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.”

Nor is ecstasy confined to party-prone young people. Tom, a 44-year-old movie executive, takes ecstasy with the intensity of a club kid (“If it’s good, I’ll take like six in one evening”), but only in his downtown loft. “Usually when we do ecstasy, it’s a very quiet, intimate thing,” he says. “I’ve never understood the whole concept of doing ecstasy out in public. One time we did E and went to Vinyl. I just ended up sitting there for about ten minutes and leaving.”

Just how widespread is ecstasy in New York? “It’s everywhere,” a suburban Long Island teenager now enrolled at Daytop Village’s Huntington, Long Island, adolescent drug-rehab facility told New York. “It’s easier to get an E pill than a pack of cigarettes. You need I.D. for that, you know.” Another teenage patient there agreed. “We’d talk about it during social studies: ‘You gonna do E this weekend?’ ” One dealer even said his aunt asked him about it: “A friend of hers read about it and was interested in trying it.”

“Everybody is into ecstasy,” says Suave, another dealer, “straight, gay, black, yellow, red, white, brown, whatever.”

Well past 2 a.m. on a Wednesday night, Suave is kicking back on a tan leather couch in the VIP room of Float, a multilevel midtown nightspot known for hosting dot-com launch parties and boasting Prince as a regular. Discreetly holding a cigarette-size joint by his side, he’s regaling a dozen or so fellow partyers – editors, stylists, Web designers – with stories about his week of club-hopping. “Yo, the VIP room at NV is the illest,” he says, pausing to look down at the cell phone on his hip that vibrates with an incoming call every few minutes. “There were so many models up in there I thought I was in a fashion shoot.” The Gucci-and-Fendi-clad group, here for promoter Derek Corley’s weekly upscale hip-hop party, laughs in unison. “Have y’all been to Joe’s Pub on Tuesday nights?” Suave asks. “The girls are so fine.”

But Suave isn’t there for the women. Like so many of the beautiful people around him, he goes clubbing to network. He’s a new kind of ecstasy dealer, one who sells from a cell phone instead of a crinkled plastic Baggie full of pills. “I would never sell in a club,” he says. “The security sweats you like mad. Plus, you have no idea who you’re selling to. It could easily be an undercover cop.”

“Everybody is into ecstasy,” says Suave, who deals to professionals, “straight, gay, black, yellow, red, white, brown, whatever.”

At first glance, Suave seems like just another sociable single guy on the make – albeit one who hits several high-end hot spots like Ohm, Cheetah, and Justin’s in a single night. “I’ll see a pretty girl or maybe a guy that looks cool and strike up a conversation,” he explains, adjusting the brim of the Ralph Lauren baseball cap that hides a shock of kinky hair. “I’ll ask, ‘Do you smoke weed?’ or ‘Do you do ecstasy?’ If they seem cool, they get my number, and we’ll get a relationship going from there.”

Suave’s casual networking style suits his clientele perfectly: His regular customers include editors from at least one national magazine, brokers at major investment banks, and Website designers at dot-com start-ups. In fact, he only deals to professionals, because “they treat me right,” he says. “These aren’t the kind of people who’ll be begging me for free pills.” He won’t sell to ravers, because they always ask to meet him in nightclubs and “they’re terrible with money,” he says. “They can’t hang on to it for a minute.”

Like Suave, Greg, who has dealt ketamine, cocaine, marijuana, and mushrooms at one time or another, conducts business far from the limelight. He sells only out of his Chelsea apartment and only to friends of friends who have one of the yellow business cards with his pager number. “You don’t have to go to a club to get E anyway,” he says. “You can just make a few calls and have it before you go out for the night.” To keep his neighbors from getting suspicious, he maintains well-known “office hours” – by 10 p.m. most nights, he’s in bed or watching a movie on his DVD player. Some of his customers keep similar hours. “I’ve sold to couples in their sixties and people in their forties who have families,” he says. “Just last month, a friend of mine who’s in his mid-thirties finally tried ecstasy for the first time,” he continues. “He bought a couple of pills from me and took his girlfriend out on a rowboat in Central Park.”

