Raves and Drugs

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 24, 2000. Partner content is not updated.

It's 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday night, and Amanda Mondoux is just hitting her party stride. All smiles and a swirl of flapping clothes and damp ponytail, the 17-year-old is swaying like someone in a voodoo trance, brandishing glow sticks to carve arcs of light through the shooting lasers.

Raves and Drugs

It's 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday night, and Amanda Mondoux is just hitting her party stride. All smiles and a swirl of flapping clothes and damp ponytail, the 17-year-old is swaying like someone in a voodoo trance, brandishing glow sticks to carve arcs of light through the shooting lasers. Amanda, a Grade 12 student, is among some 7,500 young people - a motley crowd dressed in brightly coloured "fun" fur, pants that hang like sacks and baseball caps - gathered to dance till morning in a cavernous Toronto exhibition hall. The sea of grinning faces and flailing arms bobs in sync with the jackhammer beats. Door-sized speakers pump out music so loud that it registers more through the soles of the feet than the numbed eardrums.

Hours later, awash in glitter makeup and sweat, Amanda visits the "chill" section, a rest area just quiet enough for conversation. She and the other young people greet old friends and make new ones. Modern-day flower children, the kids exchange not just nods and handshakes but also hugs, kisses, massages, glow-in-the-dark toys, bracelets and candy. Then, in a corner of the women's washroom, Amanda introduces herself to a chubby 15-year-old girl named Max.

"Hey, what's up?" says Amanda. "How long you been partying?"

"It's my second party," Max replies, adding, "I had to sneak out of a window. My mom thinks I'm still home."

"No way! For real?" Amanda groans and gives her another hug. They exchange e-mail addresses.

It all seems sweetly mischievous. But then Amanda asks, "Are you dosing?" - rave-speak for "Have you taken drugs?" - which draws a nod from Max.

That many kids like Amanda and Max dose is the foremost concern of parents, police and legislators now that raves are an entrenched - and growing - part of youth culture. With the increased popularity of the all-night parties has come increased consumption of rave drugs, most notably the amphetamine-like substance MDMA, known as ecstasy or "E". Their use is by no means confined to raves - those stimulants can be found at concerts, nightclubs and many private parties. But wherever they are taken, they can be deadly. Ecstasy has been implicated in at least 14 Canadian deaths in the past two years - 10 in Ontario, three in British Columbia and one in Halifax. The victims ranged in age from 19 to 43, but most were in their 20s. One of the latest was 21-year-old Allan Ho, a business student at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University, who collapsed at a rave in a former shoe factory last Oct. 10. Traces of MDMA were found in his body. A coroner's inquest into his death beginning on May 3 will look at overall safety issues surrounding raves.

Many more kids have become sick from rave drugs. Earlier this month in Edmonton, at a rave at Northlands Sportex attended by more than 5,000 people, eight partyers suffered seizures and had to be taken to hospital.

Because of the drugs, because of the inherently worrisome aspect of kids staying up all night, far from parental scrutiny, "rave" has become one of those red-flag words. "Oh, my God, I worry to death what goes on at those things," says 44-year-old Janet Cacchioni, a marketing co-ordinator in Vancouver whose 18-year-old daughter, Holly, goes to raves. "I know all the trouble I got into at her age, but I also know that nothing could have stopped me - and I expect nothing will stop her."

Like the rock festivals of the Sixties and Seventies, raves are one-off celebrations of youthful exuberance, gatherings of the idealistic tribe. They draw anywhere from hundreds to thousands, most between the ages of 15 and 29, to party to electronic music played and sometimes created by DJs using synthesizers and turntables. Much like their hippie predecessors, ravers preach peace, love and unity, and eschew violence. Unlike the counterculturists of yore, they frown on alcohol. "You can develop a sense of community," observes 26-year-old Will Chang, a corporate lawyer in a downtown Toronto law firm who's been going at least once a month for the past four years. Chang, also a founding member of the Toronto Dance Safety Committee, which helped set up protocols for the safe operation of raves, says they "have made me more open-minded and accepting of others - no one cares about colour, sex or age."

