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A Very Serious Party

Every few months in Chicago, people from all walks of life dress up in costumes, listen to electronic music … and try an assortment of black-market drugs in pursuit of the consummate high.

T he elevator doors open, and Jordan greets me with a smile, dressed for a Fourth of July party that looks like it’s cohosted by Buckaroo Banzai and Penthouse. He wears a cowboy hat over an American flag bandanna, gold Elvis glasses, a flag tie and suspenders (but no shirt), glittery red polyester pants, a leather belt with a bald eagle buckle, black cowboy boots, and a necklace with a diamond-encrusted pendant of the “100” emoji hanging off it.

We go up to a fourth-floor apartment in a mid-rise condo in River West with a view of the gleaming skyline. This is the site of Freedom vs. Tyranny: A Very Serious Party. It’s not all that different from a dinner party, except the host serves reality-shattering drugs instead of roast chicken and Chianti.

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For the past four years, Jordan (not his real name) has been hosting various iterations of this gathering. What happens at them has occurred for centuries: People take drugs. What’s unusual is the variety of substances — namely, tryptamines (like psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms), entactogens (like MDMA, or molly, the primary agent in ecstasy), and dissociatives (like ketamine and PCP) — and the way participants combine them to create unique experiences. In fact, part of the appeal of Jordan’s parties is that he customizes your experience based on what you want to feel and how intensely you want to feel it. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure drug trip, with Jordan as an underground scientist and partygoers as his guinea pigs. It should be pointed out that Jordan has no formal pharmaceutical education. By day, he is an IT consultant.

The parties take place every few months at various locations, most often an apartment. Jordan does little in the way of decorating, aside from the lighting — usually electric purple, magenta, and blue, augmented by squiggles of hot pink, bursts of red, and other projections that move around the rooms. He programmed the music for tonight’s party, using DJ sets from Burning Man that make you wonder how anybody spends more than a day at Burning Man.

Participants dress up for A Very Serious Party gatherings, and the costumes are outrageous. At Freedom vs. Tyranny, one person has on a long white wig and an American flag top hat, bow tie, and pins. The “tyrannical” getups are even odder. One longtime attendee we’ll call Mr. Green Jeans (he specifically requested this alias) arrives dressed as Putin, galloping in gregariously on a hobbyhorse and wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, pink pants, and no shirt.

This particular party is a bit of an aberration. About 20 people show up, whereas in the past, Jordan kept it to no more than 10 and as few as four. The bigger size “kind of breaks the intimacy of it,” he admits. Additionally, a number of the guests are relatively inexperienced drug users — one person had only ever smoked pot.

They range in age from their early 20s to early 50s (Jordan is in his late 40s) and have sundry professions. They include, in more or less arbitrary order: a gallery owner; a physical therapist; a Montessori teacher; an artist and his girlfriend; a photo archivist; a business manager for a creative agency; a chemist; a hedge fund operator; a veterinary technician; a musician; a standup comedian and sex worker from San Francisco who occasionally flies in for these parties and the Bay Area couple (whose jobs I never learn) she brought with her; and a photographer and her boyfriend, the latter preferring not to reveal his occupation or, for that matter, his face, which is covered in a black leather mask.

He’s not the only one in his Saturday weirdest. One young woman wears a yellow lace dress, her long blond hair pinned back, looking like a folksinger from the ’60s. The chemist has on reflective sunglasses, a black leather hat with gold chains, black knee-high lace-up boots, and a T-shirt that says “Party Animal.” The vet tech sports a neon-green-and-purple crown, a red leather skirt, and stockings with guns on them.

Once everyone arrives at the apartment, which belongs to a participant, they gather around a large table in the kitchen covered in tiny American flags and fake money. Initially, the plan was to go with a Seven Deadly Sins theme. But Jordan changed it once he realized the party would happen near the Fourth of July. Still, there are remnants of the original theme — slips of paper on the table with names of sins on them, accompanied by brief descriptions from Wikipedia.

