Date: Fri, 02 Jun 2000
Subject: Time Magazine Tempers Ecstasy Hysteria
DrugSense FOCUS Alert #173 June 3, 2000
Time Magazine Tempers Ecstasy Hysteria
PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE
DrugSense FOCUS Alert #173 June 3, 2000
Time Magazine isn’t always the place to look for the balanced
reporting of drug news, but this week seems to be a little different.
The magazine published a good piece on Ecstasy (below), giving equal
time to both adherents and opponents of the club drug.
The reporter acknowledges that Ecstasy is not as dangerous as the drug
warriors would like us to believe, and he also points out that the
crusaders’ willingness to demonize the drug may hurt their cause: “But
one reason ecstasy is so fascinating, and thus dangerous to antidrug
crusaders, is that it appears to be a safer drug than heroin and
cocaine, at least in the short run, and appears to have more
potentially therapeutic benefits.”
Please write a letter to Time to thank editors for presenting an
unusually fair article on an illegal drug, and to encourage them to
challenge the overkill of anti-drug crusaders again in the future.
Thanks for your effort and support.
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Source: Time Magazine (US)
Pubdate: Mon, 05 Jun 2000
Source: Time Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2000 Time Inc.
Address: Time Magazine Letters, Time & Life Bldg., Rockefeller Center, NY,
Fax: (212) 522-8949
Author: John Cloud
Note: With Reporting By Carole Buia/Miami, Greg Fulton/Atlanta, Alice
Park/New York, Elaine Shannon And Dick Thompson/Washington Cited:
Cited: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies:
Cited: DanceSafe: http://www.dancesafe.org
Bookmark: For more on ecstasy click this link: http://www.mapinc.org/mdma.htm
THE LURE OF ECSTASY
The elixir best known for powering raves is an 80-year-old illegal
drug. But it’s showing up outside clubs too, and advocates claim it
even has therapeutic benefits. Just how dangerous is it?
Cobb County, GA., May 11, 2000. It’s a Thursday morning, and
18-year-old “Karen” and five friends decide to go for it. They skip
first period and sneak into the woods near their upscale high school.
One of them takes out six rolls–six ecstasy pills–and they each
swallow one. Then back to school, flying on a drug they once used
only on weekends. Now they smile stupid gelatinous smiles at one
another, even as high school passes them by. That night they will all
go out and drop more ecstasy, rolling into the early hours of another
school day. It’s rare that anyone would take ecstasy so often–it’s
not physically addictive–but teenagers everywhere have begun
experimenting with it. “The cliques are pretty big in my school,”
Karen says, “and every clique does it.”
Grand Rapids, Mich., May 1997. Sue and Shane Stevens have sent the
three kids away for the weekend. They have locked the doors and
hidden the car so no one will bug them. Tonight they hope to talk
about Shane’s cancer, a topic they have mostly avoided for years. It
has eaten away at their marriage just as it corrodes his kidney. A
friend has recommended that they take ecstasy, except he calls it MDMA
and says therapists used it 20 years ago to get people to discuss
difficult topics. And, in fact, after tonight, Sue and Shane will
open up, and Sue will come to believe MDMA is prolonging her
marriage–and perhaps Shane’s life.
So we know that ecstasy is versatile. Actually, that’s one of the
first things we knew about it. Alexander Shulgin, 74, the biochemist
who in 1978 published the first scientific article about the drug’s
effect on humans, noticed this panacea quality back then. The drug
“could be all things to all people,” he recalled later, a cure for one
student’s speech impediment and for one’s bad LSD trip, and a way for
Shulgin to have fun at cocktail parties without martinis.
The ready availability of ecstasy, from Cobb County to Grand Rapids,
is a newer phenomenon. Ecstasy–or “e”–enjoyed a brief spurt of
mainstream use in the ’80s, before the government outlawed it in 1985.
Until recently, it remained common only on the margins of society–in
clubland, in gay America, in lower Manhattan. But in the past year or
so, ecstasy has returned to the heartland. Established drug dealers
and mobsters have taken over the trade, and they are meeting the
astonishing demand in places like Flagstaff, Ariz., where “Katrina,” a
student at Northern Arizona University who first took it last summer,
can now buy it easily; or San Marcos, Texas, a town of 39,000 where
authorities found 500 pills last month; or Richmond, Va., where a
police investigation led to the arrest this year of a man thought to
have sold tens of thousands of hits of e. On May 12, authorities
seized half a million pills at San Francisco’s airport–the biggest e
bust ever. Each pill costs pennies to make but sells for between $20
and $40, so someone missed a big payday.