Because of increasing demand and his high profit margin, he says, “selling ecstasy is a ridiculously easy way to make money.” Greg sells pills for $30 that most dealers buy for $8 to $11. Suave buys pills for $11 from a distributor in Brooklyn, then sells them for $20 to $30 to customers who beep or call him. “If they’re buying a bunch of pills,” Suave says, “I’ll throw in two or three to make them feel good about working with me.” For purchases of 100 or more, he charges $20 per pill. “Quantity calls are what keep me in business,” he says. “Keep those orders for 100 and more coming, and I’m a very happy man.”

A typical day for Suave begins in the late afternoon, when he’s awakened by a phone call or beeper message from a customer at a law firm, publishing house, or Internet start-up. “My music-industry customers are my favorites,” he says, “because they hook me up with concert tickets and free CDs.” (Another regular client is helping him put together a portfolio so he can pursue a career as a model.) He delivers ecstasy on foot or by taxi until around midnight, then heads out to clubs to meet more potential customers. “On a bad week, when I’m not getting many calls or I’m too lazy to really work it, I’ll make $1,000,” he says. “On an average week, where things are business as usual, I’ll make about $3,000 to $4,000. A great week, where there’s a holiday or a big party, I’ll make $5,000.”

Though the frenzy for ecstasy is national – legislators in both the House and the Senate are working on bills to increase penalties – the two most popular U.S. points of entry for the drug are JFK and Newark airports, according to law-enforcement sources. So far this year, New York accounts for more than 2 million of the nearly 7 million hits of ecstasy seized by Customs. “Because of our airports and the presence of organized crime, New York is a critical port for the importation of ecstasy,” says Brennan. Even given these conditions, Brennan struggles to account for the ecstasy explosion. “The numbers are staggering,” she says.

According to information compiled by U.S. Customs, many distributors pay Dutch or Israeli smuggling rings $100,000 for bringing them 200,000 pills from the Netherlands or Belgium. They then sell those pills to dealers for $8 to $11 apiece, earning a profit of $1.5 million. That might seem like an awful lot of ecstasy to unload, but demand is so high, most dealers purchase by the thousand. “Ecstasy is a much neater business than cocaine or heroin,” says Customs commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. “You can invest $100,000 as a distributor and get $5 million back.”

Before it was busted in February, the Israeli ecstasy ring that supplied Greg out of an apartment in Forest Hills sold dealers as many as 100,000 pills a week, according to the Queens district attorney’s office. One member was observed by the DEA saying he needed 10,000 ecstasy tablets immediately and 25,000 more within the hour.

Both the reach and the organization of the Forest Hills ring were impressive. “They were very, very smart – even if you were buying a few thousand pills, you’d always deal with the guy lowest on the totem pole,” says Greg. “And their reach was amazing. I would buy pills from them, and the next week I’d talk to friends out in San Francisco and Dallas who had the exact same pills.”

An even bigger Israeli ring, allegedly run by 29-year-old Amsterdam resident Sean Erez, recruited Hasidic Jews from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Monsey, New York, to smuggle ecstasy from Amsterdam through Paris. Although Erez and his girlfriend remain in Dutch custody fighting extradition, the other people named in the indictment all pleaded guilty, including Shimon Levita, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn who helped Erez recruit Hasidim, who were given $1,500 for each trip. When the ring was busted, Erez had almost $475,000 in a Luxembourg bank account, and law-enforcement officials estimated it had smuggled more than a million tablets of ecstasy into the U.S.

Even those operations pale in comparison with the Los Angeles-based ecstasy ring allegedly run by a 44-year-old Israeli national named Jacob “Koki” (pronounced “Cookie”) Orgad that was busted by Customs in June. During the past two years, the group allegedly brought at least 9 million pills into the U.S. “We’ve only identified 30 couriers so far, and there could have been many more,” says a source at Customs. “So 9 million pills is actually our low estimate, because we know that each courier brought in at least 30,000 pills.”

“Once you do the first pill, your whole perspective on life changes,” says Kristin, 14. “I would look at clean people and be like, ‘They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Beyond sheer numbers, the group was run with a “level of sophistication that until now has only been associated with heroin and cocaine smugglers,” according to the Customs source. Orgad’s group recruited poor families from Texas and Arkansas who would then be taken by lower-level associates to “local malls where they would be outfitted in conservative clothing like plaid shirts and penny loafers. They would then be coached on how to act when going through Customs at the airport.”