Jordan gives an introductory spiel: He’s been holding these parties for a few years, with the purpose of helping people connect with one another in an intimate setting. He has a number of substances available, so whatever kind of experience you want, he will try to make it happen for you. He also has magnesium, in case you spend too much time moving your jaw or biting your tongue, and benzodiazepines, if you want to cool down. He reminds everyone to drink plenty of water and not too much alcohol, though a little is fine to take the edge off.

Jordan pulls out a backpack and extracts from it the following: some small jars with various powders in them; a metal box about the size of an Altoids tin, full of empty gelatin capsules; and a digital scale. As the guests file along, he asks them a handful of questions — about their medical and drug history and whether they want to “trip,” or hallucinate — then measures the appropriate powders on the scale and pours them into the capsules.

He starts the newcomers off with more common psychoactive substances — “really fucking great molly,” in his words — at relatively high doses, around 110 milligrams. Other people get more, as much as 140 milligrams. And a select few are given designer drugs, such as 4-HO-MET, which Jordan describes as “mushrooms times 10, without any of the headspace,” and 2C-B, which he calls “baby acid.” (In order to report this story accurately, I do not consume any of these drugs.)

Once everyone has their servings, they raise their pills in a toast and throw them down the hatch.

All that’s left to do is wait.

 

P erhaps the reason Jordan is hell-bent on testing the elasticity of the human mind is that he once experienced the obliteration of his own. In the mid-1980s, when he was 15, he heard about acid. “I really want to do that. I want to like feel like I’m on the moon,” he remembers thinking.

Jordan never reached the moon. He went to his local arcade and bought 10 hits of LSD from a dealer. “He tells me, ‘Only take a half of one of these, they’re really strong,’ ” Jordan recalls, “and I go, ‘OK, cool, whatever.’ You see where this story’s going.” He had some friends over to his house and they each took half a hit, but after 10 minutes Jordan didn’t feel anything, so he had another half, and so on. Shortly after he dropped his seventh dose, he remembers half an hour in which “the whole world erupted into life.” Then he promptly blacked out. When he came to, he was strapped to a gurney in an emergency room. “Long story short, I had a psychotic break and attacked everyone, fought the cops, was hogtied in the back of a police wagon.”

The ordeal was so traumatic that Jordan didn’t do drugs again for 20 years. Before his bad trip, he’d enjoyed smoking pot, but when he tried doing it again, it would trigger an extreme anxiety he’d never endured before. Even without drugs, he would have panic attacks, an aftereffect from his acid meltdown.

During his sober stretch, he went to college and graduate school, met a woman, started a family, and built up a fairly lucrative tech career. But eventually he experienced a midlife crisis and, with it, anxiety. “I just hadn’t ever really lived,” he says, “and I kind of wanted to confront this.” Unhappy in his marriage, he got divorced.

He was determined to find a remedy for his frayed nerves. He decided to try pot again. After five years of that, he felt ready to try something stronger. He’d been reading about MDMA and was curious, so he procured some to take with his new girlfriend. “When it finally kicked in, the clarity and lucidity and ability to process things was exactly what I had been looking for,” he says. “Panic attacks were gone, anxiety pretty much gone, plus all these other benefits of processing all these other experiences in my life and really coming to understand honesty and connection.”

He returned to LSD, microdosing at first. Then, at a festival, he took a bit more, half a hit. “It was a pretty good experience, like being completely interconnected with everyone around me and being blown away by it.” But he also sensed undercurrents of his bad trip years earlier, like he was on the fringe of losing control. “I remember thinking, I don’t need any more than this. I feel like I’ll get lost if I take more than that.”

Money burning illustration

Afterward, Jordan pursued psychedelic drugs with the fanaticism of a religious convert. He came across a Gawker post about Silk Road with the very 2011 headline “The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable.” What he found there was an eBay for drug freaks, where virtually every substance was available to be delivered to your front door. Jordan was tech savvy, so setting up encryption services and Tor — the data-encrypting web browser needed to access the now-defunct Silk Road — was no problem, nor was acquiring then-exotic bitcoin.