Ecstasy remains a niche drug. The number of people who use it once a
month remains so small–less than 1% of the population–that ecstasy
use doesn’t register in the government’s drug survey. (By comparison,
5% of Americans older than 12 say they use marijuana once a month, and
1.8% use cocaine.) But ecstasy use is growing. Eight percent of U.S.
high school seniors say they have tried it at least once, up from 5.8%
in 1997; teen use of most other drugs declined in the late ’90s.
Nationwide, customs officers have already seized more ecstasy this
fiscal year, more than 5.4 million hits, than in all of last year. In
1998 they seized just 750,000 hits.
The drug’s appeal has never been limited to ravers. Today it can be
found for sale on Bourbon Street in New Orleans along with the 24-hour
booze; a group of lawyers in Little Rock, Ark., takes it occasionally,
as does a cheer leading captain at a Miami high school. The drug is
also showing up in hip-hop circles. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony raps a paean
to it on its latest album: “Oh, man, I don’t even f___ with the weed
Indeed, much of the ecstasy taking–and the law enforcement under way
to end it–has been accompanied by breathlessness. “It appears that
the ecstasy problem will eclipse the crack-cocaine problem we
experienced in the late 1980s,” a cop told the Richmond
Times-Dispatch. In April, 60 Minutes II prominently featured an
Orlando, Fla., detective dolorously noting that “ecstasy is no
different from crack, heroin.” On the other side of the spectrum, at
http://ecstasy.org , you can find equally bloated praise of the drug.
“We sing, we laugh, we share/ and most of all, we care,” gushes an
awful poem on the site, which also includes testimonials from folks
who say ecstasy can treat schizophrenia and help you make “contact
with dead relatives.”
Ecstasy is popular because it appears to have few negative
consequences. But “these are not just benign, fun drugs,” says Alan
Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “They
carry serious short-term and long-term dangers.” Those like Leshner
who fight the war on drugs overstate these dangers occasionally–and
users usually understate them. But one reason ecstasy is so
fascinating, and thus dangerous to antidrug crusaders, is that it
appears to be a safer drug than heroin and cocaine, at least in the
short run, and appears to have more potentially therapeutic benefits.
Even so, the Federal Government has launched a major p.r. effort to
fight ecstasy based on the Internet at http://clubdrugs.org . Last
week two Senators, Bob Graham of Florida and Charles Grassley of Iowa,
introduced an ecstasy anti proliferation bill, which would stiffen
penalties for trafficking in the drug. Under the new law, someone
caught selling about 100 hits of ecstasy could be charged as a drug
trafficker; current law sets the threshold at about 300,000 pills. “I
think this is the time to take a forceful set of initiatives to try to
reverse the tide,” says Graham.
What’s the appeal of ecstasy? As a user put it, it’s “a six-hour
orgasm.” About half an hour after you swallow a hit of e, you begin to
feel peaceful, empathetic and energetic–not edgy, just clear. Pot
relaxes but sometimes confuses; LSD stupefies; cocaine wires. Ecstasy
has none of those immediate down sides. “Jack,” 29, an Indiana native
who has taken ecstasy about 40 times, said the only time he felt as
good as he does on e was when he found out he had won a Rhodes
scholarship. He enjoys feeling logorrheic: ecstasy users often talk
endlessly, maybe about a silly song that’s playing or maybe about a
terrible burden on them. E allows the mind to wander, but not into
hallucinations. Users retain control. Jack can allow his social
defenses to crumble on ecstasy, and he finds he can get close to
people from different backgrounds. “People I would never have talked
to, because I’m mostly in the Manhattan business world, I talk to on
ecstasy. I’ve made some friends I never would have had.”
All this marveling should raise suspicions, however. It’s probably
not a good idea to try to duplicate the best moment of one’s life 40
times, if only because it will cheapen the truly good times. And even
as they help open the mind to new experiences, drugs also can distort
the reality to which users ineluctably return. Is ecstasy snake oil?
And how harmful is it?
This is what we know:
An ecstasy pill most probably won’t kill you or cure you. It is also
unlike pretty much every other illicit drug. Ecstasy pills are (or at
least they are supposed to be) made of a compound called
methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA. It’s an old drug: Germany
issued the patent for it in 1914 to the German company E. Merck.
