In September, three young men bought what they believed was Ecstasy from a green-eyed Hispanic female near the snack bar of the Cyberzone nightclub.
One of the men, David Steib, took what was believed to be five pills -- two at 1:30 a.m, and another three at 3:45 a.m. His friend, Santiago Jaramillo, took at least three pills. The other man, Roy Jenkins Jr., also took three.
Nearly two hours after Steib took his second dose of pills, his friends noticed that he was sitting in a corner of the club foaming at the mouth. When they brought him to his blue Escort, Steib went crazy and began kicking at the windows.
He died at Lucerne Hospital several hours later. Jaramillo died more than three hours later.
It turns out that the three young partiers had been misled. The pills they'd popped weren't Ecstasy at all. They were Paramethoxyamphetamine, or PMA, a deadly form of speed that overheats the body in doses larger than 50 milligrams (typically one pill).
The pair's death has sparked a lawsuit and the attention of Orange County government, which has moved to curb late-night clubbing, pitting authorities against young people who resent that government is interfering with their activity.
Some of those young people, those of the group Future Tribe Project, have a novel but controversial method they hope could prevent the deaths of partiers like Steib and Jaramillo. They'd like to go into clubs, or set up booths at raves, and test drugs to make sure that the drugs purchased are the ones intended to be consumed.
For instance, had Steib and Jaramillo had the opportunity, they could have been warned by Future Tribe members that their fake Ecstasy pills were in fact a toxic amphetamine.
"They'd be alive and breathing today," says Alistair McKenzie, 20, a Future Tribe Project member.
McKenzie is one of 20 members of the Project, a group of 20-somethings who came together in the winter of 1998 as a way to educate young people about raves and rave subculture.
The group hosts raves itself but is not a promoter. They don't sell tickets to their events, and they don't preach against drugs. What they do is stress the importance of raves as a way to bring people together, to share ideas, art, music and friendship.
"We're for total equality of people beyond race or nationality," says David Curiel, 30, the director of Future Tribe Project. "We're a global youth movement."
"Many people come to raves for drugs, sex and music," adds McKenzie, a creative-writing major at the University of Central Florida. "All of that is OK, but we're into spirituality and the spiritual aspects of raves. We don't go so far as to call it a religion, because that would imply dogma."
Future Tribe Project has allied itself with DanceSafe, a San Francisco Bay-area group that began testing drugs in clubs several years ago after PMA deaths in Australia and Illinois brought attention to accidental overdoses. Future Tribe members took a four-hour seminar from DanceSafe director Emanuel Sferios, who taught them the procedure for drug testing.
Future Tribe members, however, have yet to test their first drug. The political climate here is such that were they to try testing, police would arrest them immediately. In other areas of the country, DanceSafe has worked out amnesty deals with police departments. In Florida, law enforcement will agree to no such arrangement.
"The way DanceSafe looks at it, San Francisco is the most progressive area in the country and Florida is the most regressive area," Curiel says. "So we limit ourselves to education."
Indeed, according to Commander Bernie Presha of the Orange County Sheriff's Office, police had heard that members of DanceSafe were in the metro Orlando area and were seeking them out -- to run a sting operation and arrest them for possession of Ecstasy or speed.
"We wanted to see if somebody was dumb enough to walk up and test them," Presha says. "If they receive back a drug, that's criminal activity. There's no getting around that."
Presha says that drug testing is an inexact science with no way to assure that a pill doesn't contain rat poison or other toxic substances they cannot test for.
"Maybe somebody takes too many pills because he thinks they're safe," Presha says. "He's still dead. That puts [Future Tribe] in a liability situation. And it doesn't send a positive message anyway. The message should be, 'Don't do drugs.' That's it."
Local club owners also would be leery of having a drug-testing group set up inside their businesses. "I feel that it is wrong," says David Siminou, owner of three clubs -- Icon, Cairo and Zinc bar -- in downtown Orlando. "It is making a statement that it's OK to do drugs. But the drugs might be so polluted you don't know what it is."
Future Tribe members respond by pointing out that they are not pro-drug. They simply realize that drugs are a fact of life -- not so much in rave culture, but in all of society. And just saying no is often more harmful than providing information and testing.
"It's not just the ravers," Curiel says. "The college community uses a high amount of drugs. A lot of professionals use drugs. They don't have access to information that tells them not to mix pills with alcohol or GHB. That definitely is very risky. They have no access to information at all."
Future Tribe members aren't fans of Cyberzone, the club that most older adults currently associate with the rave scene. To Future Tribe members, the nightclub just north of Orlando city limits on Lee Road near I-4 is a "collection of people still left standing at 3 a.m. after being kicked out of other clubs," says Brad Lyons, 20, still another member of Future Tribe.
Adds Curiel: "It's just a late-night club. By no means does it embrace the philosophy behind the rave culture. There's no sense of community that you might get at a rave. There's no substance to it."
Future Tribe members point to their annual Phlavor of the Forrest Phestival in the Ocala National Forest, which the group recently hosted, as the way a rave can be done properly. About 800 people gathered in a clearing in the woods, danced the night away to electronic music, and left the next day after scouring the campground for trash.
The result: no ODs, no deaths, no emergencies.
True to its holistic "harm reduction" philosophy, the group passed out ear plugs, condoms and literature on transmittable diseases.
And though they're prohibited from drug testing, the group is happy to discover that many people have ordered testing kits from DanceSafe (for a $25 donation) so they can test their own pills.
"What we're seeing at the street level is that people are talking about testing," Lyons says. "People come up to me at a table where I'm working and say, 'My test came up this color. What does that mean?' That's a good sign. They're doing it on their own because we can't."
Says Curiel: "Unfortunately we're targeted as a scapegoat. But the drug problem is such a social problem. We want to teach kids to be more responsible. More pragmatic. It's not like kids want to go out and kill themselves. They just want to have a good time."
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