The group also employed decoys. “They would send a pair of girls in their twenties who wore tie-dyed shirts and looked as though they had just taken a vacation in Amsterdam,” according to the Customs source. A Texas couple working for Orgad brought a mentally handicapped teenager with them, but the ruse didn’t work – the pair were caught with more than 200,000 ecstasy pills in their luggage. Sometimes the decoys also served as monitors to make sure the smugglers didn’t make off with the drugs. To give their couriers a better chance, Orgad’s organization even booked them on flights scheduled to land during an airport’s busiest hours, says the source. “They wanted to send their guys through when our inspectors were overwhelmed. That proves their level of sophistication.”

Orgad allegedly maintained the kind of high life usually associated with cocaine and heroin kingpins. He had a fleet of luxury cars and, according to the Customs source, “was often accompanied by two women, usually exotic dancers.” It has also been reported that in the early nineties, he was an associate of Heidi Fleiss who helped her recruit prostitutes.

As Orgad awaits trial, Customs continues to bust his associates. On Thursday, four of his Texas-based smugglers were arrested, one for allegedly facilitating the transport of pills from Europe to Houston. A week before, a more important Orgad associate, Ilan Zarger, was busted for running what Customs officials allege was the largest ecstasy-distribution network in New York City. Customs estimates that Zarger’s organization distributed more than 700,000 ecstasy pills in the New York area over the past six months alone. The organization, which also included another alleged Orgad associate named Assaf “Assi” Shetrit, supplied ecstasy to a violent Brooklyn-based street gang called BTS (“Born to Scheme” or “Brooklyn Terror Squad”), who sold the drug at raves in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. Zarger also arranged for 40,000 ecstasy pills to be delivered to the Hamptons in April, according to Customs. Zarger allegedly charged his associates an extra 2 percent if they brought him anything smaller than a $100 bill, thought nothing of lending $100,000 to friends (as long as they paid him back in hundreds), and socked away $1.5 million of drug profits in a safe.

The organization, which Zarger himself claimed on wiretap was protected by the Russian Mafia, was unusually well run, according to Customs. “It would appear that he controlled all ends of the ecstasy business, from importation to retail,” says Customs special agent Joe Webber. The group’s reach extended beyond the New York area, too: Zarger allegedly threatened to have Sammy “the Bull” Gravano “whacked” during a price dispute.

As demand rises, ecstasy smugglers are becoming as diverse as those who use the drug.”We used to be able to break down the trade fairly easily,” says Murray. “We could put the Israelis at about 50 percent, the Netherlands at 15 percent, and the rest everybody else. But that ‘everybody else’ is getting larger every day. Our math no longer works.” Kelly agrees. “We’re seeing smugglers from incredibly diverse backgrounds,” he says. “Older people, younger people, black, white – it’s an across-the-board demographic.”

Thanks to sky-high profits, fairly light federal penalties, and the relative ease of smuggling ecstasy as opposed to cocaine or heroin (U.S. Customs finished training the first group of dogs to sniff out the drug only this March), many of those would-be smugglers aren’t exactly practiced criminals. In March, Joseph Colgan, the 33-year-old owner of the Minetta Tavern, was charged with masterminding a ring to import more than 80,000 pills to the U.S. from Amsterdam via Paris over five months. (He pleaded guilty last week.) His courier? Scott E. Rusczyk, a lawyer with the New York firm Kronish, Lieb, Weiner & Hellman.

Most couriers are less upscale. The Amsterdam-based writer Hendrikus Van-Zyp, 54, and his wife, Maria Van-Zyp Landa, 47, agreed to bring a package they were told contained a few thousand ecstasy pills to the U.S. in exchange for a trip to Aruba and $10,000 that Hendrikus told New York he needed for his wife’s bone-cancer treatments. “They had a good feeling about us,” Van-Zyp says now, speaking from the visitors’ room at the Otisville Federal Correctional Penitentiary, where he’s serving a five-year sentence for ecstasy smuggling, “because we were an older couple.” But when he and his wife were bumped from their original Amsterdam-Newark flight on October 22, their luggage remained aboard the plane. During a routine check of unclaimed baggage, ecstasy was found in their suitcases, and the couple were arrested by Customs officials posing as airline workers.

