Sex, Drugs and EDM: high times and overdoses in Toronto’s dance festival scene
The electronic dance music genre has spawned a $20-billion economy of giant festivals, thumping bass and designer drugs. The partygoers think they’re invincible. The overdoses tell another story
In the world of electronic dance music, summer is high season. Every weekend brings another festival, the crowd a teeming mass of flesh and neon, the air a cloud of confetti and glitter. The procession begins in May and builds, like a thudding EDM track, into an explosive climax: the Veld Music Festival, a giant two-day bacchanal that colonizes Downsview Park every August.
Last year, nearly 40,000 people packed into the park for the all-ages EDM festival. Ink Entertainment, the event organizer, had hired 40 medics, eight EMS workers, one MD, four ambulances, 280 security guards, 15 security managers and 26 paid duty officers to remain on site for the duration, a ratio that shook out to approximately 130 screaming, stoned ravers for every sober adult. There were legions of drunk teens armed with fake IDs, but the bigger problem was the drug use: the festival was teeming with GHB, MDMA and cocaine. Over the course of the weekend, at least 15 people took something that landed them in the hospital, and two died of overdoses.
One was Annie Truong-Le, a pretty, petite 20-year-old poli-sci major at York University, who swallowed something at Veld, lost consciousness, was rushed to hospital and never woke up. The other was Willard Amurao, a beefy 22-year-old Ajax man and sales associate at Banana Republic, who also took drugs at the festival. Police spotted him tripping out and quickly called for EMS. When he became violent, police cuffed him to a stretcher. He went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance and was pronounced dead at the hospital. Autopsy reports revealed that both Truong-Le and Amurao had taken MDMA.
In the days that followed, Ink Entertainment CEO Charles Khabouth released a statement: “We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of these individuals and will keep them in our prayers. Public safety and security have always been the number one priorities of the Veld Music Festival, and we will continue to make sure they remain that way and with the highest standard of support.” Beyond that statement, Ink refused all interview requests.
The electronic dance music scene is all about being reckless and getting wrecked. Drug-takers never know if what they’re told they are buying is actually what they’re ingesting—and, after a few hits of this or that, they don’t seem to care. The Veld overdoses had come on the heels of 22 hospitalizations during Digital Dreams at Ontario Place in June, and 29 at a Rogers Centre DJ show in May. In 2014, there were at least 28 festival deaths around the world, including six in Kuala Lumpur that were drug-related and at least one each at some of the scene’s marquee parties: Coachella, Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival. One reveller threw himself into a giant bonfire at Utah’s version of Burning Man.
The party will continue this summer, cooking up the same treacherous recipe: a toxic mix of teenagers and 20-somethings, sweltering sun and dehydration, booze and drugs. It’s only a matter of time before someone dances till they drop.
EDM is less a music genre than a total physical assault—a sonic battering ram of bass, synth and drum machines. It has existed in some form or another for the past 40 years, evolving from British industrial music in the ’70s to American house in the ’80s to Swedish electronica in the ’90s. The current incarnation emerged on the European festival circuit in the early 2000s, spurred by the rise of cultish DJs like France’s David Guetta and the Netherlands’ Tiësto. By the end of the decade, the craze had hit North America, adding Eurotrashy bounce to mainstream tracks by Usher, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. EDM combines the core obsessions of the millennial generation: digital wizardry, social connectivity and adrenalin-jacked overstimulation.
Toronto has become a global centre for EDM, a place where the good times never stop. In addition to festivals like Veld, smaller venues like the Hoxton, Uniun and Tattoo have also embraced EDM: throw a glow stick any day of the week, and there’s a good chance you’ll hit a dance party somewhere in the GTA. The big DJs—including the American producer Steve Aoki, the Swedish DiCaprio doppelgänger Avicii, and Deadmau5, the Toronto-based superstar known for his menacing mouse-ear helmets and phallic cars—reportedly charge up to $400,000 to play a two-hour set.
