The Starck Club’s creators had set out to make the best club in the world, and for the five years the venue was open, it just might have been. Grace Jones and Stevie Nicks performed on opening night, immediately turning the club into a destination for people flying in from out of state or even out of country. Tom Cruise, Owen Wilson, Timothy Leary, Jack Nicholson, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat—not to mention George W. Bush—all partied there, along with some thousand to fifteen hundred people every Friday and Saturday night.
The lack of inhibitions wasn’t the only notable feature of the Starck crowd. There was also a level of diversity seen nowhere else in the Bible Belt.
The social lubricant that fueled this radical temple of acceptance was not alcohol or cocaine but Ecstasy—lots and lots of Ecstasy. “You have to remember, it was legal at the time,” Monica said. “You could go to your favorite bartender and order a beer and an Ecstasy.” She estimates that on any given night, 70 to 90 percent of Starck patrons were rolling, the colloquial term for Ecstasy’s blissed-out high. “The kaleidoscope of emotions that brought on was incredible,” Monica said. “It elevated people mentally, they were always happy. And the dancing was never ending.”
“They didn’t close,” said Michael Cain, director of The Starck Club, a documentary film about the venue. “They’d quit serving alcohol at two a.m., but by that point you didn’t need the alcohol. You might need another hit of E.” Ecstasy found its way to the Starck Club within a week of opening night, when the DJ Kerry Jaggers, a native Texan, brought a fist-sized sandwich bag of pills down with him from New York City.
Within a few months, “Y’all do X?” became a common refrain on the dance floor.
In 1981 Analysis Anonymous, a confidential mail-in drug testing service that provided results by answering machine, received the first sample ever submitted under the name Ecstasy. Until the early 1980s, MDMA had remained primarily in the realm of therapy and personal exploration by spiritually minded New Age types. These users tended to think of MDMA as a cherished and respected medicine, something to assist with transcendence, growth, and healing.
But as word spread, so did interest in more varied contexts—namely, partying. In 1987 Jerome Beck, now an independent drug researcher in Portland, Oregon, and Marsha Rosenbaum, the director emerita of the Drug Policy Alliance’s San Francisco office, secured a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to put together the first ethnographic survey of MDMA users, which they later published in a book, Pursuit of Ecstasy: The MDMA Experience. Academic researchers normally struggle to recruit people willing to be interviewed about their drug use, but Beck and Rosenbaum easily found a hundred MDMA users eager to share their stories. As they wrote, “A surprisingly difficult part of this phase of research was having to turn people away. Users were often not only willing but anxious to express their opinions and feelings about MDMA.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, MDMA, Beck and Rosenbaum learned, was popular among a number of diverse social groups and a wide array of professionals. Their sample included interviews with postal workers, jewelry designers, wine salespersons, physicians, carpenters, businesspersons, secretaries, teachers, and more. MDMA spread across college campuses, at first at schools typically associated with liberal values and then to more mainstream universities, where it became a staple of fraternities and sororities. The new drug also appealed to educated professionals in their thirties and forties looking for a taste of danger without the commitment or “fearsome existential challenges” of LSD, Beck and Rosenbaum wrote, as well as to those simply seeking for a break from the norm. As Gail, a busy thirty-seven-year-old lawyer, told the two researchers, “It’s like taking a vacation to Mexico for a week, only I’m going to do it in a day because that’s all I’ve got.” MDMA’s popularity among middle-aged, upper-middle-class people like Gail soon earned the drug the nickname “the yuppie psychedelic.”
“Taking the drug became akin to drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes—a mind-altering indulgence given a special carve-out.”
Gay clubgoers at places like the Saint in New York City had also readily adopted MDMA, frequently using it as a substitute for MDA. Somewhat counterintuitively, Deadheads constituted another early user group. Grateful Dead concerts had traditionally been associated with LSD, magic mushrooms, and marijuana, but MDMA—while not essential to the scene—became “a welcome latecomer to a time-tested menu of psychedelic options,” Beck and Rosenbaum wrote. “L&M’s”—a combination of LSD and MDMA, now known as candy flipping—became a new go-to cocktail for some Deadheads.
And then there was Dallas—a true mecca for Ecstasy in the early to mid-1980s. MDMA was popular among everyone from conservative Southern Methodist University students to “flash and trash” socialites, as one user described her cohort—those riding the wave of the 1980s oil, airline, and real estate boom. Dancers at Dallas topless bars also turned to MDMA to help them accept some of their clients’ “more gross behaviors and make more tips,” as one interviewee explained, as did gay male sex workers for creating good vibes with johns.