The Van-Zyps were carrying what was then a record seizure of ecstasy at a U.S. airport, but their loss probably put barely a dent in the organization that recruited them. “I think they put ten people on the airplane, so when they catch two, then they’re not out much money,” Van-Zyp says.

“I knew we were in trouble,” he says with a throaty, nicotine-scarred laugh, “when they brought the suitcase and I tried to tip the guy and he said, ‘Keep it.’ “

A good portion of all the ecstasy coming into New York ends up in the hands of high-school students, and not just young ravers, according to Caroline Sullivan, director of Daytop Village’s Huntington, Long Island, adolescent drug-rehab facility. “We’re not talking about kids in the club or bar scene – we’re talking about kids with ten o’clock curfews,” Sullivan says. “Their first experience is usually at a party or friend’s house. The feeling they get from the pill is incredible, and they want to replicate that experience over and over again, until they build up a tolerance for the drug. Then they start to take several doses at a time.” Sullivan says 85 percent of the teenagers admitted to Daytop have used ecstasy, an increase from just 20 to 30 percent one year ago (though none have been admitted solely because of ecstasy).

“Ecstasy has enormous appeal, but people crash afterward,” says Dr. Robert Klitzman. “If they’re doing ecstasy on a Saturday night, there’s ‘Suicide Tuesday.’”

At one elite private school on the Upper West Side, the drug “has become more popular than weed,” according to Laura, a 17-year-old who has done ecstasy several times and has a regular dealer. “Most of the kids at school do it. They do it at house parties or when they’re just hanging out, not really at clubs.”

The ecstasy scene at Bronx High School of Science “ranged from preppy kids to this kid who was in my Hebrew-school class,” according to Shari, a recent graduate. A few of her fellow students sometimes sold pills, she says, and when they were out, “we all knew this guy on 46th Street in the theater district who literally had boxes full.” Often, they took ecstasy at home: “I hosted my share of ecstasy parties where someone would walk in the room with 100 pills and they’d be gone within twenty minutes.”

Neither Manhattan teens nor several young Daytop Village patients from suburban Long Island interviewed by New York say they had much trouble finding the drug. “E was around every weekend – my brother played on a soccer team with my dealer, so I knew him well,” says Charlie, 16. “I’ve never been to a club. I was like, ‘Why waste money on the club when I could just save it for drugs?’ “

Leah, a 16-year-old who lives on the Upper East Side, says most of her friends do ecstasy and doesn’t think her occasional use of the drug will do her any harm. “I’ve had some of the best times of my life on ecstasy, and I’m not an addict, so what’s the problem?” she says. “For the Fourth, me and my friends took some pills really early in the night and then we went to Exit,” she explains. “When we got out of the club in the morning, the weather was so nice we decided to take a few more rolls. It was just amazing.” The club might have enhanced her high, but she’s not interested in becoming part of that scene. “It’s way too druggy,” she says, without irony.

“Kids who are going to birthday parties or hanging out at friends’ houses are doing it,” says Carrie, a Trinity graduate who says she was one of the few students at her high school who didn’t try ecstasy. “It’s the drug of our generation,” she says. “I know friends who are scared to do coke, but they’ve done E more than a few times.”

That attitude persists because “the jury is still out” about ecstasy’s addictiveness, according to A. Jonathan Porteus, a doctor of psychology at Daytop Village. “It’s definitely habit-forming, though. It becomes associated with certain things, like sex or dancing, and becomes a habit. You’ll hear people say, ‘To have sex, you need X.’ ” He pauses and laughs. “And some people can’t listen to Orbital without it.”

Whether or not the drug is addictive, says Porteus, “ecstasy is going to affect your ability to concentrate, you’re going to have more trouble feeling happy, there’s going to be a bit of spaciness there.” Because MDMA alters the brain’s serotonin levels, which control mood, Porteus also believes the comedown ecstasy users experience after a weekend of partying could last longer than they think. “There’s going to be a lot of people taking anti-depressants in the future.”

“Ecstasy has enormous appeal, but people crash afterward,” says Dr. Robert Klitzman, a clinical psychiatrist at Columbia University. “If they’re doing ecstasy on a Saturday night, there’s ‘Suicide Tuesday,’ a brief but deep depression. Still, teenagers are particularly vulnerable, Klitzman says, because “high school is an awkward time for everyone, and this is sort of the anti-rejection drug.”

Kristin, a shy, blonde 14-year-old with braces who hugs herself nervously while talking, began drinking and smoking marijuana at age 12, but neither drug had the pull of ecstasy, which she first tried in the spring of 1999. “I didn’t think it was gonna be that good, but once I tried it, it was like my life,” she says. “I couldn’t wait until the next time I did it, so I did it the next day.”

Like the club kids who proselytized about ecstasy (“Everything begins with an E” was a raver mantra), Kristin found herself E-vangelizing about the drug the way Timothy Leary’s followers extolled the virtues of LSD. “Once you do the first pill, your whole perspective on life changes,” she says. “Your whole view on the world around you, the way you look at people. I would look at clean people and be like, ‘What is wrong with them? They don’t even know what they’re missing.’ And I wanted to show people ecstasy.”

Though ecstasy is relatively expensive for cash-poor teenagers, Kristin says she rarely had to pay for it. “Most girls I know who don’t pay for their drugs had sex with the dealer and he’d give it to them for free, but it wasn’t like that for me,” she says. She got the drug by hosting afternoon ecstasy parties at her parents’ home.

On the drug, “if someone says something just a little nice, like ‘Hi, how are you?,’ you’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s so nice of you,’ and you’ll fall in love with them on the spot,” she says. But the bonds created by the drug vanish just as quickly. “I remember this kid who I was so in love with when I was on ecstasy,” she continues. “Then the next day I called him and told him to come over and he said no, and I was like, ‘Whatever, I don’t really care about you anyway.’ He wasn’t important to me at all – we just had that connection when we did E together. I call it ‘E love,’ ‘cause that’s what it is, really.”

After she began to miss more school, her mother read her diary and “saw a completely different person ‘cause every page was filled with ‘Oh, my God, I can’t wait till the next time I can do E,’ ” she says. She’s been enrolled with Daytop since the fall, but it’s still difficult for her to imagine life without ecstasy. “I give myself pats on the shoulder every day, like, ‘Today I’m clean another day,’ ” she says, “but it’s still constantly in the back of my head, because nothing can make me feel like that.”

“E was around every weekend,” says Charlie, 16. “My brother played on a soccer team with my dealer, so I knew him well.”

In the early nineties, when ecstasy was prevalent only in European rave culture and the few underground American clubs that identified with it, two outer-borough teens named Frankie Bones and Michael Caruso went to England to check out London nightlife. They were fateful trips: Bones was inspired to begin throwing raves in Brooklyn, and Caruso started Manhattan’s first techno party at the Limelight. Eventually, Bones’s “Storm Raves” planted the seed for the U.S. rave scene; the drug-distribution network Caruso allegedly ran at the Limelight gave the city its first bona fide ecstasy bust.

“We weren’t really even aware of ecstasy until the Limelight case in 1995,” says Brennan. Indeed, the DEA-NYPD joint investigation into the Limelight began only after police were contacted by the parents of an 18-year-old New Jersey man who had died from an overdose of ecstasy he had allegedly bought there. Until 1997, ecstasy wasn’t even a controlled substance in New York State.

By then, the drug was already old news in clubland – it had started spreading to the mainstream. “Law enforcement is always playing catch-up,” Brennan admits. Because it got such a late start monitoring the ecstasy trade, Brennan says, the NYPD’s lab doesn’t “have a baseline to start with in terms of assessing the purity of ecstasy pills” the way it does with cocaine or heroin. Lately, however, Brennan has been surprised to find supposed ecstasy pills that actually contain antihistamine laced with insecticide. “We’re seeing all kinds of adulterated substances,” she says. “You honestly don’t know what you’re putting in your mouth when you’re taking ecstasy.”

The current ecstasy explosion has made the market for fakes even hotter. “People don’t have qualms about what they sell as ecstasy,” according to Murray, “as long as people pay for it.” Indeed, when the NYPD used the nuisance-abatement law to shut down the Tunnel last year after a raid targeting ecstasy dealers there, only four of the pills that were seized tested positive for MDMA. (Tunnel has since reopened.) And as user demand builds for “brands” like Mitsubishi – a particularly potent pill illicitly stamped with the car manufacturer’s three-diamond logo – drugmakers are putting the same insignia on impure pills, much the way knockoff-makers sew Prada labels onto cheap backpacks.

But adulterated or weakened pills are the least of law enforcement’s problems: Smugglers are getting more sophisticated, and other organized-crime rings are competing with the Israelis. Several men have been nabbed at JFK wearing skintight bodysuits that held more than 7,000 ecstasy pills each; Customs officials have also found pills hidden in software packaging, stuffed animals, and secret compartments in carry-on luggage. In March, Customs scored its first internal seizure when it arrested a passenger flying into JFK from Amsterdam who had swallowed 2,800 pills in 70 condoms.

At the same time, “organized-crime groups are putting their feelers out” to the ecstasy trade, according to Murray. “There’s so much money to be made that these groups are saying, ‘Let’s get this going on,’ ” Murray says. “We’re going to see a stronger Mexican connection, a much stronger Dominican connection. We’re going to see bikers who were running methamphetamine labs in the Midwest convert those labs into ecstasy labs. We’ve already seen it in Vancouver. The only difference is you start with a different chemical.”

To combat the spread of the drug locally, New York state senator Roy Goodman issued a recommendation that a defendant be charged with ecstasy possession based on the weight of his or her stash rather than its purity. “We’re at the point right now with ecstasy that we were with cocaine in the seventies,” Goodman says. “It’s being passed out like mints by people who have no idea of its negative effects.” On July 3, New Jersey governor Christine Whitman signed into law a bill that would put ecstasy in the same legal class as heroin and cocaine.

“It’s worse in the cities,” says Dr. Mike Nelson, a physician at the St. Vincents emergency room. “But it’s also in middle America, because they don’t have anything else to do.” Congresswoman Judy Biggert, who represents the suburban Thirteenth District of Illinois, is sponsoring a bill to double the minimum jail time for ecstasy traffickers. “Ecstasy has been around for 20 or 30 years now, but we’re finally seeing it in the suburbs,” she says. “So we’re trying to send a message to dealers and traffickers – right now, the penalties they receive are a joke.” Similar legislation, the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act, has been introduced by Senator Bob Graham of Florida.

Harm-reduction advocates argue that under such laws, the least powerful people in the ecstasy-distribution business, the “mules” who carry the drugs, would receive some of the harshest penalties. “They’ll always arrest people like me – poor people and idiot people,” argues Van-Zyp. “The people higher up will make a lot of money but they won’t get arrested.” Indeed, ecstasy couriers are hardly an upscale bunch. The Customs source notes with some amusement that many of the mules recruited by the Orgad network used their $10,000 fee as a down payment on a trailer home.

Customs and the DEA have labeled ecstasy “agony” in order to raise awareness about the dangers of the drug, but unlike crack or cocaine before it, ecstasy seems to have negligible social effects. “Crack is categorically an addictive substance, so the crack epidemic was much easier for people to understand,” says Daytop Village’s Porteus. “Unlike crack or cocaine, ecstasy is the sort of drug people use to compensate for something rather than to fulfill a craving.”

“We’re at the point right now with ecstasy that we were with cocaine in the seventies,” says New York State Senator Roy Goodman. “It’s being passed out like mints by people who have no idea of its negative effects.”

While nearly every week brings the arrest of a newer, more powerful ecstasy baron who seems to have been plucked right out of the cocaine era, there hasn’t been the kind of gang violence seen in the late eighties and early nineties. “Ecstasy itself might not cause violent crime,” acknowledges Brennan of the DEA. But she predicts that “there will be a rise in violence associated with organized crime as a result of the ecstasy trade.” Some cities, like Chicago, aren’t taking any chances. In response to a series of ecstasy-related overdoses in the city (most of which were due to pills laced with a deadly drug called PMA, or paramethoxyamphetamine), the City Council there passed an “anti-rave” ordinance, which makes holding such a party punishable by a $10,000 fine. One Chicago police officer even vowed to the Chicago Tribune that “if D.J.’s know it’s dangerous to come to Chicago … they may think twice about coming here.”

But to those who use the drug, such moral panic is hard to understand, much less agree with. “I really don’t understand what the big deal is. Yeah, you might get a little too happy, a little too emotional; you might even say some really stupid, cheesy things you regret later. And yeah, there can be a pretty harsh comedown if you overdo it,” argues one user. “But compared to crack or coke? Please! When was the last time you saw two crackheads hugging?”