Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jul 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Page: A1 - Front Page
Author: Mark Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Cited: DanceSafe:
Bookmark: MAP's link to Ecstasy items:


Group Tries To Reduce Risk By Testing Pills

Before popping the pill, the 16- year-old in bell-bottoms and a black
T-shirt wanted to know what was in it.

Brooke Owyang used an X-Acto knife to chip away at the white
aspirin-size tablet the teenager's dealer had called ``X-Files.'' On a
glass plate, she mixed a drop of clear liquid from an eyedropper with
the pill's dust. The chemical reaction was immediate, allowing for a
quick verdict.


Shouting above the techno beat at a recent daytime rave in Golden Gate
Park, Owyang, a 19-year-old University of California at Berkeley
student, delivered a brief lecture on the dangers of drugs, then
watched the teenager stick the pill back in his pocket and disappear
into the bobbing sea of humanity.

Five minutes later, the teenager downed the pill.

This is hardly the war on drugs that Nancy Reagan envisioned.

But members of DanceSafe, a nationwide group born last year in a
Berkeley apartment, say they are educating their mostly teenage and
twentysomething audience about drugs and their dangers in a more
effective style than the antidrug rhetoric preached in schools and

Armed with information on drugs such as LSD, methamphetamines and GHB,
DanceSafe volunteers set up tables at raves and dance parties, answer
questions and test Ecstasy pills to ensure they are not poison. The
group, largely funded by dot-com entrepreneurs, has chapters in nine
cities and is growing during a time when Ecstasy is more popular than
ever -- and fake Ecstasy is killing teenagers.

Most law enforcement and public health officials do not object to the
group's efforts to distribute information on drugs. But the pill
testing is hard for some to swallow.

``They're helping people do something illegal,'' said San Francisco
Police Inspector John Keane, a narcotics officer who said he was
familiar with the group. ``I don't want to see anyone die from
something they took without knowing what it was, but they are
facilitating drug use.''

DanceSafe's founder, Emanuel Sferios, a 30-year-old graduate student
and former social worker, insists the group does not promote drugs.

``The fact is people use drugs despite all our best efforts as a
society to prevent it,'' Sferios said. ``Whether we want to continue
with `Just Say No' campaigns or not is besides the point. People need
information, and they're not getting it anywhere else.''

It is a debate that echoes some of the same issues raised more than a
decade ago when San Francisco residents began passing out clean
needles to heroin addicts to help prevent the spread of AIDS.

DanceSafe members blend into the rave scene like hip chemists. At a
Santa Rosa nightclub a week after the Golden Gate Park party, Owyang
told three rapt women about how Ecstasy works -- by causing the brain
to release abnormally high amounts of the chemical serotonin -- while
shaking her head to the techno beat.

On the dance floor, tiny, stuffed teddy bears hung from the ceiling as
an animated Alice in Wonderland movie was projected on a wall. Women
in ponytails hopped to a bass beat that shook the dance floor; men
waved glow sticks like batons.

DanceSafe was started last year in Sferios' apartment with $3,000 of
his own money. The group now has a downtown Oakland office, a half-
million dollar a year budget and four full-time employees. They also
have an attorney, but they say that so far no member of DanceSafe in
any city has been arrested.

Sferios gets financial backing mostly from Bay Area dot-com
entrepreneurs, who are more apt to socialize and network at dance
clubs than Chamber of Commerce luncheons.

Bob Wallace, a Sebastopol resident who was the ninth employee of
Microsoft, has contributed to DanceSafe. So has Steve Simitzis, one of
the founders of Critical Path Inc., a $4 billion company based in San

Using a chemical called Marquis reagent, which changes color in the
presence of certain drugs, DanceSafe volunteers can usually tell what
is in a pill sold as Ecstasy. They sell do-it-at-home pill-testing
kits as well.

The group passes out cards -- partially paid for by the San Francisco
Department of Public Health -- that explain how certain drugs work.
Included on the cards are chemistry lessons (``Ecstasy is MDMA, or
3,4- Methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine''), practical advice (when
someone's having a bad LSD trip: ``Take the person to quiet
surroundings where they feel comfortable''), and reality checks
(``Speed is illegal. Possession can result in long prison terms'').