For many otherwise square Dallas users, the fact that MDMA was legal and popular among their peers gave them permission to partake. Taking the drug became akin to drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes—a mind-altering indulgence given a special carve-out.
Conveniently, MDMA could often be paid for with a credit card. One record store that sold it on the side rang it up as “accessories.” It was also available everywhere, from private “X parties” to spas that offered MDMA massages. Clubs and bars reigned supreme, though, as the venues of choice for taking Ecstasy. “Starck was one of a hundred clubs just in the Dallas–Forth Worth area that had Ecstasy being dealt in it,” Cain said. “It could be a Western bar, a lesbian bar, a gay bar—every different kind of bar had their own unique experience with Ecstasy. Because of the legality of it, everybody was open to it.”
Mixed in with all that fun, though, some Dallas revelers did experience “fortuitous therapy,” as Beck and Rosenbaum put it. Under the influence of MDMA, a thirty-six-year-old advertising executive, for example, realized that his marriage had fallen apart and “I had created this absolutely false life around myself.” Whether intentionally sought or not, this added layer of depth made MDMA more than just mindless pleasure for many people who took it. As Cain pointed out, “There’s no one who’s done cocaine or crystal meth who comes out of it and says ‘I’m a better person for having done that!’ ”
As demand for MDMA ramped up, so too did production. Chemists tended to serve specific crowds. A prominent early collective of MDMA chemists, the Boston Group, made more modestly sized batches of the drug for therapeutic, spiritual, and quiet recreational use. Producers like Lemaire and the Boston Group saw themselves as providing a vital service.
Members of the Boston Group also sometimes brought MDMA along with them on trips to places like Thailand and Bali, helping to spread the word among a more international crowd. But they did not produce on demand, and “droughts” would regularly occur when members would take breaks for lengthy vacations abroad.
“It wasn’t about making money, but about sharing a precious gift that had been bestowed on us,” said Debby Harlow, a Bay Area therapist. She became involved in the MDMA-assisted therapeutic community in the early 1980s and would go on to serve as one of its key figures during a pivotal moment in the years to come. “In those days, ‘one person touched two,’ as one of the Boston Group’s distributors told me. But we all knew it could be taken away if someone got greedy and went into mass production, or if someone wound up in the hospital, as later happened with the rave scene. We did not want to repeat what happened with LSD, so we acted responsibly: limiting how much we distributed and to whom. The people I knew in those days made little to no money from selling MDMA, although in retrospect, many of us gained profound social capital.”
“It wasn’t about making money, but about sharing a precious gift that had been bestowed on us”
— Debby Harlow
Echoing disagreements among LSD distributors two decades before, tension flared between those who wanted to limit access to MDMA to “intelligent, responsible, educated” users, as Beck and Rosenbaum wrote, and those who thought it should be “spread to the masses.” “The difference between ‘us and them’ is that in our camp, you were usually initiated by a friend or your therapist: someone who cared about you and with whom you had an ongoing relationship,” Harlow said. “It was a slowly growing social network of friends sitting for friends.”
But that changed, she said, “with Texas”—more specifically, when a man named Michael Clegg got involved with MDMA. The Texas Group, as Clegg’s international Ecstasy business came to be known, was almost certainly the world’s largest MDMA producer from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Clegg and his colleagues dominated not only in the sheer quantity of MDMA they churned out but also in the flagrancy with which Clegg operated. As Harlow said, “Our group of therapeutic, spiritual, and quieter recreational users was at odds with Michael Clegg’s vision, which was to ‘go big’ and build an empire.”
Clegg claims to have tried MDMA for the first time in 1978 or 1979, when he was forty years old. “My eyes opened up in a way I never imagined possible on the earth,” Clegg later recalled of that first experience. But he’d need assistance in seeing that vision through. In 1983 a knock came to the door of a Mendocino County, California, resident named Bob McMillen. McMillen had “a bit of a reputation” in the area, as he explained to me. For one, he lived in a castle overlooking the ocean. He had also formerly run a major marijuana smuggling and distribution ring that brought billions of dollars’ worth of weed into the United States, first from Mexico and then from Thailand.
The man at McMillen’s door was Clegg. He told McMillen he’d moved to Mendocino three months earlier. He’d heard of Bob, and he was here to pitch him on a new drug he called Therapy. McMillen was immediately repulsed. He was hooked on cocaine at the time, and the last thing he needed, he told Clegg, was another drug. But Clegg kept pushing. He even claimed that Therapy could sever McMillen’s relationship with coke. McMillen rolled his eyes and shooed Clegg off his property. But he did accept some reading material Clegg gave him about the drug.
