By Mike Sula

The first people to stop by the folding table are a couple of dealers hanging around waiting for the doors to open. Superjack, the rave being thrown tonight at the Dolton Expo Center, won’t get started for a few more minutes, and they’ve got some business to take care of. One of them, a Sasquatch-sized guy in a T-shirt that says “Big Daddy Gear,” pulls out a knit change purse containing a baggie filled with white pills, and the three people sitting at the table man their positions.

Taking a tablet from Big Daddy, Michele Prindle measures it with a pair of calipers, calling out the millimeters to Steve Svoboda, who sits beside her recording the numbers in a black binder and drawing the image of a heart scored in the pill’s surface. “Hearts,” they’re called. On Prindle’s left flank, her boyfriend Brennan Dance leans forward and asks the dealer a question: “Did you get the pill here at the party or somewhere else?” Prindle balances a dinner plate on her knees and with a razor blade scrapes some powder from the heart onto it. She hands the pill back to its owner, then drops a spot of clear liquid from a brown bottle onto the powder. Everyone watches silently as it slowly turns to black flecked with red.

Prindle tells Big Daddy that his pill contains MDMA and some amphetamine. She stresses that she’s not saying if it’s safe to eat or not, just that it tests positive for ecstasy.

“At least I know I’m selling good shit, right?” he asks.

“If that’s the way you want to look at it,” she says.

Prindle is the cofounder of Chi-Town Kids That Care, a “harm reduction” group modeled on DanceSafe, the national organization that promotes drug safety among ravers and those who use drugs normally associated with the dance scene.

Street ecstasy, maybe more than any other black market drug, is frequently cut with adulterants like caffeine, speed, or dextromethorphan (DXM). In addition to free testing at parties and clubs, DanceSafe administers a national program where anonymous donors can send pills in from all over the country to be tested for MDMA or any number of the substances that dealers try to pass off as X. The results of those tests, along with descriptions and color photographs of each pill, are posted on the group’s Web site. Local groups can print the charts and display them at parties.

The Chi-Town Kids That Care table is set up along a wall of the dingy, sprawling convention hall, equidistant from the two competing PA systems. Big Daddy and his friend study the pill charts taped to the table. Big Daddy runs his fingers down the columns of colored pills looking for Candy Canes, but stops at a photo of a white Mitsubishi that came from Chicago last month and tested positive for MDMA.

“That’s from Max,” he says. “Max, you’re famous. Look what you did.” But Max has already wandered down to the entrance where kids are submitting to a frisk by security before paying the $20 cover. Big Daddy has more questions. Who tests these pills?

Prindle, who cofounded CTKTC in April with Dance, explains that the pills are sent directly to a lab in Sacramento retained by DanceSafe.

“Do they send them back?” asks Big Daddy.

No, she tells him. In about three weeks the results are posted on the site.

“Who takes all these pills?” he demands, getting suspicious.

“They don’t eat them or anything,” she says.

“Oh come on. You’re fulla shit. These scientists are getting fucked up. ‘Hey honey, look what I got in the lab today!'”

Everybody laughs. It’s almost ten o’clock. The DJs start spinning and the room is filling up. Big Daddy needs to move on.

“So my shit’s good, right?”

“It has the presence of MDMA in it,” say Prindle and Svoboda, almost in unison.

“OK. So I’m gonna send people over.”

“Yeah, we can test it,” says Prindle.

“No,” says Big Daddy. “I’m just gonna say, ‘Go ask them. They’ll tell you.'”

Svoboda thinks for a second. “Yeah, if we were to test it for them, we’d say it has MDMA in it. That’s all we could say.” But Big Daddy isn’t listening and he quickly disappears into the black.

“I never thought of that spin,” says Svoboda. “Like if you’re a dealer, actually swinging people back, getting your stuff tested, then using us as a second.” He ponders. “Here’s what we should do. We can vouch for one pill of his–that one that we tested. We can’t vouch for anything else he says.”

Svoboda, a genial, 23-year-old Web designer for Playboy, looks a bit like a relaxed Henry Rollins. He is the repository of a load of information on MDMA and other club drugs and what they do to your brain and body, and he draws upon this knowledge to dispel any number of crazy rumors that are brought to him at the table: No, ecstasy is never cut with heroin. No, PMA will definitely not intensify your roll. He’d make a reassuring doctor, which is exactly what he planned to be until three weeks before he graduated from Hamline University in Saint Paul with a biology degree.

“I was just standing there in the mirror shaving one morning and I realized med school is not what I wanted to do,” says Svoboda, who plays keyboards in a band and also spins as DJ Plexus. “I’m too involved in music. It sucked because I jumped through all the hoops and I took the MCAT and I did all the premed applications and everything else. I realized my last two semesters that I was working my ass off in school and I was completely freaking out because I had no time to do music. And I knew as soon as I went to med school that that’s what you have to devote your whole life to. So I realized it’s not for me and moved someplace with an awesome music scene.”

Svoboda says he spent more time reading up on MDMA research than he did on his own senior research project. “I was kind of looking out for the friends that I knew that were doing this,” he says. “I didn’t want them to hurt themselves.”

