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YA A to Z: Designer Drugs, a guest post by author Anna Hecker

Today for YA A to Z we’re discussing Designer Drugs with author Anna Hecker


If you frequent raves or EDM festivals, you might sometimes see a neon-yellow table covered in candy, condoms, earplugs, and bright postcards. Get closer, and you’ll notice the postcards each name a drug, from alcohol and nicotine to MDMA and LSD. Flip them over to find simple, unbiased information: effects, side effects, and contraindications.

At this point, a volunteer might ask if you have any questions. If you’d like to take some postcards to share with your friends. If you want complimentary earplugs, along with a brochure on hearing loss. Sometimes, they may be able to perform onsite pill testing: a series of chemical reagents that can help determine whether a square of blotter paper really contains LSD, or a capsule of “molly” is a synthetic cathinone or pure MDMA. Given the proliferation of adulterated substances masquerading as “molly”, these tests can save someone’s night…or someone’s life.

Popular Drugs: Most Common & Emerging Drugs Among Teens

This is DanceSafe, a non-profit dedicated to promoting health and safety in the nightlife and electronic music communities. Consider them the librarians of the rave scene—gatekeepers of information, with the goal of disseminating it widely (on the ground, directly to its target audience) so young people can make safe and educated choices.

I’d been seeing DanceSafe around since I started going to raves in the late 90s, and was doing some volunteer work with them when I conceived the idea for my debut YA contemporary novel, WHEN THE BEAT DROPS. To say the organization influenced my decision to write this book is an understatement. I was inspired by the way DanceSafe tackles issues within the dance music community (from designer drugs to consent) without flinching or fear mongering. I wanted my book to do that, too.


hecker1DanceSafe in action (I’m second from the left)


“Designer drug” is a blanket term used to describe any psychoactive chemical created in a lab with the intention of getting people high. It gained popularity alongside the rise of MDMA (short for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, known as Ecstasy to Gen-X’ers and Molly to Millennials) in the mid-1980s, and has since been used to describe any number of synthetic opioids, psychedelics, amphetamines, and empathogens. Because MDMA and the rave scene are inextricably intertwined, designer drugs that claim to be pure MDMA are arguably the greatest danger to the electronic music community today.

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Taken alone, pure MDMA is relatively safe. In 2017, the FDA granted it Breakthrough Therapy Status for use in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It has since entered large-scale, Phase 3 clinical trials, with the goal of being on the market for clinical use by 2021. In Phase 2 trails, 61% of users no longer qualified for PTSD after just three sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. All trial participants had been previously diagnosed with “chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD,” and had suffered for an average of 17.8 years. By increasing feelings of trust and empathy, MDMA allows users to confront traumatic events in their past without the crushing panic and fear that usually accompanies these memories.

Infographics on Drug Use and Effects | NIDA for Teens

It’s no surprise that young people would be attracted to a drug that fosters trust and empathy while reducing fear. Adolescence can be brutally lonely: you feel like you’re the only freak out there and nobody will ever get you, yet have an oppressive, all-consuming need to fit in. The rave scene offers a potent antidote to these feelings: pop a pill, shed your fear, and find your tribe on the dance floor. For many young people, this is the community they’ve spent their whole life searching for. It certainly was for me.

The problem arises when underground labs and black-market dealers control the flow of unregulated substances to young people who are hungry for connection and may not have all the facts. MDMA is difficult and expensive to produce, so labs create synthetic analogues that may have a similar molecular structure but can produce wildly different effects. Dealers, in an effort to maximize profit, then cut it even further, with more or less anything they can find. End users think they’re taking pure MDMA. In reality, they could be ingesting anything from baby aspirin to bath salts.


In WHEN THE BEAT DROPS I wanted to explore the many sides of rave culture: the connection and bliss as well as the discomfort and danger. My protagonist, 17-year-old Mira, is a diehard jazz fan who dreams of attending a music conservatory for trumpet and composition. But when her older sister Britt comes home from college with a new look, new friends, and a new passion for warehouse parties, Mira sees an opportunity to reconnect. To her surprise, she finds herself falling in love with dance music, DJing…and Derek, a gorgeous older promoter who thinks he can make her a star.

But the electronic music community isn’t all sun-soaked festivals and kandi necklaces. Mira may be all about the music, but Britt increasingly turns to club drugs as an escape from her rage and grief. Instead of confronting her emotions, she’s getting high—and she’s not exactly paying attention to what she’s taking, or how much.

12 Signs of Teen Drug Abuse Infographic | Alcohol Awareness Month

As Mira struggles to forge her own place in this world, she also has to confront her sister’s drug use, and come to terms with the fact that not everyone is as well-intentioned as they seem.

WHEN THE BEAT DROPS is not, first and foremost, a “drug book”. It’s about family and friends, falling in love and finding your beat. But it’s impossible to write about the culture of electronic music without acknowledging the very real role that drugs play. My hope is that by addressing designer drugs within the context of a broader story, and showing the nuanced ways they both shape and destroy this scene, I can continue some of the great work of informing, educating, and, yes, even entertaining that DanceSafe has begun.


About Anna Hecker

Anna Hecker grew up at the end of a dead-end road in a rural town in Vermont, and moved to New York City as soon as she possibly could. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from The New School, spent ten years writing for ad agencies and digital publishers, and still dabbles in copywriting and sponsored content. When she’s not reading or writing she enjoys tooling around Brooklyn with her husband and son, snuggling with her fluffy bundle of glamor, Cat Benatar, or blasting soulful house and dancing around her living room. She is represented by Eric Smith at P.S. Literary.

Author Links:

Preorder: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781510733336

Website: annahecker.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/heckerbooks/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AnnaTheHecker

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AnnaHeckerAuthor


  1. Hi Anna,

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed When the Beat Drops. I felt that I could really identify with Mira, as I went through a few of the same things. Thank you for writing this book.


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