By 2014, Jordan had broken up with his girlfriend and met another woman — I’ll call her Natasha — on OkCupid. On their early dates, he professed his new embrace of psychedelics and said he’d discovered some drugs he’d never heard of before, with names that conjured chemical compounds. Natasha was familiar with them. Not only had she tried psychedelics as extreme as DMT — the main psychoactive component of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew — but she also owned two books that described in detail many of the drugs Jordan mentioned: PiHKAL (which stands for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved”) and TiHKAL (“Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved”). They were written by the vanguard pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin and his wife, Ann Shulgin. The onetime Dow Chemical employee, who died in 2014, was most famous for introducing MDMA to the general public, but he also synthesized hundreds of lesser-known psychedelic drugs.

Jordan devoured the books. Every time he came across a psychedelic in them that sounded interesting, he’d go online to see if it was available. When it was, and when the source seemed legit and widely tested by Silk Road customers, Jordan would order a fairly large amount of it, but not enough to be detected by authorities. “Typically, they don’t bust you unless you’re over 100 grams of something,” he says. The shipments, mostly from China or Europe, ordinarily arrived vacuum-sealed inside a flat Mylar envelope, making them look less suspicious than a bulk supply of drugs.

Over the next year, Jordan and Natasha tried just about any drug they could get their hands on via the dark web. Many of the compounds Jordan ordered were made in foreign research labs and were variations of more common psychedelic compounds. For example, 2C-B has some of the same chemical properties as mescaline, a hallucinogen; MXE is similar to ketamine, an anesthetic. (Natasha describes an MXE high as like being on a movie set or in a fairy tale.) Jordan was also deeply interested in MDA, which is like molly but with a hallucinatory edge. Eventually, he accumulated a tiny pharmacy.

With so many substances at his disposal, Jordan went about making his own compounds. His first concoction, which he named Labrat, was based on a formula he found on Reddit. It consisted of 5-MAPB, or “molly lite,” as Jordan calls it; 2-FMA, a stimulant; and 5-Meo-MiPT, or moxy, a psychedelic. “The 5-MAPB gives you some of the empathy of MDMA, the 2-FMA gives you the push and the energy, and the 5-MeO-MiPT gives tactile sensations,” Jordan says. In essence, he was trying to create the perfect drug — one that would give you the maximum psychedelic experience while avoiding the psychological downsides that plague bad trips.

Its first real trial was a gathering that took place in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest in the summer of 2015. Although the drug didn’t quite achieve the balance Jordan was seeking, he decided to make the party a recurring event.

Jordan conceived of these gatherings not only as a testing ground for his psychoactive combinations but also as communal bonding and amateur therapy sessions. Just as he found that molly had cured his anxiety and panic attacks, he believed that going to these parties — rather than out clubbing — would maximize the effect of the drugs and lead others to similar psychological breakthroughs. “It’s about understanding other people better,” he says, “and then having a great time and seeing the results of that and being able to look back and go, Wow, I remember before I did that and how different I am today.”

Jordan wants participants to lose their inhibitions and abandon the second-guessing of their everyday lives. That’s one reason he gives each party a theme, often a self-consciously absurd one, and employs the sarcastic A Very Serious Party tag line. “We’re taking on these characters, playing these roles, and having this crazy time with it.”

One party, in 2016, was called Who Stole the Nihilist’s Soul? The inspiration came from mystery theater and Clue, but despite Jordan’s enthusiastic and expansive description, I have a hard time following exactly what took place. “We had characters we drew out of a basket,” Jordan tries to explain. “We had an Easter Bunny. There was a local politician. The nihilist was just himself. We were kind of putting each other on trial. We had these cards, and supposedly the nihilist had written down on one of them who did the crime and handed it out. So eventually we figured out he didn’t write on anybody’s, and he was playing us. And then we were like, ‘You know what? We should just burn all of these. We just don’t wanna know who stole his soul.’ ”

It’s this kind of communal experience, Jordan asserts, that forms a lasting bond among guests, even when it’s built around a silly parlor game. “We were all very sharp and witty and were making references to things we made a joke about two hours earlier and laughing so hard we were crying. I’ve had a couple things come out of it that I carry to this day, that are inside jokes between us that we can use to mess with each other.” Jordan believes that humor abets psychological breakthrough. “As it went on, there was this deep philosophical undercurrent that we were all kind of going through, and it was fascinating to see how each person processed this. Do we have a soul? And what is consciousness? We were having these profoundly interesting philosophical conversations.”