The genre is a massive corporate enterprise cannily disguised as youthful misadventure—each event is glossily packaged, marketed and sponsored. Bud Light, for instance, has aggressively entered the Toronto EDM scene. In 2013, its parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, signed a deal with mega–music producer SFX Entertainment to sponsor its events, a deal that financial analysts estimate to be worth up to $35 million per year. Bud proudly announced that after the first year of the partnership, millennials said they were 19 per cent more likely to buy a two-four of Bud Light. In 2014, the International Music Summit estimated that the EDM machine was worth $6.2 billion annually, with two-thirds of the revenue coming from live events. Industry experts figure that once you factor in all the vendors—record labels, sound producers, venue staff, merchandise—the market could be worth as much as $20 billion.
And that doesn’t count the drug dealers, who make a killing in the underground EDM economy. Music and drug culture have always been intertwined—rock and pot, psychedelia and LSD, jazz and heroin. What makes EDM different is that drugs are a requisite part of the experience. For this story, I interviewed upwards of 70 people who attend EDM shows. The vast majority admitted to using drugs, and you almost can’t blame them. When you’re sober, the party is a sweaty, claustrophobic nightmare. When you’re high, they tell me, it’s transcendent.
The star of the list is MDMA, which goes by several names, including ecstasy, XTC, E, X, M and, as connoisseurs like Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Kanye West call it, molly. In its purest form, MDMA releases a surge of serotonin and dopamine, producing enhanced sensations and a euphoric state. It’s considered less dangerous than most other party drugs, though taking too much of it can cause heart failure. “Molly” is thought to be a diminutive of “molecule”—a nod to its supposed chemical purity—but most of what’s sold on the black market as molly is cut with other substances, often more noxious than straight MDMA.
Many Toronto ravers keep up with the scene via the Toronto Rave Community, a Facebook group with nearly 40,000 members. It was founded a few years ago by Cody Blanchard, a husky, handsome 23-year-old with immaculate hair and cherub cheeks, to manage the burgeoning group of friends he was meeting at EDM parties. It now includes partiers, event promoters and scene superstars like Deadmau5. People post about music, drugs, DJ infighting, ticket sales, what to wear to an event, how to get there, where to stay. Most of the people I spoke to were TRC members, including Lucy, a curvy, cat-eyed 23-year-old and a regular at festivals like Veld. She says the rushing sensory explosion of an ecstasy high matches the sound and pulse of electronic music. “Your body kind of understands what it’s saying,” she says dreamily. “When that much serotonin is released, you really like everyone, you want to hug everyone, touch everyone.”
Lucy, who works as a receptionist, pops MDMA with two friends: Phil, a skinny, geeky guy with a down-home Maritime charm, and Meaghan, his pint-size girlfriend, who has a striking, angular face and smoky voice. They agreed to speak to me if I promised not to reveal their last names. The trio buy their drugs at clubs for around $10 per 100-milligram dose. One dealer was a fixture at the now-defunct Guvernment; you’d walk by, flash your fingers for how many pills you wanted, and, voilà, they were yours. To manage the jaw-grinding side effects of MDMA, users chew Tootsie Rolls and mini candy bars, which many clubs stock for free in the bathroom.
Lucy and her friends usually take one or two pills a night, each of which lasts four to six hours; they don’t go too hard, so they figure they’re safe. Meaghan says they always make sure to drink lots of water and avoid alcohol while they’re rolling. She doesn’t take anything that looks sketchy or that she finds on the ground, but she admits she’s probably inadvertently taken drugs that weren’t pure MDMA. The biggest problem, she says, is buying bogus pills that don’t give you the high you’re craving. She doesn’t worry about overdosing; she worries about getting ripped off.
In the EDM world, the predominant ethos is YOLO—you only live once—a mantra that cloaks a culture of risk, danger and hedonism in the language of adventure and adrenalin. Rather than worry about the future—unemployment, rootlessness, apocalyptic doom—millennial EDM disciples retreat into the dance party vortex, a swirl of sex and drugs and indulgence and escapist fantasy.
I witnessed those extravagant depths last November at Sensation: Into the Wild, a stadium rave at the Rogers Centre sponsored by Bud Light and devoted to “releasing your inner animal.” Thirty thousand people attended. Regular admission tickets were $110, VIP passes $250, and tables were available in three tiers: gold ($5,500), platinum ($6,500), and diamond ($7,500), which came with a better view of the stage, private dance floors, and personal hostesses and servers, plus, naturally, a Bud Light refreshment package containing enough beer, champagne and spirits to tranquilize a herd of elephants. The lineup featured Afrojack, a soul-patched Dutch producer, and Eric Prydz, a Swedish DJ known for a booming drum crash called the Pryda Snare.
