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Reporting from the rave underground: 5 Questions for drugs journalist Michelle Lhooq
Lhooq discusses psychedelic trends in the rave scene.
Michelle Lhooq grew up in Singapore, a country with notoriously strict drug laws — the Singaporean government has executed people convicted for trafficking cannabis and heroin. Drugs’ forbidden status in her home country only deepened Lhooq’s interest in them; after graduating from Columbia University, she wrote about the New York nightlife and became a music editor at VICE before moving to LA in 2018 to cover cannabis legalization. Now, Lhooq writes a newsletter called Rave New World, covering the underground drug and party scene. The Microdose spoke with her about trends in the rave scene.
Much of the recent discourse around psychedelics has focused on a regulated access or medical model. How are folks in the underground drug culture reacting to that — do they see that as compatible with or antithetical to recreational use?
Recreational or underground drug use has always included the language of healing — it's just a different sensibility than the medicalized world, which focuses more on quantifiable labels and diagnoses. In the underground it's more of a spiritual healing — a sense that we are taking these substances and working them through our bodies on the dance floor, often in a sort of meditative state, that creates a sort of catharsis that's so essential to living under capitalism. So I think that this healing discourse actually originated in the recreational and underground drug scene — it's just not bifurcated into recreational as just pleasure and if you do it in a clinic, then that's healing.
Have you noticed any changes in how people are approaching drugs?
There's more intentionality going into drug use in the underground — people are talking more about microdosing, and there's more moderation around these substances in general. There's been this huge surge in harm reduction and drug checking, because the drug supply has gotten so contaminated. The whole advent of fentanyl test strips becoming cool comes from the underground rave scene. People are realizing that doing bumps of white powder in crowded dark places is not very smart or very safe, and another result of that is an incredible explosion in drug delivery technology — everything from MDMA gummies to ketamine lollipops to ayahuasca tinctures.
There's also been more willingness to explore substances outside of the established classical canon of MDMA, mushrooms, and acid. One that’s really popular right now, especially in Europe, is 3MMC, which I've written about — it’s one of Shulgin’s innovations that has been around for a long time, but it's becoming trendy now in party cities like Berlin and London. I think that’s partly because people perceive cocaine and ketamine to be more risky these days and more likely to be contaminated, but also because these less common analogs are usually much cheaper, and people are having huge economic and financial stressors right now. That's always when analogs come up, actually — it's usually in times of great economic pressure. Generally speaking, there’s been destigmatization of these other substances. For instance, 2CB was seen as an inferior MDMA, but now it's sought out. It’s even more expensive than ecstasy.
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Why do you think that is?
There’s this bigger trend where people believe that drugs are becoming super commoditized and mainstream. When you have these ketamine clinics that are offering ketamine services through your corporate health insurance, it loses some of its edge, its power as something subversive or secret, as something that your boss would never do — now it’s like, no, your boss is has a prescription for Spravato from his doctor. It loses some of its countercultural sheen.
That’s also been causing an opposing reaction in rave culture: sobriety. Sober people used to be so marginalized; if you were a sober raver you were alone on the dance floor. No one knew how to react to it. But now people think being sober is cool, and we’re expanding the definition of sobriety to not be about whether you’re doing drugs or not. I’ve written about the idea of Cali Sober — it’s more of an orientation and a desire to channel a specific kind of energy associated with sobriety, and can even incorporate psychedelics as part of the healing process, moving away from substances that don’t resonate with you.
You’re currently designing a “shroom rave spa” in downtown LA with the magazine DoubleBlind where you’ll be providing legal psychoactives, like kava and cannabis, but no alcohol. Is this where the rave scene is headed?
It was scary to throw a party without alcohol, which I did for the first time earlier this year. I was worried people would be upset or uncomfortable not having that option. But we already know what alcohol at a party looks like — we’ve been doing that for decades. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to collectively create something different?
I think many people see this type of rave as a welcome reprieve to engage with a different modality of socializing. Different substances facilitate different vibes, especially introspection and grief, feelings that often do come up at a rave but aren't necessarily highlighted. There’s this culture of “we’re having fun, we have to be happy, we have to dance all the time” – but you can cry at a rave. You can go inwards and meditate or do breathwork at a rave.
Are people going to cry and do breathwork at your rave?
There will be at least two rooms — one will be more introspective, as psychedelics can be variable. People can often get overwhelmed, so this space will be one where they can be more introspective and intimate in the connections they make. We’ll also be providing facilitators and trip sitters, people who know how to hold space for people.
For this upcoming party, one thing I’m playing with is making part of this ambient space specifically a place for grief. I was recently at Burning Man, and one thing that really resonated with me was the temple — it was a beautiful space where people bring memorials to people who have passed, and they burn it at the end. It’s a place dedicated to grief and celebration of death in a festival / party setting, which is itself a celebration of life. You can’t have one without the other; that duality is also the headspace that psychedelics bring you to. You can’t have a psychedelic party space without having a space for death and grief as part of this sort of ongoing celebration of life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.