Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Story of the Day-MDMA
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine), most commonly known today by the street name ecstasy, (often abbreviated to E, X, or XTC) is a semisynthetic empathogen-entactogen of the phenethylamine family. It has greater stimulant effects and fewer visual effects than other common "trip" producing drugs. It is considered mainly a recreational drug, though is often used as an entheogen and as a tool to supplement various practices for transcendence, including in meditation, psychonautics, and psychedelic psychotherapy, whether self-administered or not. MDMA is illegal in most countries, and its possession, manufacture or sale may result in criminal prosecution.
ABC World News Tonight, MDMA
The Invention of MDMA or Ecstasy
NIDA InfoFacts: MDMA (Ecstasy)
MDMA Research Information
History of MDMA
A History of MDMA
MDMA was first synthesized in 1912. It was patented in Germany by the Merck Company in 1914. At that time it was not the subject of human research.
Merck stumbled across MDMA when they tried to synthesize Hydrastinin, a vasoconstrictive and styptic medicine.
MDMA was an unplanned by-product of this synthesis. As usual, the process of its synthesis was patented.
It can not be reconstructed to what extent Merck tested MDMA and what the results of such testing were, but it can be excluded with certainty that MDMA was ever considered as an appetite suppressant.
In the 1950s it was briefly researched by the U.S. Government as part of the CIA's and the Army's chemical warfare investigations, a commissioned research in 1953/54 on MDA, MDMA and other substances as a truth serum. They proved to be unsuitable for this purpose.
The results of this research were not published until 1973. The first reported recreational use was in the 1960s.
In the middle 1970s, it was rediscovered by the psychedelic therapy community and began to be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy by psychiatrists and therapists who were familiar with the field of psychedelic psychotherapy. MAPS published a book, The Secret Chief, about the leader of this therapy community.
The above info came from MAPS, for more, on The Struggle to Conduct Research into the Therapeutic Use of MDMA, go to the MAPS Website.
More History of MDMA
In the early 1980s, the drug began to be used non-medically, particularly in Texas, under the name Ecstasy.
Both the non-medical and therapeutic use of MDMA were made illegal in 1985 despite the Drug Enforcement Administration Administrative Law Judge Francis Young's recommendation that physicians be permitted to continue to administer it to their patients.
Soon afterwards its use rapidly spread outside the United States as well. In Dallas, where alcohol was prohibited at the Southern Methodist University, students bought legal MDMA as a substitute, paying by credit card.
The US consumption rose from 10,000 doses in the whole year of 1976 to 30,000 doses a month in 1985. At the same time the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that 30,000 doses a month were being used in the state of Texas alone.
A 1987 survey revealed that 40% of students on the campus of Stanford University had used MDMA. In 1985 MDMA was prohibited by the Drug Enforcement Administration, when it was given the same status as heroin and LSD.
Brief Description Of Ecstasy
MDMA (also commonly known as Ecstasy, X, E, XTC, Adam, etc.) is a semi-synthetic chemical compound. In its pure form, it is a white crystalline powder. It usually seen in capsule form, in pressed pills, or as loose powder.
Average cost ranges from $10-$30 (U.S.) a dose (1999 price). Common routes of administration are swallowing or snorting, although it can be smoked or injected as well.
Currently, MDMA is on the U.S. Schedule I of controlled substances, and is illegal to manufacture, possess, or sell in the United States. Most other countries have similar laws.
A large number of substances are sold under the name of XTC, including amphetamine, ketamine, PCP, and caffeine, as well as a range of 'normal' medicines as pure fakes.
Entactogens: MDA, MDMA and MDEA
Shulgin describes the hallucinogenic effect of MDA as follows: 'it produces eyes closed hallucinations of a commanding sort. There is quite consistently a recollection of past events, of childhood memories, a reliving of earlier times that appear to be, as far as can be documented, quite accurate.'
MDA seemed to be unique in that it reinforces mainly emotions and empathy to a high degree and creates a strong emotional link with others present. It was these effects which made MDA popular as a recreational drug. MDA also has a clear sympathomimetic activity.
The usual dose is between 80 and 160 mg, and the effect lasts for 8 to 12 hours. In connection with the search for a truth drug, this substance was administered by the US army to a number of test persons, in some cases without their knowledge. In one case, a psychiatric patient, the intravenous injection of 500 mg was fatal.
'The first effect is very fast, within half an hour of consumption. Most test persons report that the plateau of the effect begins within another half hour to one hour.
The symptoms of~intoxication have largely vanished after another two hours, apart from the slight remains of sympathomimetic stimulation, which can last for a number of hours more. There are few physical symptoms of intoxication, and psychological post symptoms are virtually absent.
In qualitative terms, the drug seems to elicit an easily controllable changed state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones. In terms of effect, it can be compared with marihuana, psilocybin without the hallucinatory component, or low doses of MDA.'