Despite the jungle theme, the dress code demanded head-to-toe white; security guards were tasked with checking outfits, and a few times I caught attendees trying to get away with khaki (no dice). It was amazing what people were able to pull off under those sartorial restrictions: rhinestone-studded bras, LED-threaded flashing bras, furry bras, latex bras, angel wings, saran wrap, bathrobes, snowman suits. These ravers weren’t there to watch the spectacle—they were the spectacle. Transforming into a party beast was part of the fun. The music helped do that, but the drugs helped more. The organizers trumpeted a zero-tolerance policy for the use of soft, hard or controlled drugs, hiring undercover police officers to patrol the premises and report any illicit activities to the authorities. Still, they couldn’t catch everything.
For me, the event was exciting, trippy and terrifying, more ludicrous than fun. The air was hazy with sweat and artificial smoke, the room so packed it felt like a human pickle jar. Lights hung in strands from the ceilings, flashed in time with the beat from the dancers’ Bud-branded rubber bracelets and glowed from a giant structure fixed to the ceiling that resembled an alien spaceship. Seen from the nosebleed seats of the Rogers Centre, the crowd was a massive, undulating swarm, lit from all directions with rays of pulsing red, white, green and blue. Music pounded from colossal overhanging rows of speakers, which looked like dinosaur vertebrae stretching down over the crowd.
One Ottawa couple I spoke to, Heidi and Gabe, wore giant, feathered First Nations–style headdresses they bought on Etsy. “We weren’t going to wear them because we’re white, but Gabe wanted to,” Heidi screamed at me over the thump-thump, perched atop Gabe’s shirtless, muscled shoulders. Another woman, Megan, from New York City, sported an elaborate, sparkly unicorn headdress she’d made herself. It was her third time at Sensation, which tours all over the world. In fact, only about half of the 50 or so ravers I spoke to were from Toronto. While some were from the States, many more came in from across Ontario and Quebec; some of them make the trip to Toronto’s parties every weekend.
Zero-tolerance policy be damned, people were conspicuously snorting white powder and downing pills wherever I looked. I saw them doing lines in the bathroom but also off the backs of their hands in the middle of the crowd. One guy, wearing low-slung shorts and a “Where the fuck is Molly?” hat, popped a white tablet moments before I introduced myself, then couldn’t seem to remember his name. His friend Jasmine told me it was Mike. I was certain it wasn’t the first pill he’d taken that night, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
At one point, I saw a man and a woman having sex on one of the blue plastic stadium chairs. Later on, while I was in line for the bathroom, a cop interrupted two women feverishly making out in one of the stalls. And more than once, men I interviewed thought I was interested in something else. At the 1 a.m. mark, after one pimply-faced 19-year-old swiftly stuck his hand up my dress when I leaned in to interview him, I gave up approaching anyone.
By 3 a.m., I was kicking my way through a carpet of flattened beer cans and baggies. Eventually, a police officer shooed me off the floor so the cleanup crew could tackle the mess with oversized shovels. As I shuffled upstairs, I saw a young man, alone and probably in his early 20s, slumped over against one of the pillars near the exit. Two police officers leaned over him. “You’re not in good shape right now,” one cop told him. Ten minutes later, as the man’s head lolled to his chest, someone called security. It was another 10 minutes before the medic team arrived.
Brett Belchetz is a chiselled, elfin 40-year-old ER doctor who reminds me of Legolas in blue scrubs. He says he rarely saw patients suffering from MDMA overdoses 10 years ago. “Now,” he says, “it’s unusual that I would work a Saturday night shift and not have at least one drug-related issue come in the door.” The worst cases are those where patients take something that makes them stop breathing. It’s often a drug in the G family, like gamma-hydroxybutyrate, a.k.a. GHB—the date-rape drug, which some people take for recreational purposes.
