endless array of tacky graphs and PowerPoint presentations depicting falling profit margins.
“We need something new, something to get the kids back,” one might say.
“I’ve got it! We’ll call it MDMA. No one will know,” suggests another.
The group would pause, then quickly give the orator a standing ovation, after which they would clink champagne flutes and toast their criminal enterprise. Cheers! To another decade of profits!
The Party’s Over
It was sometime after this rebranding that my friend Rob Zawadzki fell into the scene that would eventually take his life. Jovial and infinitely charismatic, Zawadzki had always been known as a party animal, but this was usually limited to booze and smoking weed around a poker table. Then MDMA became his thing, electro his joie de vivre. He once jokingly told me how he would sometimes sprinkle some in his coffee to make his retail job more interesting — I never knew if he was kidding. Partying had become a way of life, weekend raves akin to mandatory church sermons. He joined and embraced the congregation willingly.
In August, Zawadzki drove with a few friends to a concert in Montreal. Sometime during the show, he complained of feeling sick and less than an hour later was pronounced dead in a hospital. The bottom fell out of the whole affair; it wasn’t just partying anymore. At the age of 24, my friend was dead, and for the first time in a long while, life took on a very real and desperately finite feeling.
I am in the washroom at the Cosmic Gate show. I see two sweat-drenched men pass a wad of cash one to the other and wait anxiously for the stalls. The urinals are empty. No one is here to take a piss.
I glance through the cracks of a stall; a man is hunched over the toilet. He comes out red-eyed and sniffling; he looks at me and smiles. I smile back but quickly wonder whether the smirk is drug-induced or some depraved sign of reciprocal recognition. He brushes past me and my smile fades. I ask myself, Am I like him?
I step into the stall and pull out a pack of cigarettes and a zip-lock bag. I sprinkle some brown powder on the soft cardboard, right over a picture of a young child in a hospital bed, surrounded by the words “Warning, Tobacco Smoke Hurts Babies.” Good thing I’m not pregnant, I giggle to myself. I take my health card and make a thin, straight line of the powder, as I’d seen Scarface do with a line of cocaine.
What the hell was I doing? Hadn’t I done enough? No, not nearly. I could hear the bass pounding outside the bathroom walls, and all I wanted was to be back in that crowd, back in that safe little nest by the speakers.
I roll up a $20 bill, loose enough to fit comfortably in my nose, but not tight enough to constrict the flow of air. I exhale deeply and run down the line. I instantly feel a chemical burn at the back of my throat, as though I were gargling ammonia. I swallow hard and realize that I’ve only made the burning sensation worse.
Looking back, I really had no idea what I was blowing up my nose, only that I needed just a little more to keep going.
Purity is one of the major issues regarding MDMA use. A few Canadian pharmaceutical companies sell home tests that measure quality, but short of that, there’s really no way to know exactly what you’re taking.
A few years back, substance-awareness group Streetdrugs collected 30 batches of MDMA from dealers who claimed it was pure. The reality was anything but. Once tested, the samples were found to contain caffeine, cocaine, methamphetamine, ketamine, DMT, PCP, LSD, and about 23 other colourfully lettered acronyms that would put a Sesame Street song to shame.
“Everybody who does it believes in the person they got it from,” says Allen. “But I don’t know why they have trouble getting their head around the fact that a guy gets it from a guy who gets it from another guy who gets it from a lab in a basement.”
Depending on the purity of the batch, a user’s night could go from the club to the hospital. My friend’s parents never made his post-mortem toxicology reports public, and we never asked out of respect. Was it tainted stuff, an underlying heart condition, or just too much of a good thing?
Negative effects of MDMA can be short- and long-term, depending on the dose and frequency of use. On any given night of partying with Molly, the main concern is always heart failure, because the drug increases blood pressure and heart rate. “If someone’s doing something very physical like dancing, it could be a worry because the heart is getting stressed,” says Allen.
Other short-term side effects could include clenching of the jaw or grinding of the teeth, increased body temperature, and dehydration, which is especially dangerous if the drug is ingested with alcohol.
According to Health Canada, long-term effects can include chronic exhaustion, fatigue, flashbacks, and delusions.
Weekes also warns of other major concerns, such as dependency and increased tolerance. Since physical dependency is rare, the real problem arises when use isn’t recreational anymore but is absolutely essential for a good night out.
For a lot of people in the scene, MDMA is a must-have at electronic shows. After my friend’s death, people we knew took a break — the pills and powders everyone had so gleefully embraced had betrayed them by taking one of their own.
But vows of newfound moderation faded, and his old entourage slowly found their way back into Ottawa’s world of glow sticks. I remember one local DJ describing MDMA as a “phenomenon,” while another rave rat explained to me that “MDMA is the acid of our generation.” The beat, it seems, goes on.
Enough is Enough
I walk out of Barrymore’s just past 2 a.m., my head reeling, trying to figure out what had just happened. I hit the cold air and shiver. I’m soaked head to toe with sweat, most of which I know isn’t my own. I can still feel the MDMA, but the major feelings are gone, replaced by a physical sluggishness to contrast with the acute, artificial alertness in my brain. I hear the music still playing inside. Should I go back in? No, I think I’ve had enough.