Whereas the plainly clad Svoboda bears little resemblance to the many candy- and plastic-bead-bedecked kids jiggling around Superjack, 25-year-old flame-topped Brennan Dance is a man of style. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the excitable adolescent who keeps stopping by the table–to Prindle’s great annoyance–to flirt and take his picture. Dance is a manager at a store in Orland Square Mall that sells music clothing and rave gear. He moved to Oak Forest four months ago when the company transferred him from the store he ran in Lafayette, Indiana, but he’s been going to parties in Chicago and Indianapolis for years. He met Prindle in Indy about a year ago at her first rave, and they started going out three months later.

All three know what it’s like to take a pill expecting an exhilarating trip and getting something quite different. In the past both Dance and Svoboda have purchased dud pills, and last December Prindle took something–she supposes it was ketamine–that practically incapacitated her. “It was bad,” she says. “Oooh, I didn’t like it. The weird thing about it is you can hear and comprehend everything around you. But you cannot move.”

“If you’re expecting ecstasy and you take ketamine,” says Dance, “it’s totally gonna mess with you.”

They’re baffled as to why anyone would want this kind of experience at a rave anyway. “I go to parties sober all the time,” says Prindle, who just graduated from high school. “I know plenty of people who are like, ‘I’m not going to a party if I don’t have enough money to buy my K or my pill.’ But I can totally go to a party and have fun all night long completely sober. I mean, yeah, by two or three I’m getting tired and I want to go home…”

“Until that bomb-ass DJ comes on!” interrupts Dance. “That’s what it’s all about, like, going to parties sober. It’s about the music, man. That’s primarily the reason I go to raves, because I totally enjoy the music. I don’t want to go and be all fucked-up on drugs.”

“You see 14- and 15-year-old kids walking around,” says Prindle. “Do these people’s parents know where they are? Do they know what they’re doing? They’re completely blown out of their minds on whatever substance they chose to use that night and they’re not even listening to the music. Why pay $20 when you can sit at home, turn on your radio, and do that?”

Last January friends of the couple started a harm reduction group in Indianapolis based on the DanceSafe model. They called it Indy Kids That Care and they set up booths at parties, passed out literature and condoms, and did free “adulterant screening” of pills that kids brought to the table. DanceSafe and its affiliates operate under the premise that no amount of prohibition is going to completely stop illegal drug use. By providing users with reliable information about which drugs do what to the body, and more specifically by determining that, say, the green triangle you bought in the bathroom for $25 contains not MDMA but a potentially sickening dose of DXM, proponents of harm reduction hope users make better choices about what, when, why, and how they choose to swallow. When Dance moved north he noticed that the Chicago scene had no such group, so he and Prindle decided to fill the void.

Prindle put a post up on a Chicago rave discussion site declaring their intentions and requesting volunteers. Svoboda responded the same day. That weekend he and Prindle attended a workshop in Indianapolis conducted by DanceSafe’s traveling chapter organizer, who laid out the harm reduction philosophy, gave a club-drug pharmacology primer, taught the proper testing protocol, and discussed fund-raising, staffing booths at parties, and how to take care of someone who’s having a bad trip.

“You can’t just say you’re DanceSafe,” says Prindle. “You have to start going to parties. You have to keep a record of your meetings.”

“It’s just like any charitable organization that has local chapters,” says Svoboda. “You have to prove that you can do your job.” They’re also expected to send in copies of their pill logs and reports on each party they attend. If all goes well they’ll apply for chaptership this fall.

Prindle and Dance spent about $100 of their own money on the pill charts, testing kits, and brochures detailing the fundamentals of ecstasy, ketamine, GHB, LSD, and speed. Then they started calling promoters to ask if they could set up at their parties. That’s the difficult part, says Prindle. “They’re hard to get ahold of. You can call them, E-mail them, and they might call you back.”

Though they’re testing ecstasy for adulterants, they’re not about to tell anyone that ecstasy is healthy. High doses have caused neurotoxic damage in lab animals, it often causes a depressive hangover, it may or may not damage the brain’s ability to process serotonin–but people rarely die from taking it. The most dangerous thing about it is the frequency with which something more toxic is passed off as ecstasy.

CTKTC’s first party was in Dolton on May 20, a week after Naperville teenager Sara Aeschlimann died after popping at least six paramethoxyamphetamine pills identical to the double-stack white Mitsubishis that until then had enjoyed a reputation for delivering a particularly desirable roll. PMA had previously been rare in this country, but those pills ended up killing two other people in the area this spring.

CTKTC tested 11 pills their first time out. Two were fake, or rather, contained no ecstasy, but all the rest contained MDMA. “A lot of people were wary at first because they thought we were just gonna take their pills,” says Prindle, but about 45 people signed the mailing list. Superjack is their second party, though they’ve made arrangements to set up at about a half dozen more over the summer, including one in Chicago on Friday, June 23, at the Rainbo roller rink on Clark.

