At around 3 A.M. on a warm Friday night, Paul, a stockbroker in his late twenties, is waiting for his ecstasy dealer in front of the Gramercy Tavern, where he's just had a few drinks with friends. John, a club kid who delivers the drug to clients who beep him or call on his cell phone, is running 45 minutes late, and Paul, who took a hit of ecstasy half an hour ago, is furious. "My girl is already rolling" -- tripping on ecstasy -- he says. "She's just waiting to get fucked."
Paul starts dialing his dealer's cell phone and launches into a tirade. "I don't need this shit," he says. "I've got another delivery service that's way better -- a team of three hot girls who deliver ecstasy to your apartment." Besides, he continues, "I've been telling John that if he gets his shit together, he could make some real bucks. The older guys on the Street are into coke, but there are traders on the floor who would order hundreds of pills a day from him. They don't know shit about ecstasy, either. They'd probably pay $50 a pill -- money doesn't mean a thing to them."
Moments later, John stops short by the curb and swings open the front passenger door of his Jeep Cherokee. "Sorry, Paul," he says, wiping sweat from a pale forehead partly covered with boyish brown bangs. "I've been mad busy tonight." Paul snaps his cell phone shut and hops in. "Here's 90 percent of your order," John says, handing Paul two large Ziploc bags filled with 200 white pills between them. "I've gotta run back downtown to get the rest." Paul glances at his purchase -- about $5,000 worth of ecstasy that should last him and his stockbroker buddies through the weekend -- and says, "You'd better be back fast. I'm not waiting on the street for drugs. This isn't 1974, man."
Certainly not. A big guy with short hair, black jeans, and a frat-boy swagger, Paul couldn't have less in common with the club kids who popularized ecstasy in the early nineties. After all, he has to keep track of trades in the morning. But although he's been using the drug for just a year, he's doing so with a similar abandon -- he says he goes through 20 or 30 pills a weekend. "This," says Paul, holding up a bag, "is for my best buddy's going-away party tomorrow night. We're gonna hire a bunch of strippers and give them as much ecstasy as they want." A crooked smile crosses his face, the first effect of the pill he just took. "This" -- he holds up the other -- "is for tonight with my girl and the Hamptons tomorrow."
Once found almost exclusively at raves or in college dorms, ecstasy is nearing the cultural ubiquity marijuana reached at the beginning of the seventies and cocaine achieved in the mid-eighties. "It's sweeping through our society faster than crack," says Gary Murray, East Coast representative of the U.S. Customs Ecstasy Task Force, a division formed four months ago in response to the drug's growing popularity. Except that "with crack you could say, 'These people over here are doing it, and these people aren't.' You can't do that with ecstasy now. Everyone's doing it."
"This," says Paul, holding up a bag, "is for my buddy's going-away party. This" -- he holds up another -- "is for tonight with my girl."
Patented by the German pharmaceutical company E. Merck in 1914 (under its chemical name MDMA, or 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine), ecstasy was first widely used during the seventies to help patients open up to psychiatrists during therapy. By the end of the decade, the drug had crossed over from the couch to the dance floor at gay discos in New York, Chicago, and especially Dallas. In 1985, then-Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen successfully lobbied to have the DEA make MDMA a "Schedule 1" drug, subject to criminal penalties similar to those for cocaine and heroin.
Now, like pot in the seventies and coke in the eighties, ecstasy -- also called X, E, or rolls -- is seen as fairly harmless, hangover-free fun. Unlike cocaine, which leads to obvious trips to the bathroom, accusations of being stuck in the Greed Decade, and often addiction, ecstasy is inconspicuous and physically nonaddictive. Usually taken as a pill that has a small, stamped logo "borrowed" from pop or corporate culture -- Nike, Calvin Klein, Mitsubishi, Motorola, and Tweety Bird are among the popular "brands" -- ecstasy induces waves of euphoria and heightened physical sensations (especially tactile ones). But it's not disorienting enough in moderate doses to prevent users from remaining aware and outgoing. Aside from occasional cautionary tales about dehydration and overdoses, the word-of-mouth on ecstasy is overwhelmingly positive. "There's this perception of harmlessness surrounding ecstasy that other drugs simply don't have," says Bridget Brennan, the DEA's special narcotics prosecutor for New York City. At $20 to $30 for a pill that lasts four to six hours, it's also a bargain in the age of the $9 Cosmopolitan. "You could spend that kind of money in fifteen minutes at any bar in the city," notes a thirtysomething A&R executive who often takes the drug with friends at his country house in Sag Harbor.
Though ecstasy is still nowhere near as mainstream in the U.S. as it is in England, much of its jump in popularity can be explained by older ecstasy users whose clubgoing days are long behind them -- if they ever happened at all. "It's such a cool drug because you can mold it into whatever you want to do," says Steve, an artist in his late twenties who sheepishly admits, "I missed the whole rave thing." Instead of hitting nightspots like Twilo, Steve takes ecstasy when he hangs out with friends at bars. "When you do ecstasy, you realize how paranoid you've been around people," he says. "Ecstasy breaks down those barriers."
Plenty of other users began taking the drug in college and simply never stopped. A thirtysomething architect named Mark remembers using it with his fraternity brothers and their "groupies" at a California college in the late eighties. "We'd have this little lovefest where everybody was making out with everybody -- not crazy sex games or anything but just the whole ecstasy thing of wanting to wrap your tongue around somebody," he says. He's grown up now, with a high-paying job and a nice loft downtown, but he still uses ecstasy as a social lubricant. His architect girlfriend "was one of those people who wanted to rebel but came from a very conservative household," he says. "It made her relax and cut loose and not be so self-conscious. She absolutely loved it."