Contrary to ecstasy lore, and there’s tons of it, Merck wasn’t trying
to develop a diet drug when it synthesized MDMA. Instead, its
chemists simply thought it could be a promising intermediary substance
that might be used to help develop more advanced therapeutic drugs.
There’s also no evidence that any living creature took it at the
time–not Merck employees and certainly not Nazi soldiers, another
common myth. (They wouldn’t have made very aggressive killers.)
Yet MDMA all but disappeared until 1953. That’s when the U.S. Army
funded a secret University of Michigan animal study of eight drugs,
including MDMA. The cold war was on, and for years its combatants had
been researching scores of substances as potential weapons. The
Michigan study found that none of the compounds under review was
particularly toxic–which means there will be no war machines armed
with ecstasy-filled bombs. It also means that although MDMA is more
toxic than, say, the cactus-based psychedelic mescaline, it would take
a big dose of e, something like 14 of today’s purest pills ingested at
once, to kill you.
It doesn’t mean ecstasy is harmless. Broadly speaking, there are two
dangers: first, a pill you assume to be MDMA could actually contain
something else. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most serious
short-term medical problems that arise from “ecstasy” are actually
caused by pills adulterated with other, more harmful substances (more
on this later). Second, and more controversially, MDMA itself might do
There’s a long-standing debate about MDMA’s dangers, which will take
much more research to resolve. The theory is that MDMA’s perils
spring from the same neurochemical reaction that causes its pleasures.
After MDMA enters the bloodstream, it aims with laser-like precision
at the brain cells that release serotonin, a chemical that is the
body’s primary regulator of mood. MDMA causes these cells to disgorge
their contents and flood the brain with serotonin.
But forcibly catapulting serotonin levels could be risky. Of course,
millions of Americans manipulate serotonin when they take Prozac. But
ecstasy actually shoves serotonin from its storage sites, according to
Dr. John Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of
New York (cuny). Prozac just prevents the serotonin that’s already
been naturally secreted from being taken back up into brain cells.
Normally, serotonin levels are exquisitely maintained, which is
crucial because the chemical helps manage not only mood but also body
temperature. In fact, overheating is MDMA’s worst short-term danger.
Flushing the system with serotonin, particularly when users take
several pills over the course of one night, can short-circuit the
body’s ability to control its temperature. Dancing in close quarters
doesn’t help, and because some novice users don’t know to drink water,
e users’ temperatures can climb as high as 110[degrees]. At such
extremes, the blood starts to coagulate. In the past two decades,
dozens of users around the world have died this way.
There are long-term dangers too. By forcing serotonin out, MDMA
resculpts the brain cells that release the chemical. The changes to
these cells could be permanent. Johns Hopkins neurotoxicologist
George Ricaurte has shown that serotonin levels are significantly
lower in animals that have been given about the same amount of MDMA as
you would find in just one ecstasy pill.
In November, Ricaurte recorded for the first time the effects of
ecstasy on the human brain. He gave memory tests to people who said
they had last used ecstasy two weeks before, and he compared their
results with those of a control group of people who said they had
never taken e. The ecstasy users fared worse on the tests. Computer
images that give detailed snapshots of brain activity also showed that
e users have fewer serotonin receptors in their brains than nonusers,
even two weeks after their last exposure. On the strength of these
studies as well as a large number of animal studies, Ricaurte has
hypothesized that the damage is irreversible.
Ricaurte’s work has received much attention, owing largely to the
government’s well-intentioned efforts to warn kids away from ecstasy.
But his work isn’t conclusive. The major problem is that his research
subjects had used all kinds of drugs, not just ecstasy. (And there
was no way to tell that the ecstasy they had taken was pure MDMA.) And
critics say even if MDMA does cause the changes to the brain that
Ricaurte has documented, those changes may carry no functional
consequences. “None of the subjects that Ricaurte studied had any
evidence of brain or psychological dysfunction,” says cuny’s Morgan.
“His findings should not be dismissed, but they may simply mean that
we have a whole lot of plasticity–that we can do without serotonin
and be O.K. We have a lot of unanswered questions.”
Ricaurte told TIME that “the vast majority of people who have
experimented with MDMA appear normal, and there’s no obvious
indication that something is amiss.” Ricaurte says we may discover in
10 or 20 years that those appearances are horribly wrong, but others
are more sanguine about MDMA’s risks, given its benefits. For more
than 15 years, Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary
Association for Psychedelic Studies, has been the world’s most
enthusiastic proponent of therapeutic MDMA use. He believes that the
compound has a special ability to help people make sense of themselves
and the world, that taking MDMA can lead people to inner truths.