The grab bag of potential party drugs includes a Sesame Street episode’s worth of letters: GHB, MDMA, MDA, MDE, MBDB, DMT, 2C-B and PCP, plus ketamine, coke and weed. And the risk is exacerbated when dealers dilute drugs with filler substances. One of the most common (and dangerous) adulterants is PMA—known by the ominous street name Dr. Death, because it can kill you. The woozy, happy high of PMA is slower and milder than MDMA’s, which means someone who thinks they’re taking pure ecstasy might keep loading up on toxic doses. Illegal drug manufacturers use PMA and substances like it because they’re cheaper and often easier to find, buy or make than pure MDMA. Keeping the price low—$10 to $15 a dose—is key when your market is cash-strapped teens and 20-somethings. Plus, most of the new synthetics haven’t yet been classified under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which means they may be technically legal to buy and produce.
One Saturday last fall, Belchetz began his night shift at 11 p.m. Within minutes, news of a nearby rave trickled through the first responder radio; an overdose patient was wheeled through the door an hour later. The teen, who’d taken GHB, was unresponsive, a breathing tube the only thing keeping him alive. The staff worked on him for the next three hours, during which time the hospital admitted another five patients who had overdosed at the rave. In each case, the hospital tested the patient’s blood, eventually identifying a smorgasbord of chemicals. Three patients that night came close to death.
Belchetz recalls another tense night last year when two teenagers were admitted from a rave, drifting in and out of consciousness. Their blood sugar kept dropping, and his team didn’t know why. When the toxicology tests came back, they revealed the presence of a chemical commonly prescribed to treat diabetes, which had been used to cut the drugs. Belchetz says what patients think they’ve taken rarely matches what appears in the toxicology reports. Usually, when overdosers regain consciousness, he suggests they re-evaluate their party lifestyle. He tells them that they weren’t breathing when they came in, and if it weren’t for him and the medics, they’d be dead. He’s done it so many times now that he can guess their reaction: they’ll be mortified. “They all tell me, ‘This is it’—they’re not going to do it again,” he says. “I want to believe them, but we keep getting repeat customers.”
I was surprised to discover that for most EDM fans, the euphoric high of party drugs eclipses the danger. One guy told me he saw someone die from an overdose at his first event—it disturbed him, he admitted, but not enough to stop him from going to the next party or taking ecstasy while he was there. All of the people I spoke to seemed to think they were invincible, obstinately assuring me that while everyone around them might pop sketchy pills, they never would. Even those who have had bad trips cockily protested that, in the end, everything turned out just fine.
I interviewed one person who told me about a big party a few years ago, when he took what he assumed to be MDMA and forgot to drink water. “It was the worst night of my life,” he says. He started to hear voices and was so freaked out, he had to leave the party. Once he was home, he was tripping in bed for four hours, and says he was immobilized for two days. Despite that scary high, he hasn’t stopped taking MDMA—in fact, he’s been doing so much of it that he constantly grinds his teeth through the night. “It’s kind of my signal to chill out,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean I should stop and go clean.”
In early 2014, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti introduced a motion to outlaw all-ages EDM events at Exhibition Place. “This is not what city property and taxpayers’ money should be used for,” he said. The ban was passed in April, then overturned a few weeks later. “I think folks realized it was a rash decision,” said Councillor Mike Layton, who voted against the ban, claiming people were basing their opposition on fear. But after the Veld deaths, Mammoliti took up the cause again. “How many more people have to die?” he asked.
Most partygoers brush off these concerns; they’re just doing what their parents did in the ’70s, they argue. To some degree, they’re right. The size of the market, however, has exploded, making it that much easier to access dangerous drugs. Every year, a private research organization called the Global Drug Survey polls users around the world. In 2012, 26.5 per cent of American respondents said they’d tried MDMA; the number doubled to 61 per cent the next year. Between 2006 and 2010, the amount of MDMA seized along the Canadian-American border mushroomed from 500 pounds to 1,000 pounds. And the darknet—the online black market drug trade—is booming. A recent estimate suggested that 22 per cent of users purchase their drugs online, and the sites usually host around 50,000 listings at a time. Drug makers continue to find cheaper synthetics to stretch their supply, effectively transforming MDMA into the chemical equivalent of a Louis Vuitton purse. As it gets increasingly popular, everyone wants it and everyone wants to sell it, which creates a whole side industry of shoddy knock-offs. Toronto police estimate that less than 10 per cent of the MDMA they seize is pure. A detective I spoke to spent seven years on the drug squad. During one of his major drug seizures, 10,000 of the pills were pure MDMA, but more than twice as many were cut with meth.
