Cacao: The Party Drug That Will Give You a Sweet High

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Hundreds of people are packed into a bumping basement club in downtown Berlin, dancing for hours on end in a free-wheeling rave. The substance of choice hails from the exotic tropics. It’s said to impart a brain-boosting rush and tons of energy, enough to transform its users into raging Energizer bunnies. This drug can be ingested, drunk and even snorted. You’re probably familiar with its common name: cacao.

Say, um, “hi” to the sweetest party drug there is. In recent months, cacao has transcended its already lofty status as a superfood and vaulted into the realm of party drugs. In this latest incarnation, cacao powder is taking the place of alcohol and illicit substances like Molly and ecstasy in parts of Western Europe. Lucid, a monthly cacao-fueled dance party in Berlin, fixes bitter Balinese cacao into partygoers’ drinks. Morning Gloryville, a rise-and-shine rave company that organizes dance parties from London to New York, stocks its bar with cacao drinks and cacao pills. And in perhaps the strangest form, Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone invented a special $50 snorting device so you can huff your chocolate in powdered form, much like cocaine.

Never mind that this is the same raw powder you can find at the corner Vitamin Shoppe or processed in your favorite candy bar — or that cacao is perfectly legal in all the jurisdictions we found. Proponents say that raw, virgin cacao is far more potent than you ever imagined. First comes a surge of endorphins into your bloodstream, which increases acuity and fuels you with feelings of euphoria. Then there’s the flood of magnesium, which relaxes your muscles and de-tenses your body. Raw cacao is also chock-full of flavanols that increase blood circulation and stimulate brain power, according to a recent study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


And, of course, cacao can be downright delicious. Lucid’s pixie-like party organizer, Ruby May, isn’t a purist when it comes to the stuff: She spikes the 18 pounds of cacao per party with sweet hints of honey, agave syrup and cinnamon, and the celebrations go on for six hours. “It’s like a smooth, sensual hug in a cup,” says the 36-year old. And as far as the sniffing chocolate goes, Persoone mixes the powder with ginger, raspberry and mint for his patrons in Belgium. Chili pepper was tried, he says, but was “not a good idea.” Color us surprised.

To be clear, cacao is not going to distort your reality. Under the beats of house, hip-hop, funk and electronic music, cacao “amplifies” the experience, rather than dims it with alcohol or drugs, says May. In fact, she doesn’t allow booze inside. The mood-boosting effects of cacao are “subtle,” she says, and it’s not like tripping on acid. Even pure cacao is not actually a drug. While it does contain certain mood-enhancing compounds such as anandamide and phenylethylamine, the bitter reality is that the amount is much too low to have any direct influence on mood, says Dr. Catherine Kwik-Uribe, the director of research and development for Mars Symbioscience, a scientific division of Mars, Incorporated. Which is to say that all of this alleged chocoholism is probably a placebo effect.
If it sounds like G-rated fun, well, it is; these are parties where virtue handily wins over vice.

All of these concoctions come courtesy of the “conscious dance movement,” which evolved from an underground movement into morning raves and lunchtime dance parties, often attended by millennial office workers. It seeks to create a positive — and healthy — environment, in which participants can unhinge themselves from negative thoughts and social inhibitions. Alcohol is usually a no-no, as are illegal drugs. Self-actualization, communal bonding and calorie-burning are key. If it sounds like G-rated fun, well, it is; these are parties where virtue handily wins over vice. (Indeed, a kindergartner’s birthday party, with ice cream and cake, hits more deadly sins than this.)

But such events have found an audience. One of Lucid’s attendees was 51-year-old Réka Komáromi, an ethnobotanist based in Canterbury. She says the raves help her to overcome the sorrow of her daughter’s untimely cancer — to “get rid of the sadness” and “allow me to access my anger.” Now that she’s fully steeped into this scene, she can’t get enough of cacao or its mellowing effects, especially for such “psychologically hard” times in her life.

The use of cacao was pioneered in millennia past by Mesoamerican civilizations. As early as 1900 B.C., archaeologists believe, the Mokaya people in what is now Mexico were fermenting cacao beans into liquid chocolate. The Aztecs, it seems, valued cacao so highly they would trade the beans as a form of currency. Today, the very ethically conscious may have a beef with chocolate, protesting that appropriating cacao from its Mexican origins for Eurotrash-like dance parties rings a wee bit colonial.

Skepticism aside, cacao can act as a “catalyst for having more life,” says May, rather than “numbing ourselves with beer.” And “in all my years in research, I have never seen a person not smile when enjoying a piece of chocolate,” adds Kwik-Uribe. Admittedly, she has a vested interest — but on the other hand, we can’t imagine a party that can’t be improved by chocolate.

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