Independently wealthy, he uses his organization to promote his views
and to “study ways to take drugs to open the unconscious.”
Doblin first tried MDMA in 1982, when it was still legal and when the
phrase “open the unconscious” didn’t sound quite so gooey. At that
time, MDMA had a small following among avant-garde psychotherapists,
who gave it to blindfolded patients in quiet offices and then asked
them to discuss traumas. Many of the therapists had heard about MDMA
from the published work of former Dow chemist Shulgin. According to
Shulgin (who is often wrongly credited with discovering MDMA), another
therapist to whom he gave the drug in turn named it Adam and
introduced it to more than 4,000 people.
Among these patients were a few entrepreneurs, folks who thought MDMA
felt too good to be confined to a doctor’s office. One who was based
in Texas (and who has kept his identity a secret) hired a chemist,
opened an MDMA lab and promptly renamed the drug ecstasy, a more
marketable term than Adam or “empathy” (his first choice, since it
better describes the effects). He began selling it to fashionable
bars and clubs in Dallas, where bartenders sold it along with
cocktails; patrons charged the $20 pills, plus $1.33 tax, on their
American Express cards.
Manufacturers at the time flaunted the legality of the drug, promoting
it as lacking the hallucinatory effects of LSD and the addictive
properties of coke and heroin. The U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration was caught by surprise by the new drug not long after
it had been embarrassed by the spread of crack. The administration
quickly used new discretionary powers to outlaw MDMA, pointing to the
private labs and club use as evidence of abuse. dea officials also
cited rudimentary studies showing that ecstasy users had vomited and
experienced blood-pressure fluctuations.
Most therapeutic use quickly stopped. But Doblin’s group has funded
important MDMA studies, including Ricaurte’s first work on the drug.
Sue Stevens, the woman who took it in 1997 with her husband Shane–he
has since died of kidney cancer–learned about the drug from a mutual
friend of hers and Doblin’s. She believes e helped Shane find the
right attitude to fight his illness, and she helps Doblin advocate for
limited legal use. Soon his association will help fund the first
approved study of MDMA in psychotherapy, involving 30 victims of rape
in Spain diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In this
country, the FDA has approved only one study. In 1995 Dr. Charles
Grob, a ucla psychiatrist, used it as a pain reliever for end-stage
cancer patients. In the first phase of the study, he concluded the
drug is safe if used in controlled situations under careful
monitoring. The body is much less likely to overheat in such a
setting. Grob believes MDMA’s changes to brain cells are accelerated
and perhaps triggered entirely by overheating.
In 1998, emergency rooms participating in the Drug Abuse Warning
Network reported receiving 1,135 mentions of ecstasy during
admissions, compared with just 626 in 1997. If ecstasy is so benign,
what’s happening to these people? The two most common short-term side
effects of MDMA–both of which remain rare in the aggregate–are
overheating and something even harder to quantify, psychological trauma.
A few users have mentally broken down on ecstasy, unprepared for its
powerful psychological effects. A schoolteacher in the Bay Area who
had taken ecstasy in the past and loved it says she took it again a
year ago and began to recall, in horrible detail, an episode of sexual
abuse. She became severely depressed for three months and had to seek
psychiatric treatment. She will never take ecstasy again.
Ecstasy’s aftermath can also include a depressive hangover, a down day
that users sometimes call Terrible Tuesdays. “You know the black mood
is chemical, related to the serotonin,” says “Adrienne,” 26, a
fashion-company executive who has used ecstasy almost weekly for the
past five years. “But the world still seems bleak.” Some users,
especially kids trying to avoid the pressures of growing up, begin to
use ecstasy too often–every day in rare cases. In one extreme case,
“Cara,” an 18-year-old Miami woman who attends Narcotics Anonymous,
says she lost 50 lbs. after constantly taking ecstasy. She began to
steal and deal e to pay for rolls.
Another downside: because users feel empathetic, ecstasy can lower
sexual inhibitions. Men generally cannot get erections when high on
e, but they are often ferociously randy when its effects begin to
fade. Dr. Robert Klitzman, a psychiatrist at Columbia University,
has found that men in New York City who use ecstasy are 2.8 times more
likely to have unprotected sex.