Ten years later, an anonymous informant, a respectable fifty year old, described the effect as follows:
'The drug removes all your neuroses. It takes away the fear of response. There is an overwhelming sense of peace, you are at peace with the world. You feel open, clear, tender.
I can't imagine that anyone is angry under its influence, or selfish or mean of defensive. You have lots of insight into yourself, real insight, which you hold on to after the experience is gone.'
This variant hardly differs from MDMA. It is a bit milder: the dose is around 135 mg and it takes effect for 3 to 5 hours. The main difference from MDMA is that 'the special, magic effect and the affective transfer seem to be absent'.
The fact that there is a debate on the possible hallucinogenic effect of MDMA is probably caused by the fact that users regularly report (mild) hallucinations, but it is never certain that they really have been using MDMA, for they might have bought low doses of LSD or MDA thinking it was XTC.
There are also indications that a small part of the MDMA is converted into MDA in the body. This conversion is not significant in the case of regular doses, but this might cause hallucinations if taken in large doses.
Negative Effects Among Users
From Drug Abuse USA.
The following acute complications have been described.
hyperthermia/hyperpyrexia (overheating) resulting in rhabdomyolysis, diffuse intravasal clotting and collapse of the kidneys;
The cardiac complications all occurred among persons with already existing, though sometimes unidentified, cardiac problems.
Hyperthermia with all kinds of potentially lethal complications has been known for a long time as a rare complication of amphetamine overdose, probably based on an individual 'idiosyncratic' sensitivity.
Hepatotoxicity is a new phenomenon in relation to amphetamine like substances, but psychoses are well known as usually temporary complications in people who are predisposed toward them.
It should be obvious that, however dramatic these complications may be at the individual level, they are very rare if they are related to the estimated scale of XTC use.
Operational Mechanism Of The Entactoqens
MDMA increases the secretion of serotonin in the synapses and inhibits the reuptake of serotonin.
MDA and amphetamine also have this effect, but MDMA and MDA inhibit the serotonin reuptake five times as much as amphetamine, and at least 20 times as much as DOM, a genuine hallucinogen.
MDA and MDMA are reasonably powerful as inhibitors on the noradrenaline reuptake, which is the main cause of the sympathomimetic effect of MDMA.
MDA inhibits the reuptake of dopamine. MDMA does so to a much lesser degree, and DOM does not do so at all. This too is proof that in this respect MDA and MDMA belong to a completely different category of substances from the genuine hallucinogens.
History of Ecstasy & MDMA Timeline
1912 MDMA first synthesized by Merck Pharmaceuticals.
1914 MDMA patented by Merck Pharmaceuticals.
1953 The Army Chemical Center studied MDMA toxicity by giving MDMA to guinea pigs, rats, mice, monkeys, and dogs.
1965 Alexander Shulgin synthesizes MDMA but does not yet try it.
1967 The first small underground batches of MDMA are synthesized. Relatively few individuals have tried it at this point.
1968 Alexander Shulgin begins working with MDMA personally and introducing others to it.
1976 The first scholarly article on MDMA is published.
1977 MDMA begins to be available on the street as a recreational drug.
1977 MDMA, as an analogue of MDA, was listed as a class A drug in the UK in 1977 and placed into Schedule I of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971. Equivalent to the FDA's schedule I rating, MDMA is deemed to have no medicinal use and carries the same legal penalties as diacetylmorphine, cocaine and LSD. Possession may result in up to 7 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, whilst trafficking can result in life imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
1977 - 1981 Only eight individuals seek emergency room treatment after the use of MDMA during this four year period according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
1981 - 1985 There are zero people who seek emergency room treatment after the use of MDMA during this four year period, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
May 31, 1985 MDMA banned federally.
The Lure Of Ecstasy
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 cheerleading 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 no more."
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 , 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 . Last week two Senators, Bob Graham of Florida and Charles Grassley of Iowa, introduced an ecstasy antiproliferation 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 downsides. "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 harm.
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."
Many Users Think It Is Safe
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. In April, Vicki Mabrey completed this investigation for 60 Minutes II.
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 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.
Teen-agers 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, Fla.
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 4 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, 10 more crop up.
At one former Ecstasy factory, Van Doorn pointed out a machine that can produce 300 Ecstasy pills a minute. Assuming that it operates 10 hurs 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 United States 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.
"The 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 Ecstasy's reputation for safety, it can be deeply harmful, Wilson says. "When people ask me about the dangers of drugs, Ecstasy is really No. 1 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 harm their brains. "This drug is spreading so fast among so many people that Im 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, such as dehydration and overheating. They're doing something else almost unheard of in the United States - testing the drug itself to see how much it has been adulterated by other compounds besides MDMA.
"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," Barton says.
Nevertheless, he says he will never take it again. "I'll never touch that stuff again. Ever, ever. No, never."