Some ravers, however, believe the scene is losing its joy and innocence. They cite commercialization, profiteering venue owners creating unsafe conditions, and the gangs that have taken control of rave drugs, adding more lethal substances to the psychedelic menu. "There's no vibe anymore," complains Matt Whalley, a 20-year-old Toronto DJ, referring to a sense of positive energy and goodwill. "I remember a time when I'd go there and just feel happy - no drugs, just the music, and everybody was happy."

In trouble or not, raves are common in major cities across the nation. There are parties almost every Saturday in Toronto, considered by many devotees to be the rave capital of North America. Last Halloween, in the largest rave ever in Canada, about 16,000 gathered at a Toronto entertainment complex. Those events attract people from as far away as Wisconsin and New York City. Meanwhile, ravers can dance till dawn most weekends in the Vancouver area, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Halifax, and less often in smaller locales. Yet the events still draw only a tiny fraction of young Canadians. A recent Angus Reid survey into youth trends and values found that five per cent of 3,500 subjects aged 16 to 29 had attended one or more raves in the past year, and only one per cent went to them on a regular basis. Applied to the overall population, those findings mean roughly 50,000 Canadians are committed ravers.

The numbers are substantial enough, however, for raves to be the focus of big business, both legitimate and illicit. With tickets running from $25 to $50, rave organizers stand to net - or lose - as much as $40,000 from one event alone. Raves have also spawned numerous spinoff enterprises, including shops specializing in rave music and garb.

Trafficking in ecstasy and other rave drugs, meanwhile, has become a virtual epidemic. By no means are all those pills, vials and capsules being consumed at raves, but their association with the all-night parties - and the deaths - have made raves a hot-button issue in municipal politics across the country. Vancouver and Toronto have both struck committees to help regulate raves, and Calgary is considering doing the same. Toronto raves must now adhere to safety protocols and guidelines pertaining to water, security and numbers, though they are difficult to enforce.

"In many ways, the concerns raised over the rave scene are not that much different than for rock concerts in the 1970s," says Edward Adlaf, a research scientist at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health in Toronto. Adlaf maintains it's a myth that everyone who attends raves is heavily into hard drugs, citing his organization's ongoing study of drug use in middle- and high-school students, which found that 57 per cent of students who had attended a rave in the past year had used cannabis but no other illegal substance. But two-thirds of those who had been to a rave are heavier drug users than non-ravers. And 4.4 per cent of all the students surveyed had taken ecstasy in the past year. He does concede, however, that the study, based on voluntary disclosure, comes with a degree of underreporting.

Meanwhile, 30 per cent of the students in Adlaf's study had had one heavy-drinking episode in the past four weeks alone. And he notes that young people are far more likely to cause themselves short- or long-term harm with the much more pervasive drugs tobacco and alcohol. Despite the far greater risks involved with alcohol abuse, Adlaf is nonetheless very concerned about ravers buying drugs increasingly cut with poisonous chemicals, or mixing substances to create a lethal dose. He also notes that illegal crowding and a lack of running water at many raves puts kids at risk. Water, experts say, is crucial. Without it, a person cannot control the body heat generated by rave drugs and dancing, and the liver and kidneys can shut down. Until recently in Toronto, some landlords who had maintained the right to sell water would cut off the water supply and air-conditioning in order to maximize sales.

Informed kids like Amanda make sure to drink constantly, convinced that it will protect them. "And I only do E," she says, taking a break from playing with her tongue stud. "I don't touch any of the dirty stuff." She's referring to drugs like gamma hydroxy-butyric acid (also known as GHB), one of the so-called date-rape drugs, and Ketamine, an animal tranquillizer known as "Special K." Highly addictive crystal methamphetamine, a type of speed also called "ice," has also become popular. With such drugs, the trip from euphoria to overdose can be swift - especially when kids combine substances, as they often do. "I don't like the e-tards," says 18-year-old Chris Pettitt as he drags on a marijuana joint and points to some kids lying on the floor. "They're the people who take too much drugs and act stupid." Says an indignant Amanda: "People have offered me Special K, and I'm like, 'Cat tranquillizers? Do I look like a cat to you? No way.' "

Those dangers aside, ravers protest that their culture is about the music and the love-fest factor, not drugs. "I found a family at raves," says Becky, a 19-year-old Toronto student who attended her first one in 1994. Taken into foster care at age 12, she says she kept going because of the accepting environment. But for a few years, Becky took ecstasy every other week, and she still indulges every couple of months. "I respect myself and my body," she says, "but everybody does something that's bad for them."