The group's Web site,, displays photos of Ecstasy pills
circulating throughout the country, tells what they are called, and
describes what is in them. A pill called ``Y2K'' is mostly caffeine,
according to the site. It also reports that ``Mitsubishi,'' which
circulated in Chicago last month, may contain a super-powerful
stimulant called paramethoxyamphetamine, or PMA, which killed three
Chicago-area teenagers.

DanceSafe's growth -- groups in 20 more cities are organizing -- comes
at a critical time, Sferios said. Ecstasy, a psychedelic amphetamine,
has advanced from small dimly lit dance clubs in big cities to
all-night affairs in the suburbs, attracting tens of thousands of
teenagers and young adults, officials say.

``It's exploding,'' said Trinka Porrata, a former Los Angeles Police
Department official who works as a consultant on drug issues for
police departments.

Porrata said American law enforcement agencies are seizing at least a
million Ecstasy tablets a month. A University of Michigan study last
year found that 8 percent of high school seniors had tried Ecstasy,
compared with about 5 percent the year before.

As Ecstasy's popularity rises, dealers are flocking to sell a drug
that costs $2 to $3 per pill to make but sells for $20 to $25. They
are also manufacturing pills that cause sickness, or even death.

In Oakland last year, eight people went from a rave to the hospital
after ingesting Ecstasy that contained Dextromethorphan, or DXM, a
chemical found in cough syrup which can inhibit sweating when taken in
high doses. The pills taken at the hot, all-night dance party sickened

And in Chicago, three teenagers died within a month of each other this
summer from pills laced with PMA, which increases the heart rate to
dangerous levels and can push the body's temperature so high that
organs begin shutting down.

Owyang said the Bay Area DanceSafe chapter has found at least one fake
pill at every event it has staffed.

Because many who use Ecstasy have little experience buying or using
drugs --``It's a mall drug, not a street drug,'' says the consultant Porrata
- -- the chance of someone ingesting something truly poisonous is a fact
that must be faced, DanceSafe supporters say.

``People will buy whatever from anyone in here and then just take it
without even thinking,'' said a 21- year-old at a Santa Rosa
nightclub. The college student, who did not want to give his name,
bought an Ecstasy pill-testing kit.

The student said he began testing pills for purity after a friend had
a bad experience with a DMX-laced pill.

``She told me she thought she was going to die,'' he said. ``That's
kind of a scary thing to hear someone say.''

Others are not so sure DanceSafe's pill-testing is the right approach
to take for an illegal drug that can cause depression and neurotoxic

A DARE America official called the group ``irresponsible.''

``We're for zero tolerance, and they seem to be tolerating drugs,``
said Frank Begueros, deputy director of the program run by police
departments in about 75 percent of American schools.

And a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official said DanceSafe is
misleading young Americans.

``There is so much misinformation about Ecstasy -- mainly that it
really can't hurt you,'' said Jocelyn Barnes, spokeswoman for the
DEA's San Francisco office. ``So when you have an organization talking
about Ecstasy and they've got the word `safe' in their name, I'm not
sure that's a good message. This stuff is lethal.''

Jennifer Cutler, 29, a San Francisco resident who was strolling
through Golden Gate Park when she happened upon the rave event and
DanceSafe's setup, echoed Barnes.

``I'm not comfortable with these people essentially sending the
message to teens that drug use can be safe,'' Cutler said. ``They are
saying some drugs are OK. I think it's promoting drugs more than

But Sferios says DanceSafe is hardly a cheerleader for drug

``We have never caused anyone to take a pill,'' he said. ``But we have
caused hundreds of people not to take a pill that was dangerous. I
think we could argue we're decreasing the amount of people who take

While DanceSafe also distributes condoms, ear plugs and fruit --
usually their most popular attraction -- at raves and clubs,
pill-testing and drug education are the group's core purpose.

They recently gained a new proponent.

Janice Aeschlimann's 18-year-old daughter Sara was one of the three
suburban Chicago teenagers killed by fake Ecstasy last month.
Aeschlimann said she had never heard of Ecstasy until a month before
her daughter died. Now, she is an unfortunate expert.

She supports DanceSafe, she said, because parents cannot afford not

``When I first heard about what they were doing, I thought it was a
terrible idea,'' said Aeschlimann from her Naperville, Ill., home.
``But now I'm not so sure. I guess if kids are going to be doing this
stuff, we should have a group like that. You have to be realistic.

``Had my daughter had some of this information, I think she would have
been smart enough to at least have it tested.''
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake