Take the E Train

Ecstasy is only one of the party drugs fueling the Cleveland dance scene.

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Tate wants to get rolling. And fast. He sucks on bottled water as he circles the bar at Aqua, the popular nightclub in the Flats. Under the strobe lights of the dance floor, he appears to be moving in giant bursts through the machine-generated haze. One moment he's at the bar, the next he pops up in one of the club's cozy lounge areas or "chill rooms," as they're sometimes called.

Soft couches and chairs, padded walls, and leopard-print flooring provide clubbers with refuge from the pounding bass and flashing lights of the nearby dance floor. It's 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday, and only a half-dozen people have come here to chill. The after-hours scene won't really pick up until after 2.

A few feet from Tate, a young couple recline on a couch. The woman -- an attractive blonde in a loose-fitting blouse, black hip-hugger stretch pants, and chunky black heels -- lies motionless. Her head hangs over the back of the couch, her hands rest on her bare midriff. Her companion pulls a contact-lens case from his black leather coat and removes the caps. He leans over the woman and begins waving the lens case under her nose. She inhales about 10 times, opening her eyes with each breath. The man then dips a finger into one side of the case and rubs his upper lip before placing a white painter's mask over his nose and mouth. He breathes deeply several times.

The lens case is filled with Vicks VapoRub, an ointment whose menthol vapors are said to enhance the effects of Ecstasy, an illegal drug popular among some club-goers who enjoy techno and other electronic music. The drug, typically sold as a pill, is referred to in club parlance as a "roll."

Tate is convinced by the couple's display that everyone in the lounge must be rolling. So he approaches another couple, squats, and cuts to the chase.

"I can tell you and your girlfriend roll," he says to a male stranger. "Can you hook me up?" Before the stranger can respond, Tate offers, "I'm not a cop or anything."

The stranger leans forward to hear him above the muffled sounds of bass and drum beats.

"C'mon. I know you can help me out," Tate pleads. "I could leave and be back in 20 minutes with rolls, but I just want to get started now."

An amphetamine-like drug, Ecstasy raises body temperature, increases heart rate, and produces feelings of euphoria and empathy. Some club-goers consume Ecstasy -- also called "E" and "X" -- to help keep their bodies bouncing to the high-energy dance music until 5 a.m. Some will become happy and overly affectionate. The twenty-something Tate wants some of this action, so he continues to make his case.

"I used to be a dealer, but I stopped after I became a father," he volunteers. "I just use once in a while. You should check out {Heaven, which has an after-hours club above Peabody's DownUnder]. I was there last week. It was packed. You could easily get E."

The stranger says he can't help. Tate remains friendly, shakes the stranger's hand, then disappears like a flash of light.

Dance clubs -- especially those that stay open past 2 in the morning, when bars have to stop selling alcohol -- are known around town as a place where some patrons use and sell Ecstasy, among other drugs. That reputation, fair or not, grabs the attention of club-goers like Tate, who rely on it enough to openly solicit drugs from strangers. (Most dealers, though, solicit buyers among their friends and won't sell to strangers.) The club-drug connection has also attracted the attention of law enforcement officials.

"We have collected anecdotal information that some hallucinogenic drugs are used and sold in some liquor establishments," says Cleveland Police Chief Martin Flask. "We have discovered some evidence that this is occurring."

Aqua posts fliers around the club, warning that patrons caught using or selling drugs will be barred from entering. Employees, armed with earpieces and transmitters, patrol the club for drug use. Nonetheless, the reputation persists.

"Some of us don't want to work there, because we don't want to put up with the hassles of trying to keep an eye on everything -- especially in the summer, when the boaters pull up to the deck," says one Cleveland police officer who works off-duty in the Flats.

Recently, members of the Cleveland Police Department's vice unit paid an on-duty visit to the club. According to an Aqua employee working at the time, undercover officers did not interrupt the music, but removed two patrons from the club and frisked them. "The cops searched the patrons on the outdoor patio before taking them away," says the employee.

It is not clear exactly why they were hauled away. (Flask says he does not have information on such an event. Club owner Gary Bauer refused several requests for comment.)

Within hours of the apparently minor incident, though, club-goers were trading stories that a major bust had left people scurrying about -- which only added to the club's image.

But Aqua's not alone. All the local nightclubs that play techno-style music -- such as Trilogy, Europa, Wish, That Groovee Little Nightclub, the Brillo Pad, and Spy -- have the same reputation.

Techno and drugs have been linked since the mid-1980s, when electronic dance music -- created in the States but first embraced in Europe -- took hold. The music's intense and repetitive drum and keyboard samples produce an almost trance-like quality, not unlike a drug trip. Promoters organized all-night parties, or raves, in remote outdoor spaces and in abandoned warehouses. Drug use became popular as a way to enhance the musical experience at these events.

When the music moved into the club scene, so did the drugs. Twenty-four-year-old Jason McKittrick, who attended his first rave at age 14, says the music first attracted him to raves and the club scene, but that drugs quickly became a part of the experience.

The combination of music and drugs was a powerful one for McKittrick, who took his love for the scene to the extreme. What for most was a temporary diversion had for him become an alternative reality. "Everybody has their escape," he says. "I enjoyed escaping reality. It is hard to explain."

McKittrick literally lived the rave and club scene in the mid-'90s. After graduating from Mantua's Crestwood High School, he bounced between Kent and Lakewood, where he crashed with music DJs and other friends. When he was 19, he moved into an apartment above the Mars Bar on Madison Avenue in Lakewood. His roommates and friends included local DJs.

Among his favorite hangouts was Trilogy, originally called Metropolis. One of the city's first clubs to offer techno-style music, Metropolis drew a loyal following, especially among the 18- to 20-year-olds, who were permitted to dance but not drink alcohol. The club wasn't -- and still isn't -- much more than concrete floors and brick walls. Its thumping music and flashing lights, attractive and eclectic crowds, and close-knit circle of music lovers made it a scene.

McKittrick supported his club lifestyle by selling drugs. He says he did business in the clubs only once. "I took a sheet of acid in Trilogy and sold it in an hour," he says. The clubs were places for his friends and music, not business. "I love music," he says. "I can listen to techno 24-7."

Not anymore. The music stopped for McKittrick on January 19, 1998, the day he began serving a 46-month sentence in the Federal Corrections Institution in Morgantown, West Virginia. His crime: selling large quantities of LSD.

"Sick Amounts" of Drugs

Although the club scene was a huge part of McKittrick's life, he was just a small part of the scene. He's in jail, but the techno beat goes on.

So do drug sales. The drugs popular with local users include several "brands" of Ecstasy, such as Mercedes -- a yellow pill with the car company's circular logo scratched on it. Like the car, the drug Mercedes is considered top-of-the-line. Basement chemists commonly counterfeit it, making it dangerous because of inconsistent doses, according to police. Keeping with the car theme, there's also Mitsubishi, a white pill bearing the automaker's triangle logo. Less prestigious sounding but available are other forms of Ecstasy known as Blue Dove and X-Men. One occasional user notes that there's a potent but less available form of Ecstasy known as Sassafras; it's a brownish powder that comes in a small vial. Prices of Ecstasy vary: in general, $20 for the in crowd; $25 to $30 if you are on the outside (cheaper if you buy large quantities).

Ecstasy, whose chemical abbreviation is MDMA, works like Prozac by increasing the presence of the brain's natural stimulant serotonin. Invented by a pharmaceutical company in 1912, it had been studied by researchers as a possible drug therapy, but was banned in the 1980s by the government because of the drug's potential for abuse. It has become to techno clubs what cocaine was to discos.

"It doesn't give you a hangover," reports one occasional user. "You wake up with a smile on your face. Your sheets and pillows feel so nice."

In addition to Ecstasy, the old standbys -- cocaine and LSD -- are still widely available. Some clubbers use cocaine to stave off the occasional sluggish and tired aftereffects of dancing all night on Ecstasy. A small packet -- about a quarter-gram -- that is popular with those rolling runs about $20. Typically, a half-gram is $40, while a Teenager -- a gram and a half -- sells for $100.

LSD comes in forms ranging from the traditional stamp to popular pyramid-shaped geltabs, which, dealers say, improve shelf-life and offer a stable dose. LSD was McKittrick's favorite. "I like LSD and Ecstasy. But LSD was my drug of choice," he says. "People usually eat one or two hits. People like me, I eat 10 or 20 hits. One of the last times I tripped, I had 27 hits."

GHB, or Liquid E, is also available. This odorless and colorless liquid, which produces feelings of euphoria, is often referred to as the date-rape drug; it's sometimes used to spike drinks because of its powerful tranquilizing effect. Legal to use for medical purposes, it's highly illegal when used as a recreational drug. Dangerous, too: Determining a safe dose is difficult, and as a result, people can easily become drowsy or nauseous and pass out. (GHB abuse has come to the attention of the emergency room staff at Lutheran Hospital, located at the top of the Flats. "We are seeing, on a fairly consistent basis, GHB self-induced overdoses," says spokeswoman Nancy Maurer. "About two to three a weekend." )

Less popular but available is Special K. Short for ketamine hydrochloride, Special K is an animal anaesthetic that is typically sold in white powder form, although its potential side effects, which include numbness and loss of motor control, don't lend themselves to dancing or loud music.

Drug buys, though not condoned, can happen under an unsuspecting club manager's nose. A dealer might stuff a small packet of cocaine in a matchbook, which is then given to a buyer, who then passes the seller a pack of cigarettes containing money. One enterprising young dealer was busted at a club this year for selling acid that was neatly packaged inside of chewing gum. He was nabbed after word got out that someone was selling sticks of gum for $20.

The efforts of nightclub management to check patrons for drugs don't impress rave promoter Brian Conti. "Clubs don't do shit," he says, adding that he is tired of people looking at legit rave operations as a safe harbor for drugs. "We have to cover our asses with events," he says. "Our searches are thorough. I try to prevent as much as possible. It affects me when people do this shit [drugs]."

Brillo Pad owner Doug Berg says drug use is not blatant in his club. "I've only seen money exchanged three or four times in eight years of operation," says Berg, whose club closes at 2:30 a.m. and attracts a hip Bohemian crowd. "If I see it, I throw people out."

While it would be impossible to speculate on the number of club-goers who use recreational drugs, one can get a sense of proportion by looking at the supply confiscated by police.

McKittrick says his drug business involved only three people, to whom he primarily sold LSD geltabs. One buyer was a man who traveled from Mansfield; the others were local. The drugs, McKittrick believes, found their way into Cleveland-area clubs either for sale or already consumed by club-goers. How much LSD was he moving? "Sick amounts. Thousands of hits," says McKittrick. "We were selling 3,000 hits a day."

The demand for the drugs, especially Ecstasy, continues. Last July 27, police stopped a major flow feeding Northeast Ohio. That's when a team of police from the City of Cleveland, Strongsville, Westlake, and the suburban undercover task force WEB executed a search warrant at the National Terminal Warehouse on West Ninth Street. There, they seized 28,000 doses of Ecstasy from Buffalo teen Samer Rizek. (A hearing on the case is scheduled for this week.) According to Captain Guy Turner of the Westlake Police Department, the 19-year-old was a courier in a chain that flowed from Toronto to Cleveland and to the surrounding suburbs. Rizek, he says, "was carrying way more than personal use."

Catching the Rave

The raves of the early '90s offer clues to understanding the club scene today. Ecstasy emerged during those early years of raves. Like LSD, MDMA produced an easily reached altered state of consciousness, one that stripped away a person's defenses and helped contribute to the rave scene's utopian goal of friendliness and openness.

As raves gained notoriety, law enforcement agencies took action. The ensuing crackdown killed off many of these dance parties. Raves were forced into the mainstream, where they are now organized and promoted like concerts, but where their patrons are searched for drugs. Underground raves still exist -- often promoted on the Internet -- but not in the numbers they did just a few years ago. (During Halloween weekend, the Cleveland Fire Department stopped a rave in a building at East 49th Street and Lakeside Avenue because its 700 ravers exceeded building occupancy.)

Raves may have lost their underground cachet, but their music, language, and imagery have insinuated themselves into popular culture. Soft drink makers, jeans companies, and even banks rely on their semiotics to sell goods and services. In Cleveland, the cultural impact was slow to arrive, but is now obvious at the clubs -- where rave accoutrements have become more of a fashion statement than a sign of drug use.

At Aqua, for instance, bottled water is as ubiquitous as Bud, even before the club stops selling alcohol. "Cigarette girls" carrying a tray of goodies sell Charms Blow Pops along with tobacco products. And it is hard not to be distracted by dancers waving fluorescent "glow sticks" the size of small candles. One needs only to look back to the early raves to understand the meaning of these accessories. Ravers on Ecstasy tended to easily dehydrate and therefore drank bottled water; they ate candy to prevent the chattering and gritting teeth that can accompany some drug use. Glow sticks, which leave fading streaks in the black light, added to the psychedelic atmosphere of the parties.

Long before candy and glow sticks hit club dance floors, McKittrick was hooked on raves. Then a large teen with bright red hair and freckles, McKittrick suffered from anxiety and a nerve condition that could be severe at times. If he became too nervous, he'd break out in hives, or his skin might blister. He was frequently upset by bickering between his parents, who later divorced. He sought refuge in raves, known for their communal atmosphere.

"There was a feeling like there was something in the rave scene that wasn't there at home," says McKittrick. "People were so loving and caring. People actually did care. When someone came and was upset and he was a kid in high school, I would talk to [him]. If I had a problem, they were always there . . . At a young age, I guess what got me was being at these parties with 1,000 people, and everybody is like one."

Because the raves were underground, McKittrick located them by relying on a network of friends and record stores catering to electronic music. Someone would tell him to buy a particular techno record, and when he did, he'd receive a flier about an upcoming rave or party.

"An expensive record -- that was like your admission," he explains. "They'd give you a slip of paper with an address. You'd show up at the address and park your vehicle. A semi-truck would come by every half-hour. There were beanbag chairs in the back, and you'd be driven around and pull up to a warehouse. We would start in Akron, we'd go to Cleveland, Pittsburgh; we went all over."

McKittrick began selling drugs at these parties, "slinging here and there," he says. At age 17, he moved out of his parents' home and into a small apartment nearby, where he stayed until he finished high school.

In May of 1993, just before his 18th birthday, McKittrick's life took a serious turn at a rave. There, a drug dealer in his early 30s, who was looking to get into the youth rave scene, offered to move McKittrick into the big leagues of drug sales with a pipeline of cheap drugs.

"The cocaine that was coming in was so cheap and sooo good," McKittrick says. "Pink Peruvian flake and white Peruvian flake. He said he could get me a pound of weed for $400 bucks."

He says drugs were such a part of the rave scene, some promoters organized dealers, assigning which drugs they would sell. McKittrick says the number of underground parties dropped off when "the Feds starting throwing them."

Despite the "hook-up," McKittrick says he kept a low profile. "I blew all my money," he says. "I was not materialistic. I could live out of my backpack."

But for a while, his business translated into thousands of dollars a day. The cash flow, however, dried up just months before his 22nd birthday, when agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration began investigating an LSD ring operating in Northeast Ohio -- the same chain of dealers that McKittrick operated within. The DEA had a cooperating source that fingered McKittrick; that source was one of McKittrick's three buyers. On March 4, 1997, the source purchased 300 pyramid-shaped geltabs of LSD from McKittrick and learned that McKittrick obtained the LSD from another dealer named Jonathan Williams. The source then arranged to purchase 1,000 more doses later that day. Shortly after the second purchase was made, federal agents raided McKittrick's Lakewood apartment.

McKittrick pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute LSD, as did Williams, who also is serving 46 months in Morgantown. As part of the same investigation, DEA agents arrested Lamarr Wiggins, who was McKittrick and Williams's supplier, and Wiggins's supplier, Joseph Powers. Between the four of them, 6,300 doses of LSD were seized.

The minimum-security prison where McKittrick spends his days is 200 miles and light years away from the pulsating, music-filled clubs where he once spent his nights. There is no techno among the prison's music collection. Once in a while, though, he can catch club music broadcast on nearby West Virginia University's campus radio station. During social hours, McKittrick and fellow inmates can entertain themselves with Monopoly, Scrabble, and other board games.

Mostly, his days are quiet, filled with reading (science fiction and fantasy), computer classes, and work. He receives few visits from family and friends, though he stays in touch with them by mail and telephone. He has had a lot of time to reflect on his life and, perhaps surprisingly, has concluded that he wouldn't change a thing.

"Everything I did, I did for a reason," he says. "I made a choice to get into the rave scene and sell drugs. I have to live with that. At the time I thought I made the right choice. I had some of the best times of my life. I don't think I will be able to duplicate those times. I can't physically and mentally see doing it."

Still, there's a longing in his voice for the bright lights and the high times. The club scene has meant more to McKittrick than most people can fathom. No matter that he took it to the extreme and landed in jail. It gave him an identity, it calmed his nerves, and it energized him at the same time. "When I first came here and couldn't listen to music here, I was going nuts, because music is how I relax," he says. "Music has taken me places drugs can't take me.

"I will definitely go back to the club. I won't lie to you. I won't necessarily do drugs. But I'll go back, because there is too much there that is missing in my life."

For McKittrick, the music hasn't stopped forever. It's only on pause.

Mark Naymik can be reached at [email protected].

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