Anyone reading this is probably thinking it sounds exactly like the banal nonsense people always contemplate when they take psychedelics. But Jordan insists he’s had genuinely life-altering insights. Still, it’s hard for him to articulate the power of what he experienced in the moment. “I wish I could give you an example. I do remember one moment where everything was so synchronous and so perfect, and I was just like, This is such evidence of the profundity of what we’re doing.”

 

T he most awkward part of these parties is waiting for the drugs to kick in. That’s when a bunch of dead-sober people have to bond without the aid of the substances that will have them eagerly hugging each other in a couple of hours. Having just consumed their pills, at about 10:30 p.m., everyone at Freedom vs. Tyranny stands around uncomfortably, shooting side-eyed glances. Someone puts Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on the hi-fi, and gradually people break off into small groups for getting-to-know-you banter. In the living room, there is, for some unexplained reason, a chair on wheels, and the guy visiting from the Bay Area rides around on it.

He soon stops. The 4-HO-MET he took clotheslines him onto the couch, where he stares into space. When I ask him what he is feeling, he describes it as akin to the beginning of a mushroom trip but “super strong.” He describes some visual effects, things on the walls snaking around, but says his sense of space and gravity is thrown off, making it hard to move.

After eating some food, Melissa (not her real name), the standup-slash-sex-worker from San Francisco, who took the same amount of 4-HO-MET that’s currently obstructing all of her friend’s motor functions, decides she wants to take a nap. I tell her that the thought of waking up only to find yourself tripping is unfathomably scary. She shrugs and heads to the bedroom.

One by one, you can see the drugs taking hold. The artist and his girlfriend feel overwhelmed by the molly, which they’d never done before, so they go into a different bedroom to lie down. The Bay Area couple are staring into each other’s eyes. The hedge fund operator, who was wearing a soccer shirt and jeans earlier in the night, now has on a shiny silver button-up shirt and long purple wig; people keep complimenting him on how good he looks. Jordan summons everyone to the rooftop so they can pour wax on Mr. Green Jeans’ bare chest. There’s a deck up there, with couches surrounding a gas-powered fire pit. The flames rise, and everyone takes a seat, passing around neon rings that they place on their heads.

The physical therapist is eating handfuls of pretzel chips and complaining that she doesn’t feel high. But after a few minutes, she tells me she feels it coming on, then promptly heads back down to find her husband, the Montessori teacher. He is in the living room looking out of a telescope, likewise griping that his pill doesn’t seem to be working. “Trust me, it works,” says his wife.

I go back up to the roof, where everyone is splayed out on the couches, lying on top of one another, caressing and cuddling. The only exception is the Bay Area couple, who are more or less silently staring at the skyline.

The physical therapist returns to the roof wearing an Afro wig. She approaches me and says, “This feels amazing.” Then she grabs my notebook out of my hands and asks for my pen. She flips to a blank page and draws a mandala that looks like it was inscribed by a Spirograph.

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I head back downstairs to use the bathroom and find Melissa leaning over the kitchen table, burning fake money and cutting up one of the candles with a knife. She complains that she isn’t tripping and asks how my story is going. I tell her I don’t really know because it hasn’t ended yet, to which she replies: “I feel like I understand the story that’s happening, and all the different parts” — a statement that makes me think she’s mistaken about the effectiveness of the drugs.

We go upstairs and she plops down on a couch next to Natasha, who starts gently rubbing her hair. I take a seat on the other side of Natasha, and right when I do, the business manager approaches and loudly asks, “What are you writing in that notebook?” There is an awkward silence and everyone stares at me, but then the business manager laughs and everyone joins her. I pretend to get the joke. The vet tech, in a poor attempt at reassurance, turns to me and says, “Just remember, don’t deny anything ever.”