Still, the majority of people who end up in the e.r. after taking
ecstasy are almost certainly not taking MDMA but something
masquerading under its name. No one knows for sure what they’re
taking, since emergency rooms don’t always test blood to confirm the
drug identified by users. But one group that does test e for purity
is DanceSafe, a prorave organization based in Berkeley, Calif., and
largely funded by a software millionaire, Bob Wallace (Microsoft’s
employee No. 9). DanceSafe sets up tables at raves, where users can
get information about drugs and also have ecstasy pills tested. (The
organization works with police so that ravers who produce pills for
testing won’t be arrested.) A DanceSafe worker shaves off a sliver of
the tablet and drops a solution onto it; if it doesn’t turn black
quickly, it’s not MDMA.
The organization has found that as much as 20% of the so-called
ecstasy sold at raves contains something other than MDMA. DanceSafe
also tests pills for anonymous users who send in samples from around
the nation; it has found that 40% of those pills are fake. Last fall,
DanceSafe workers attended a “massive”–more than 5,000 people–rave
in Oakland, Calif. Nine people were taken from the rave in
ambulances, but DanceSafe confirmed that eight of the nine had taken
pills that weren’t MDMA.
The most common adulterants in such pills are aspirin, caffeine and
other over-the-counters. (Contrary to lore, fake e virtually never
contains heroin, which is not cost-effective in oral form.) But the
most insidious adulterant–what all eight of the Oakland ravers
took–is DXM (dextromethorphan), a cheap cough suppressant that causes
hallucinations in the 130-mg dose usually found in fake e (13 times
the amount in a dose of Robitussin). Because DXM inhibits sweating,
it easily causes heatstroke. Another dangerous adulterant is PMA
(paramethoxyamphetamine), an illegal drug that in May killed two
Chicago-area teenagers who took it thinking they were dropping e. PMA
is a vastly more potent hallucinogenic and hyperthermic drug than MDMA.
Most users don’t have access to DanceSafe, which operates in only
eight cities. But as demand has grown, the incentive to manufacture
fake e has also escalated, especially for one-time raves full of teens
who won’t see the dealer again. Established dealers, by contrast,
operate under the opposite incentive. A Miami dealer who goes by the
name “Top Dog” told TIME he obtains MDMA test kits from a connection
on the police force. “If [the pills] are no good,” he says, customers
“won’t want to buy from you anymore.” It’s business sense: Top Dog can
earn $300,000 a year on e sales.
As writer Joshua Wolf Shenk has pointed out, we tend to have opposing
views about drugs: they can kill or cure; the addiction will enslave
you, or the new perceptions will free you. Aldous Huxley typified
this duality with his two most famous books, Brave New World–about a
people in thrall to a drug called soma–and The Doors of
Perception–an autobiographical work in which Huxley begins to see the
world in a brilliant new light after taking mescaline.
Ecstasy can occasionally enslave and occasionally offer transcendence.
Usually, it does neither. For Adrienne, the Midwestern woman who has
been a frequent user for the past five years, ecstasy is a key part of
life. “E makes shirtless, disgusting men, a club with broken
bathrooms, a deejay that plays crap and vomiting into a trash can the
best night of your life,” she says with a laugh. “It has done two
things in my life,” she reflects. “I had always been aloof or insecure
or snobby, however you want to put it. And I took it and realized,
you know what, we’re all here; we’re all dancing; we’re not so
different. I allowed myself to get closer to people. Everything was
more positive. But my life also became, quickly, all about the next
time I would do it…You feel at ease with yourself and right with the
world, and that’s a feeling you want to duplicate–every single week.”
To the editor of Time:
Thank you for presenting an even-handed look at Ecstasy and the
controversy surrounding it. Too many reports on illegal drugs take the
drug warriors’ words as Gospel truth, even though they are naturally
biased with motivations other than the distribution of accurate
The crusading politicians who are calling for a harsher crackdown on
Ecstasy are somewhat akin to medieval doctors. When those primitive
physicians noticed their patients becoming weaker and more pale, they
doubled the number of leeches they were using as treatment. In a
similar way, drug warriors refuse to realize that getting tougher
cannot cure the symptoms caused by getting tough in the first place.
Problems linked to Ecstasy, like deadly adulterants and more dangerous
substitute drugs passed off as the real thing, are the result of
prohibition. More stringent prohibition will not solve the problems.
Instead, harsher laws will mean higher profit margins and a higher
incentive for dealers to sell anything that uninformed users will
believe is Ecstasy. To paraphrase a famous observation about
misconceptions: It’s the black market economy, stupid.
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