Given the rave-drug equation, many parents simply forbid their children from going. Others - baby boomers who remember the excesses of the Sixties and Seventies - believe it's pointless to try to deny young people their own tribal celebrations, or even their own drugs. Rebecca Ientile started to accompany her three children (Chris, 20, Kathleen, 17, and Ashley, 15) to raves five months ago. "At least I know where my kids are," says the 43-year-old Toronto single mother, who owns a landscaping company. "I know what they do and what they're on. We've sat down as a family and discussed it. As long as everything is in moderation and we're open about it, I'm not worried." Ientile is quick to point out raves' positive aspects. "The kids are wonderful. There's never any fights or bullying. Everyone's friendly and respectful of one another."

Rose Ker, a federal civil servant, sometimes accompanies daughter Danielle, 17, to raves, where the teen and her best friend, Meghan Shepherd, have for the past two years operated a booth selling jewelry, toys and clothing they make themselves. "I was amazed," the 40-year-old mother says of her first rave experience. "Usually kids can be so judgmental and cruel to each other, but there was none of that. There seemed no barriers. It reminded me of the hippie age."

Many ravers savour the self-expression that is central to the culture. So-called candy ravers cultivate a childlike look, dressing in bright colours and big hats and decking themselves with toys and candy. "Liquid kids" wear white gloves and move in a fluid, mime-like fashion. Dancing at raves is less regimented than at clubs: people tend not to pair off as they move in quirky, even comical, ways. The clothes tend to be fun and comfortable rather than sexually provocative.

Sociologist Tim Weber, who authored a 1999 study on raves for Toronto's Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, notes that today's teens are looking for positive experiences to offset the comparatively stressful climate they've grown up in. "I was surprised at the number of kids in high school who saw raves as mini-vacations away from daily stressors," says Weber, who is now working for the pollster Angus Reid. "Some enjoyed being allowed to act like small children, doing things like wearing costumes, eating candy and playing with toys." Raised by done-it-all, seen-it-all boomers, they are also the generation that grew up with latchkey-ism, AIDS, the dominance of clothing brands and the pressure to start planning a career during adolescence. Jessica Hafekost, a 19-year-old Toronto salesclerk, says of the first rave party she and a friend attended four years ago: "We walked in and saw people dressed and just moving in ways we'd never seen before. There was a bubble machine, toys and tubing on the ceiling filled with luminescent green goo - a fantasy quality to the whole thing. Where else are you going to see that?"

Shawn Parsons, now 33, has worked in security since he was 15, first in clubland, and since 1993, at raves with his own security company. "At a bar on any given night, you can guarantee a member of my staff will be physically attacked," says the burly Toronto father of three preteen children. "With ravers, that just doesn't happen. The parties attract the same group of people as they always have: intelligent, respectful kids who feel like outsiders in the real world."

Often, raves get an undeservedly bad rap because of confusion over what they are. A Vancouver shooting in early February, reported to be at a rave, in fact occurred outside a Chinese new year party at a banquet hall, and was gang-related. "What you're seeing is a knee-jerk reaction where they're calling everything a rave," says Sgt. Steve Clark, in charge of downtown special events for Toronto police. Meanwhile, conventional nightclubs don't necessarily fare any better in terms of safety. Last year, the 1,800-capacity Toronto club The Guvernment was the source of 37 emergency calls on Friday and Saturday nights - 24 medical problems, seven acts of violence and six accidental overdoses. At the Toronto rave attended by 16,000 last Halloween, there was just one emergency call when a table fell on a person's leg.

At 7:30 a.m., Amanda is waiting for friends at the coat check as orange sunlight filters into the hall. The music is still loud, but most of the few hundred kids remaining have put on their coats and are dancing their way across the trash-strewn floor towards the exit. Amanda and her pals are about to go to one of their houses to talk or listen to music as they come down off the drugs. Soon, there will be another rave, another all-nighter. "I won't become a bum and do this when I get old, like 26," she shrugs. "But for now this is what it's about."

Maclean's April 24, 2000