With the Expo Center’s gymnasium-quality acoustics, the table seems like it’s planted between a pair of lawn mowers. Somewhere at the far end of the room a concession stand sells beer and $3 bottles of water. If no one’s at the table, all the testers see is darkness studded with a swirling constellation of glow sticks. There’s a guy at a table next to us selling the sticks, along with records, tapes, CDs, and Blow Pops to alleviate the teeth grinding ecstasy causes. He’s also got surgical masks for $5 and swipes of Vicks VapoRub for $1–a high price to pay for heightened bronchial sensation, but kids are buying it. He says that at one party the cops cuffed him, threw him on the ground, and broke open every one of his Blow Pops looking for LSD.

Prindle, who still lives at home in Indianapolis and whose father is a police officer, isn’t as worried that she’ll get in trouble with the law as her dad is. In any case, when she’s testing a pill she’s only in possession of it for a few seconds and technically she doesn’t know what it is at that point. She’s more concerned that a cop will stake out the table and bust kids after they get their pills tested. If a promoter is worried, she says, they’ll forgo the testing and concentrate on giving out general information.

“It’s perfectly legal to have this testing kit,” says Svoboda. “It could conceivably fall under a drug paraphernalia law if somebody were to try to pursue it. But basically we’re just sitting here with this little test to make sure that the stuff in people’s possession is what they expect it to be.”

“We cannot give them any advice that is not factual,” says Prindle. “We cannot give them opinions. We can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve had this pill and it’s really good.'”

Tonight there have been no signs of trouble, but they’re still a little wary. Earlier in the evening a group of curious security guards passed by the table. “So if I catch somebody here tonight on ecstasy I can come to you and you can tell me if it’s the real thing?” one asked.

“Uh, we can tell you if it’s present in the pill,” said Svoboda.

“You can’t tell by looking,” said Prindle. “It could be children’s aspirin. It could be ecstasy.” She stopped short of telling him they were testing pills, and the guards ignored the table for the rest of the night. “I don’t want to get kids busted,” she says after he leaves. “I mean, I would have if he came up to me, but if it’s gonna be the difference between someone getting arrested or not–that guy is more than likely not gonna come up.”

Later on a pair of blond women in their 30s stroll over. They’re wearing matching pink tank tops and candy bracelets but they don’t look like candy kids. One of them has a diamond wedding ring on her finger. Nobody says anything while they silently examine the pill charts and the disclaimer: “We neither condone nor condemn the use of drugs. Rather, we recognize that recreational drug use is a permanent part of our society.” Finally one nods to the other and they walk off.

Security is on the lookout. At one point a guard shines his flashlight on a kid sitting on the floor doling out a pill to a thin girl with big eyes. He gets hauled out of the party and I ask another guard if I can go outside to find out what happened to him.

“Why? What you got to do with it?” he demands, yanking me aside and forcing me to empty my pockets. Svoboda, who’s standing a little too close, gets the same treatment.

A lot of kids are thunderstruck when they see the pill charts, and they point out old favorites to their friends. “People ask me if this is the menu,” says Dance. A kid in a DARE T-shirt drops his jaw when he hears about the testing. “You’re gonna eat my pill?” he asks.

An older guy clutching a beer comes over and has them test a pill, a white marshmallow.

“Alcohol masks the effects of MDMA,” Prindle tells him.

“Plus it’s bad for your liver,” adds Svoboda, meaning the combination puts a double strain on the organ. The guy clutches his bottle and waits for his result. His pill “has the presence of MDMA in it.”

Many of the visitors are hip to DanceSafe, having visited the Web site or seen the group profiled on 60 Minutes II, and many are interested in learning more. They collect the brochures, sign the mailing list, and thank Dance, Prindle, and Svoboda over and over.

Prindle implores all of them for donations with a tin Curious George bucket and by the end of the night she’s collected close to $60. The group will use it to buy Blow Pops and testing kits to sell at the next party to raise more money.

There’s a warning taped to the table about the PMA that’s been going around. “You boil from the inside out,” Prindle says. “It’s not just from taking one. It’s from taking three or four. PMA has no medicinal value, which MDMA, in the beginning, did. PMA was made basically to fuck people up. And it does. And when you take four or five or six, it’s gonna melt you from the inside out. That girl that’s gotten all the publicity? She did seven pills. If you’re gonna take seven pills of anything you’re gonna know that something is wrong. You should think. The reason people keep taking more and more of the PMA is that they’re not feeling the effects of MDMA.”

A kid in a red baseball cap tells Svoboda that he was friends with Sara Aeschlimann and had plans to hang out with her the night she died. He probably would have eaten those same pills, he says, but he hasn’t touched any since. Svoboda says he wishes the group had been around a few months ago. Maybe they could have helped. The kid shakes his head and walks off.

In the end Prindle, Dance, and Svoboda scrape ten pills that night. All test positive for MDMA. Around three the party starts thinning out. The Vicks salesman crates his merchandise and leaves. Prindle heads over to hear Delta 9 spin. “He’s hardcore,” she says. “Just the way I like it.”

“Can you believe they’re selling alcohol here?” says Svoboda. “It’s such a bad fucking thing to be selling at a party where everyone’s rolling.” Dance slouches in his chair. The party will go until dawn, but at 3:30 he pulls up the pill chart and starts packing. A few minutes later they’re all out the door and headed home to bed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.