 

I n recent years, there’s been renewed interest in the field of psychedelics. Most notably, Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, released last year, documents the history of these drugs, their therapeutic potential, and even the author’s own experiences with psilocybin, LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT, which is extracted from a Sonoran Desert toad’s venom. But little has been written about the synthetic analogs — lab-generated variations on more common drugs — that Jordan and his guests take, outside of Shulgin’s books and academic research papers. When I ask Jordan if he worries about the short- or long-term consequences of taking these substances, he laughingly dismisses such concerns. “Do you ever really know?” he says.

He goes on to note that most analogs aren’t all that different from the drugs they’re closely associated with. “You’re relying on the fact that they are very similar chemical compositions. All you’ve done is taken this oxygen chain and replaced it with a fluoride chain, or something like that. There’s a lot of chemists out there who evaluate these things and say, ‘Oh, this one is probably dangerous and here’s why, and this one could be carcinogenic and here’s why,’ and so you steer clear of those.”

Gauging those risks is not as easy as Jordan makes it sound. Charles Nichols is a professor of pharmacology at Louisiana State University, and part of his research involves examining the effects of psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA, as well as their analogs. He has heard of many of the substances Jordan provides at his parties, calling them “variations on the same themes.” But he hasn’t been able to establish their neurological effects. The reason, ironically, stems from their recreational use. “Say I would really like to get a variation on this chemical, but it turns out it’s been on the dark market for the last year and a half, and it’s been scheduled,” Nichols says. In other words, the Drug Enforcement Administration has classified it as a controlled substance. “I can’t work with a chemist at a university to synthesize a batch for me to test because now they need a manufacturer’s license from the DEA, which is almost impossible to get.”

I ask Nichols about Jordan’s contention that analogs aren’t all that different from the drugs they try to mimic. Nichols disagrees, saying that toying with chemical compounds could result in markedly different side effects. “You’ve got substances of unknown provenance that may or may not be what you think they are,” he says. “A lot of these drugs, the toxicity would depend on a particular metabolite or metabolism, and people have different genetics for different metabolic enzymes. It’s not reliable to go on your own experiences.”

I ask him about the risks of more common, better-researched psychedelics. “The field pretty much is now on board that repeated dosing of, say, something like MDMA can cause some pruning of, and toxicity of, serotonin neurons within the brain. If a user uses it recreationally every week, or a couple times a week, then they’re likely at risk for some long-term damage.”

What about every two to four months, like with Jordan’s gatherings? “Probably not, because you’re giving the brain time to repair and heal.”

He also wouldn’t rule out the therapeutic benefits of the kinds of substances Jordan serves. Much of Nichols’s research involves subtly altering chemical compounds to see how they interact with receptors in the brain, with the aim of figuring out how these neurological signals might then be tapped for physical or psychological therapy. Just as psychedelics can open people up to new ways of seeing things, variations on them can help scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain.

Jordan’s own exploration of these substances, though, might have a limited time window. For one thing, people close to him revealed to me that one package he ordered never arrived, raising alarm that either the DEA or U.S. Customs and Border Protection might be onto him. Since then, he’s had his shipments delivered to friends’ addresses. Also, synthetic analogs have become harder to find. “The market is constantly shifting,” Jordan says. “You can’t get 5-MAPB or MXE anymore.” The parties haven’t stopped, and likely won’t, but the incorporation of research chemicals could come to an end once Jordan’s considerable stock runs out.

Jordan refuses to serve what he calls “hard drugs” — cocaine, heroin, and meth. At one party early on, Natasha decided to do heroin, a drug she’d struggled with in the past. She nearly overdosed. Within a year, she checked herself into a rehab facility in California. Even though that stay got her off heroin, she rejects the notion that she has to stop using other drugs. She continues to attend Jordan’s gatherings, including Freedom vs. Tyranny, where she took MDMA.

“In rehab, they told us that once you’re an addict, you’re forever an addict,” she says. “And I really hate that.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because you’re a different person from what you were 10 years ago. I mean, remember the type of beer you used to drink 10 years ago. Are you the same person? No. But at the same time, if you have an addictive personality, yeah, it kind of applies.”