Most MDMA opponents preach abstinence, but that kind of thinking is dangerously naïve. Kids are about as likely to eschew drugs as they are to stay virgins—and the best way to keep them safe is to keep them informed. Lori Kufner is the chipper project co-ordinator of Trip, which calls itself a “nightlife awareness project” and helps promote drug testing at Toronto raves. Trip often has a booth at EDM events in the city, and usually sends out a team of volunteers to distribute information on drugs and side effects. They also hand out lube and condoms, booklets on safer sex, and safer snorting packages, which include clean straws (dirty ones can transmit hepatitis B and C).
The team advocates the use of drug-testing kits, which allow users to see what’s in their pills. The kits aren’t sophisticated enough to calculate exact quantities of chemicals, but they will alert users to substances they may not want to ingest. Each one comes with a bottle containing a testing reagent. Users dab a bit of the liquid onto whatever they’re testing and follow the colour chart. If the drug turns dark purple, it’s pure MDMA. If it turns yellow, it’s probably bath salts, or methylone, which can cause overheating, delirium and death. If it turns brown, you could have something with speed in it. You can buy kits online. One Montreal retailer, Test Kit Plus, sells them for $24.99 apiece, each containing enough reagent to test about 50 pills.
Kufner always tells people to test their drugs before they come to events, but considering how many people buy at the festivals themselves, it’s impractical advice at best. The catch-22 is that testing goes against every tenet of the EDM manifesto: risk, spontaneity, YOLO. Part of the thrill is not knowing what’s going to happen next. Many ravers have no idea drug-testing kits even exist, and I spoke to a few, including Lucy and her crew, who always intend to test but often get too caught up in the party, sometimes impulsively buying pills while there. Meaghan says she once picked up tablets from the ground. She didn’t take them, though she admits that most people in her place probably would have.
For anyone who’s high at an EDM event, Trip provides what Kufner calls a “chill space.” They coach people through bad trips and ensure that those who need medical attention get it—at some raves, the medic tent has been surrounded by cops, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a snaking line of law enforcement. They’re there to act as first responders and to control the crowd, but usually, their presence scares away bugged-out teens. Even if partiers dare to approach the tent, they’ll balk under the stern gaze of police, often claiming they were “just drinking.” By the time they tweak out a few hours later, it might be too late.
Cops are starting to go harder on MDMA dealers. After the deaths at Veld, the Toronto police threatened to file manslaughter charges against whomever dealt the drugs. As yet, they haven’t been able to find enough evidence to pin the deaths on any one suspect, but most drug lawyers think it’s only a matter of time before such charges stick.
As MDMA use grows, lawyers, judges and lawmakers are also starting to pay closer attention. In the last few years, judges have been sentencing those who are caught selling or in possession of large amounts of ecstasy to longer jail terms. Last January, the Crime Stoppers division released “Cookin’ With Molly,’’ a video public service announcement that one raver described to me as “Jamie Oliver meets Breaking Bad.” For a police PSA, the video is surprisingly slapsticky, featuring a zany drug cooker throwing dashes of this and that into his signature pill. The message: molly might not be the drug you think it is. According to Crime Stoppers co-ordinator Detective Chris Scherk, the video, which went viral on YouTube, was directly inspired by the deaths at Veld.
Lucy admits she was shocked when she heard two people died at Veld while she was there—“Like, whoa,” she says—but feels too many people have overlooked the fact that both Truong-Le and Amurao were adults. “It sounds unsympathetic, but it was their choice.” Besides, she insists, she won’t be doing MDMA forever—she’ll stop when she outgrows the party scene, probably in her 30s. Unless, of course, the party ends before she makes it that far. She believes the odds are in her favour—two deaths among 38,000 people isn’t even 0.01 per cent, she says. She may be right. But while those two deaths might be the smallest numbers in the whole supersized EDM scene, they mean the most. Two people went to have the time of their lives and never came home.