Eventually McMillen wound up agreeing to Clegg’s offer, partly because he seemed so sincere—and also because he just wouldn’t leave McMillen alone. Clegg and his wife, Pauline, arrived at five o’clock one evening in a white BMW. The couple put on a new Deuter album called Ecstasy and draped a blanket over McMillen, who lay on the couch. “I was extremely dubious,” he said. “I didn’t take pills.”
After about twenty minutes, McMillen felt a chill. Suddenly the music “lit up like nothing I’d imagined,” he recalled. “I floated off in a wonderful euphoria for a while, then I threw the sheet off, sat up and said, ‘Sold! How much can I get?’ ”
McMillen agreed to help put the new drug out on the street. “We sold billions of dollars of pot, so I already had the infrastructure,” he said. But the first order of business, he insisted, was changing the drug’s name. “‘Therapy’ will never sell,” he told Clegg. He suggested Ecstasy, after the Deuter album. Clegg at first pooh-poohed the idea: he’d already printed labels for bottles of Therapy. But when McMillen sold five thousand pills in four days under the name Ecstasy, Clegg came around. So much so, in fact, that he would later claim that he was the one who came up with the name Ecstasy.
As he told Playboy, “It came to me: It was pure ecstasy.” (When I told McMillen about Clegg trying to take credit for the name, McMillen just started laughing; when I asked Clegg about McMillen coming up with the name, Clegg insisted that he’d called it Ecstasy from the beginning, adding, “Bob McMillen was the biggest liar I ever knew.”)
For a short time Clegg linked up with the Boston Group as their Southwest distributor. But he wasn’t happy with how the Boston chemists were prone to falling off the radar, or how they wouldn’t supply him with the massive quantities of MDMA that he wanted to sell. After he got his hands on the drug’s chemical formula (he claimed to various people to have been given it or to have bought it; in fact, it was published in the scientific literature), he found his own chemists to produce the drug in California. Within weeks McMillen had distributed MDMA “coast to coast,” he said. “This took off like an explosion.”
“This took off like an explosion.”
— Michael Clegg
McMillen set up a beeper with the number 1-800-ECSTASY for taking orders, and within a couple of months, he said, demand had soared to a hundred thousand pills per week. McMillen’s guy in Hollywood distributed it among movie stars. Others passed it out to people in the music industry, who “just gobbled it up,” McMillen said. “I got one testimonial after another, people were just unbelievably happy.”
Despite the hiccups, Clegg’s Ecstasy business grew to around twenty-five people. He started referring to them as the Texas Group, since his main partners were from there, and Dallas was becoming a major hub.
Although Ecstasy was still legal, McMillen knew enough about the government’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs to urge his associates to proceed with caution. (One member of the crew would regularly fly to Texas with a bag of twenty thousand Ecstasy pills marked “Rabbit Food.”)
Discretion was not Clegg’s strong suit, however. He and Pauline spread MDMA throughout the Dallas community by throwing Tupperware-style “XTC” parties at their Dallas condo and in lavish hotel suites. Guests would listen to a lecture about MDMA and be given a 100- to 125-milligram dose.
Based on his guests’ tendencies to want to dance while high, Clegg struck on another brilliant idea: introduce MDMA to the clubs. As Torsten Passie said, “He brought it to the discotheque, and then it became great.” Michael recruited distributors to hand out brochures advertising the new drug at the Starck Club and other venues.
It wasn’t just customers whose eye Clegg caught, though. The police began getting complaints about “this hippy-type atmosphere that existed with the introduction of Ecstasy into the Dallas metroplex,” Phil Jordan, the director of drug intelligence at the DEA at the time, told Cain in an unpublished interview. Ecstasy also came to the attention of then U.S. senator from Texas Lloyd Bentsen. The Democratic congressman contacted the DEA in 1985, urging them to schedule MDMA and put a stop to what he saw as a growing epidemic.
The DEA’s Texas office was primarily focused on methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. But when officers began looking into “that kiddie drug,” as some agents called Ecstasy, they realized that Dallas had become a major hub.
These developments were not lost on those using MDMA for therapy, who had been keeping tabs on the recreational situation in Texas, New York City, and elsewhere. As the party grew, so did their awareness that MDMA’s days of legality would soon come to an end.
From I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World forthcoming June 6th from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Nuwer. All rights reserved.