“Do you think you have an addictive personality?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“And that doesn’t scare you away from taking drugs?”

“No. I mean, I’ve overcome worse. Getting hooked on something that makes you feel good, that’s the least of my problems.”

 
Brain illustration

W e are on the roof when the fire trucks arrive around 2 a.m. From the ledge, we can see the flashing red lights below. Apparently, after Melissa torched the fake money, the smoke set off the fire alarm. The apartment owner proceeds to remove his Uncle Sam costume, wash off his makeup, and head down to assure the firefighters that everything is OK.

No one seems remotely worried, and judging from their insouciant smiles, the mood might not be any different even if the apartment beneath us actually were in flames. Melissa is on a corner of a couch, staring glumly ahead. When I ask if the 4-HO-MET ever kicked in, she says it did, but that it didn’t seem to be particularly strong, even though she had snorted another “bump” of it. I express to her how crazy that sounds, but she assures me it isn’t a big deal, that it wasn’t like she took 2C-B. “Railing 2C-B is like a nail to your head,” she says. “Your whole reality changes by the time you open your eyes.” She’s been microdosing 4-HO-MET regularly in San Francisco, which she believes is why the drug isn’t as effective for her anymore. “It’s really good just before you’re about to go for a run,” she says.

I am surprised that she took another dose without my knowing it, but then the others tell me that Jordan gave them more MDMA and 4-HO-MET within the last half hour. I look over at Jordan, and he shrugs and laughs. “Yeah, man,” he says. “Like, half the people here have done boosters. Looks like you’re not a very good journalist.”

I sit down next to the photo archivist to see if she did a booster, and she says she was offered one but didn’t need it. She asks if she can look in my notebook, so I give it to her. She takes my pen, too, and traces her hand around two empty pages, then does it a couple more times. Within one of the handprints, she writes information about herself: her name, her favorite color (red), and her spirit animals (German shepherd, red-winged blackbird, monarch butterfly).

Melissa motions me over to her. “I didn’t notice it, but when the music changed, I started feeling better. I feel high, or” —  she looks to the side — “maybe I’m just used to the state of being,” she says, emphasizing the last word, and laughs maniacally.

Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., a handful of people go home. Their drugs are wearing off, and they have no interest in watching the sun rise. Those who stay are about to embark on what Jordan calls a “cosmic fuck” — the moment when he introduces ketamine to the festivities. He typically offers people snorts of it toward the end of his parties; it helps with the comedown, but it also creates an all-new effect, an extremely high-powered psychedelic trip, especially when combined with MDMA. Nichols, the LSU professor, describes this pharmacological interaction in physiological terms as “bringing in the glutamate side of things.”

A less scientific way of describing the escalation of one of the brain’s most active neurotransmitters is that it feels, according to party participants, like your brain is being fired from a T-shirt cannon into another dimension. Sound and vision contract and expand like jellyfish swimming through water, the environment surrounding you morphing into big blots of liquefying matter. In some ways, you might feel as if everyone around you is shrinking while the rest of the universe is mushrooming to an awe-inspiring scale.

By around 4:30 a.m., everyone has turned into mush, and conversation transpires at a groggy crawl. Someone asks what I am going to call my story. The business manager has a suggestion: “You should call it ‘Who’s to Say What Should and Shouldn’t Be.’ ”

“That’s pretty good,” Jordan says, languorously lying on the couch with his eyes closed. “But it should obviously be ‘A Very Serious Party.’ ”

He tilts his chin upward and looks at me. “Are you having a good time?” he asks.

“I have to admit I am,” I answer.

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And it is the truth. Even though I am completely sober, I can feel the positive energy everyone is exuding.

“Oh my God, that’s so awesome!” Jordan says, clapping and laughing. “That proves everything, that these parties aren’t just about doing drugs. They’re so much more than that.”

It is around 5 a.m. by now, and the sun is coming up. The sky is the pristine blue of a fresh dawn, and peach light reflects off the glass of the buildings downtown. For the first time, the electronic music coming from the speakers sounds weirdly comforting. Halcyon keyboards play over gently throbbing beats as everyone gazes at the skyline with the serene faces of children.

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