A new drug is sweeping the country: a compound called MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. Law enforcement officials say the drug worries them more than any other. It may also be spreading more quickly than any other illegal drug in America. This July U.S. Customs agents broke up the biggest ecstasy ring yet and there has been a strong effort by members of Congress to increase the penalties for the trafficking of Ecstasy. Vicki Mabrey investigated Ecstasy for a report originally broadcast last April.
Despite a reputation among many users for being "safe," it is also dangerous: in Florida alone, one of the few states tracking the phenomenon, there have been at least 40 deaths involving Ecstasy in the last three years.
MDMA was outlawed 15 years ago, but since then its use has been skyrocketing.
The drug has a reputation for making users feel relaxed and friendly. "With Ecstasy, everyone's your brother, everyone's your sister, everyone's your best friend," says 21-year-old Chauncey Barton. For almost half his life, Barton has used drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and speed. None, he says, compare to Ecstasy.
Barton describes taking Ecstasy as the "best feelings you've ever had in all your life condensed into a six to eight hour span... they call it Ecstasy for a reason."
This effect probably accounts for the drug's popularity, especially at all-night parties called raves. According to one government study, one out of 12 high school seniors has tried Ecstasy.
Teenagers aren't the only ones using it. "Ecstasy used to be associated only with raves but now it has become very fashionable," says Mike Stevens, an undercover police detective who works the drug scene in Orlando, Florida.
Stevens says about 80 percent of the people in the clubs where he goes undercover are either selling or using Ecstasy.
Many people put Ecstasy in a different category from other drugs, believing that it is somehow less serious. Stevens, though, disagrees. "Ecstasy is no different from crack or heroin," he says. "But that's the label it's gotten, that it's kiddie dope."
Ecstasy can cause dehydration, anxiety and exhaustion. Emergency room doctors say they're seeing a rise in overdoses, a condition that can result in increased body temperature, brain damage and sometimes death. In the last few years, 1,100 cases have been reported.
U.S. Customs has seized four million Ecstasy pills so far this year. That's a tenfold increase since 1997. No one is sure how many more made it onto the streets.
Nearly all of the Ecstasy pills in the United States come from Amsterdam, the Ecstasy capital of the world. The Dutch government there is trying to do something about it.
Cees Van Doorn is the chief criminal investigator in the south of Holland, where Ecstasy is produced in enormous quantities in what are essentially factories. Van Doorn's unit has shut down 35 Ecstasy labs in the last five years. But for every one busted, he says, ten more crop up.
At ne former Ecstasy factory, Van Doorn pointed out a machine that can produce 300 Ecstasy pills a minute. Assuming that it operates ten hours a day, seven days a week, it can produce more than 1.2 million pills a week. The cost per pill, for manufacturers: 20 cents. On the street that pill is worth $20.
These profits are attracting many to the Ecstasy trade. Law enforcement officials say much of the drug is being brought into the U.S. by Israeli and Russian organized crime.
To users, though, Ecstasy appears to have fewer drawbacks than other drugs. Unlike cocaine or heroin, which must be snorted or injected, Ecstasy comes in pill form, which to most seems somehow safer.
Barton says that when he began using Ecstasy, he thought that serious problems were very rare. He found out the hard way that the drug can be more dangerous. Barton's best friend, Jason Austin, bought about eight pills at a rave in Florida. Barton believes his friend may have taken as many as five of them.
"Te way [Ecstasy] works is you got all this energy, and all this life built up in you," Barton says. "So you have to dance or do something to get it out. [Austin] tried dancing. He stood up. Fell back down."
At that point, Barton began to get scared. "He was like a fish out of water, flopping around on the ground," Barton recalls of his friend.
"From what I understand he had 106-degree fever when he showed up at the hospital," Barton says. "Brain damage is supposed to start at 104. He had slipped into a coma and pretty much every major organ in his body was bleeding quite profusely." Jason Austin is dead.
According to Duke University pharmacology professor Wilkie Wilson, an overheating human body begins to go through epilepsy-like seizures. "It is a terrible way to die," he says.
Despite its reputation for safety, Ecstasy can be deeply harmful, Wilson says. "When people ask me about the dangers of drugs, Ecstasy is really number one on my list, because it is one of the very few drugs that I know about that genuinely does brain damage," says Wilson, who has written a respected book about drug use.
Because it makes them feel so good, Wilson says, users are reluctant to believe that the drug can hurt them.
Ecstasy works by affecting one of the brain's key chemicals. It causes the brain to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps control mood. Lack of serotonin can contribute to depression, and can harm areas of the brain responsible for thought and memory. Recent studies suggest that even one dose of Ecstasy can damage the brain.
"Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that keeps you from being depressed," Wilson says. "It creates a wonderful environment, but that's only for the time the serotonin's being released. When the drug effect wears off, you have a brain that has spilled a lot of serotonin, and now it doesn't have enough to release the next time that you need it."
Wilson worries that Ecstasy users will permanently ham their brains. "This drug is spreading so fast among so many people that I'm really afraid that we're going to have a generation of depressed people," he says.
While police try to get Ecstasy off the streets, a California organization known as Dance Safe takes a different approach. It has accepted the drug as a fact of life, and is trying to reduce the risk by warning users of the dangers, like dehydration and overheating. They're doing something else almost unheard of in the U.S. - testing the drug itself to see how much it has been adulterated by other compounds besides MDMA.
But the test reveals only the presence of Ecstasy, not how powerful or pure the drug is.
"If the pill tests positive for Ecstasy that is no indication of purity," says Dance Safe founder Emanuel Sferios. "And even if it is pure, that's no indication of safety. No drug use is safe."
Sferios says that as much as 30 percent of the pills they test are not real Ecstasy, but are substitutes - with PCP, speed or other harmful substances.
"We neither condemn nor condone the use of drugs, but provide people with information so they can make informed choices," says Sferios. "The Just Say No philosophy - trying to stop people from using drugs - is not working."
Critics say that by testing pills and giving out information, the group is encouraging drug use. Says Stevens: "Do I want my daughter getting her pill tested by somebody outside, or do I want somebody to take the pill from my daughter and call me and say, 'Hey, we just caught your daughter out here with two pills of Ecstasy. Could you come pick her up please?'"
But Sferios says that his group has saved lives, and that those who use drugs would use them whether or not Dance Safe existed.
Ecstasy will probably not disappear soon. Even those who have foresworn it admit that it can make users feel wonderful. "Of all the drugs I've taken in my life, I have to say that Ecstasy is probably the sweetest drug I've ever taken," Brton says. Nevertheless, he says he will never take it again. "I'll never touch that stuff again. Ever, ever. No, never."
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