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Buenos Aires Clubs, "Labs" For New Synthetic Drugs

Argentina's electronic music scene and clubs are perfect venues for testing the country's latest illegal recreational drugs. The favorites then go on to the bigger markets in Europe.

Ecstatic crowd at a Buenos Aires club?
Ecstatic crowd at a Buenos Aires club?
Diego Geddes

BUENOS AIRES — Designer drugs are Argentina's novelty product. Ultimately, Europe is the major destination market, with the new synthetic products first tried out in the nightclubs of Buenos Aires, where there seems to be little if any will from owners or authorities to stamp out their use or sale.

You don't have to be a narcotics experts to know who has taken something and who has not. I compared two clubbers recently: a 20-year-old who seemed both excited and awkwardly lost, an obvious newcomer to the Buenos Aires electronic music scene; and a muscled 30-year-old girating in complete sync to the thumping beat of the music.

The difference was itself the passport to entry into this world — in this case, probably, taking or not taking an ecstasy pill.

Medics we spoke to say designer drugs are increasingly prevalent in Buenos Aires. While cocaine was the thing in the 1980s and 1990s, the first "raves" in the Parque Sarmiento ushered in the reign of electronic music, the companion of a range of new, synthetic drugs.

Globalization has allowed Argentina to produce the drugs currently in fashion in Europe. Doctor Hilda Montrull points out that there used to be a geographical division to drug use. The dominant drugs in Europe were those derived from opium, like morphine and heroine, mainly for Europe's proximity to production centers. In America, cocaine and marijuana prevailed — again for reasons of proximity and cost. Such barriers have "come down forever," Montrull says.

Argentina is the second country in Latin America in terms of ecstasy consumption, behind Chile, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports. Meanwhile, overall consumption has increased dramatically across the region. Statistics from 2009 showed ecstasy consumption to have risen from 0.2% of the population to 2.6%.

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Ecstasy pills — Photo: DEA

The seafront club where I saw the confused 20-year old — who was wearing a Heisenberg T-shirt, from the Breaking Bad television series — has a medical attendant at hand, as do many clubs. These places are open until 6 a.m., when clubbers take their party to an after-hours club. In addition to the weekend clubs, there are intermittent, larger musical events like the Ultra Music Festival or Buenos Aires Trance.

Smoking is forbidden inside, and there's not so much drinking going on either — and yet always non-stop dancing, interspersed with intense and brief conversations. "What did you take?" I ask the boy. "What's it to you?" he retorts.

Everyone is smiling, and the movement of bodies is uninterrupted. It is different from the traditional "craziness" of these places in the past. As the author Víctor Lenarduzzi wrote in his PhD thesis and subsequent book on the electronic music scene Pleasures in Movement, at some point — and especially with electronic music — the dance floor becomes desexualized, as dancing completely takes over. Dancing used to be a par of seduction. Girls would be asked to dance, up to the point of harassment, while the aim remained clear: sex. Now, he writes, "I would say it is post-sexual more than asexual."

Stomach protection

But drug consumption doesn't limit itself to dancing hours. The ritual usually starts early, when people get their first drinks and take a stomach protector to mitigate the effects of whatever is taken later.

It all begins with figuring out which pills to buy, often getting the most reliable information from social networking sites. You can read about the effects of this or that drug, ask moderators for expert opinions or advice, and ask questions you certainly could not ask your parents.

The more responsible forums do urge you not to take drugs in clubs, and only take pills that are tested. This is reportedly done through a simple procedure called marquis, which measures drug content through a chemical reaction.

Comments on forums also indicate that an increasing number are mixing substances, as Carlos Damin, toxicology chief at the Fernández hospital, observes. Like this user, for instance, complaining online: "I think it was the keta ketamine. I had a rough time, I was really out of it, uncomfortable, in a bad mood. I had no notion of time, images floated around my head ... I suppose I didn't sleep because before the yin yangLSD, I had taken a line of crystal. I was shaking a lot. I don't recommend it."

Much like the presence of medics in certain clubs, some see these discussions as practically inciting people to take drugs — even if supposedly in a "responsible" way. The official ban on drug use and sales in discos is so abstract it is practically non-existent. Not only would enforcing a ban badly harm the business, it would also be useless: These pills tend to be smaller than an aspirin and can be hidden easily.

When the music stops on this particular morning, people look tired after a night of uninterrupted dancing. They hug, though many intend to carry on in the nearest after-hours club. The kid with the Heisenberg T-shirt has long since disappeared.

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