Higher and Higher

Drug Cocktails— Pleasures, Risks, and Reasons

Dormil is HIV positive. Each day he takes four different AIDS medications, including AZT. For recreation, he goes to dance clubs where he gets high on a nocturnal medley of Ecstasy, Special K, and crystal methamphetamine. Fidgeting in his seat at a Chelsea coffee shop, he claims he consumes only modest amounts of illegal narcotics, though his friends say otherwise. From the outside at least, he appears hale and hearty.

"My doctor tells me not to do party drugs, but they haven't affected my health in any way," professes the department-store clerk, who gets a thorough medical checkup every three months. "It's therapeutic. It's a stress-reliever. It allows me to accept the fact of my disease and go forward with my life."

Dormil (not his real name) believes his positive attitude is why he has so many good trips— he talks of his own polydrug experience as "blissful," "healing," and "like a workout for the mind." But he admits that other users are less responsible than he claims to be. He tells of Viagra sex parties, where— besides Bob Dole's favorite tablet, purchased over the Internet— other substances on offer included Ecstasy and crystal meth.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

"The idea is that the Viagra pumps blood into your penis, the Ecstasy makes you feel all sensual and tingly, and the crystal meth makes you fuck all night," he explains. What is supposed to be an erotic recipe sounds more like a prescription for a heart attack.

This weekend, and every weekend on dance floors across the city, thousands of teeth-grinding subjects like Dormil engage in an underground research project. Amid flashing lights and pounding music, untutored freelance pharmacologists conduct experiments on their own bodies to determine what happens when one consumes a bewildering array of pills and powders in the confined and humid setting of a nightclub. The results are not always pretty.

Earlier this year, a fragile teenager named Jimmy Lyons died at the Tunnel disco from a popular drug cocktail combining the animal anesthetic ketamine, better known as Special K, with the amphetamine derivative MDMA, a/k/a Ecstasy. The subsequent closing of the Tunnel and Sound Factory (both venues have since reopened) frightened club owners and promoters all over town. Security guards conduct humiliating body searches of patrons, who by now are used to having their privacy routinely violated. These days, it's not uncommon to find some burly bouncer peering over the stall while you're trying to use the toilet. Hastily tacked up signs now appear on bathroom walls: "Do not smoke pot and Special K. It puts you in K-hole" and "The management has absolutely zero tolerance for . . . drugs [that] induce coma and cardiac arrest." One club even went so far as to hire a private ambulance on Saturday nights, in case customers overdose. The paranoia is further exacerbated by persistent rumors that the Drug Enforcement Agency has snitches planted in all the major hot spots.

But dancehalls are not the only locations where people OD. Thirty-seven-year-old Anne Marie Capati suffered a stroke last year at a Crunch fitness center on Lafayette Street. Her family alleges in a lawsuit that she was killed by nutritional supplements recommended by her trainer. (Crunch says the trainer denies giving her supplements.) Capati's death— no less tragic than Jimmy Lyons's— was widely covered in the local media. But her demise has inspired no moral crusade to shut down gymnasiums.

Despite the ongoing crackdown on clubland, thrill-hungry nightcrawlers still continue to experiment with an alphabet soup of chemicals: MDMA, MDA, GHB, Special K, LSD, 2CB, as well as old standbys like crystal meth and cocaine. (See sidebar glossary.) Add alcohol and nicotine, as well as various prescription medications ranging from antidepressants to protease inhibitors— not to mention the anabolic steroids commonplace among disco denizens— and you have a volatile mixture of unpredictable chemical cross-reactions that turns many clubgoers into dancing drug stores. Or burned-out zombies.

"It's crazy," says one veteran dealer, who is in the process of quitting the business. "The entire New York club scene revolves around drug cocktails. I've lost count of the number of people I've seen collapse on their faces after mixing GHB with alcohol. It's rare that people go out and do one thing anymore— they have to mix two or three things at once to get that extra boost. One addiction feeds the other."

Hedonism has a dark side. "People want to go out and get fucked up because they're not happy," the anonymous dealer continues. "They're trying to escape for the night. They don't want to be where they are. And if they are there, they don't want to have to remember it."

But polydrug use doesn't have to be synonymous with immoderation. Some club patrons go to great lengths to figure out what each drug does individually and in combination. Besides, you can snort yourself into oblivion using just a single substance such as cocaine. It would be naive to deny, though, that once you've enjoyed MDMA, for instance, there's not a natural curiosity to try other chemicals. In many ways, Ecstasy is the gateway drug of the '90s. When the supply is scarce or adulterated, clubgoers try replacement substances.

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