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Three years ago, Mark*, now a college junior, went to a Dave Mathews concert in Boston with a few friends. He was 18 at the time, and about a half-hour before the concert started, they all decided to take a pill of the drug Ecstasy. This was Mark’s first time taking the drug, so he didn’t fully know what to expect. They chose what is called the “speedy” type, commonly used at raves and parties rather than the “dopey” type, which is known to give more of a slow, relaxing feeling.
“Seriously, you get this warm fuzzy feeling that runs up your back, and a feeling that everything in life is right. Your jaw begins to clench and you love chewing on stuff…gum, straws, candy,” he said.
The feelings that Mark experienced are typical effects of the drug. His most intense feelings lasted about three hours, and the overall feeling of the drug remained for about six to seven hours. Yet the feelings of contentment abruptly ended when he awoke the next day.
“The next day was the most horrible day of my life,” he said. “All the happiness that was triggered in your brain is drained and you’re left with nothing.”
Over eight million people aged 12 and older reported using the “club” drug ecstasy at least once in their lifetime, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), an information source on the consequences, patterns, and prevalence of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use and abuse in the general U.S. population, age 12 and older.
Methylenedioxymethamephetamine (MDMA), commonly known as ecstasy, is a synthetic psychoactive drug used for its elated and hallucinogenic causes. Formally used to assist psychotherapy in the 1970s, it is now banned in the United States. Although illegal, it is rapidly rising in popularity in the United States, particularly among teenagers and young adults. Taken orally in a tablet or capsule, snorted, or injected, it generally takes 30 to 40 minutes to take effect and lasts about three to six hours, although some side effects can occur weeks after taking the drug.
Ecstasy’s psychological side effects include confusion, depression, sleep problems, anxiety, and paranoia. Like Prozac, it causes an elevation in serotonin, a chemical in the brain which triggers happy feelings in people. Some physical side effects are muscle tension, teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, chills, or sweating.
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Shayna, 19, a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston, first tried ecstasy when she was 15 years old and with a group of friends and her boyfriend in her home state of New Jersey. She described her experience as fun, experiencing sexual feelings and a “tingling” feeling on her skin every time someone touched her. Her boyfriend, who had epilepsy, used the drug because he felt that it calmed his seizures.
“I remember that our words were slurred, and the next morning I had to sit down and really try to remember what I did the night before. I was also dehydrated,” she said.
She took the drug two other times after her initial experience, and described all of them as appearing to be better than the first. She also experienced different atmospheres while on the drug, such as her with her close friends, at a club where she danced continually all night due to the effects of the drug, and in a quiet atmosphere with just her and her boyfriend. She reported taking a pill with a picture of a star, another with a playboy bunny, and another blank one.
In 2001, a study conducted by the NHSDA showed that the majority of users were between the ages of 18 and 25. Not only does this age group have the largest amount of users, but the study showed that current users are more likely to use other illicit drugs than the non-users. Ecstasy is increasingly taken by marijuana users, according to the drug rehab center Narconon, based out of southern California.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in 1994, one person admitted to the emergency room died from association of the drug. By 2001, 76 people died from ecstasy. The cause of death is usually heatstroke and hyponatremia, also known as water intoxication. To give a perspective, deaths caused directly from the chemical MDMA in 2001 were estimated to be only 2 in 100,000 users as opposed to cigarettes, which estimate 400 deaths per 100,000 users. A study in the Netherlands showed that 89 percent of patients admitted to the emergency room with MDMA present in their bodies did not require any treatment after talking to the doctor. This can be explained because most people on psychoactive drugs think there is something wrong and get nervous, when there may not actually be anything wrong, according to the DEA’s website.
In April 2002, ABC News reported that 16-year-old Brandy French from Sewickley, PA died after taking one pill of ecstasy at a concert with her friends. According to her friends, Brandy started getting very sick after taking the drug, and eventually they brought her to 19-year-old Lewis Hopkins’ house to sleep it off, telling his mother that she was drunk. According to French’s friend Michelle Maranuk, they wanted to call 911 but Hopkin’s mother wouldn’t let them, not knowing that she was on drugs or how sick she was. Brandy was finally taken unconscious to the hospital nearly seven hours after taking the pill, where she died. French’s story demonstrates that although some statistics show that deaths resulting in ecstasy use are slim, the drug still has the capability to be deadly.
The drug was first manufactured between 1912 and 1913 by Merck, a German pharmaceutical company, and intended to be used as an appetite suppressant, but the company never marketed the drug, according to Narconon. In 1985, MDMA underwent immense media attention because psychiatrists, therapists, scientists, and doctors challenged the DEA with the motive to prevent them from banning the drug. It didn’t work, and Congress passed the law in 1988 banning the drug, because it was considered dangerous to the public and put on schedule one, the most restrictive class of drugs. By the late 1980s and early 1990s illicit use of the drug was popular, and it was commonly combined with other drugs.
“No one really knows how Ecstasy works,” said James Stellar, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern University and cocaine expert. Stellar believes that people take ecstasy for two main reasons. One is for pleasure and the second is for changes in behavior in a way that people like. Personalities on Ecstasy seem to be more outgoing and open; self-consciousness disappears.
According to Narconon, Ecstasy is manufactured primarily in Western Europe, Israel, and Russia, although there are some MDMA labs in the United States. It is shipped in bulk quantities of approximately 10,000 pills via commercial airline flights, express mail services, or other air freight shipments. Once in the United States, the drug can be sold from anywhere between $8 and $30 per pill. For example, in 2000, U.S. Customs Services at Los Angeles International Airport found 16 packages of ecstasy containing 2.1 million ecstasy tablets. The estimated street value of this shipment was $41 million.
Ecstasy tablets come in many different colors with different images on the front, such as a smiley face, butterflies, flowers, diamonds, and other creative pictures. The MDMA traffickers use brand logos as marketing tools, as well as to distinguish the different pills.
According to ecstasy.org, a website where free data is provided by ecstasy users and testers, the use of a home testing kit gives people results of an ecstasy-like substance in each pill. By scraping off part of the pill and pouring on the chemical solution called Marquis Reagent, which is made up of formaldehyde, sulphuric acid, and methanol, the color changes indicating which main active ingredient is in the drug. This test is useful for users to see what principle active ingredient is present in each pill as well as to see what pills are “bad” or inactive, as well as harm reduction agencies and organizations that post information about drugs on the internet. Although illegal to possess ecstasy, it is legal in the United States to possess the testing kit, according to ecstasy.org. Testing kits are available to buy online.
Ecstasy.org contains results of test kits, as well as the experience of the user posted on the site. Each post contains the type of pill tested, what the results looked like, the effects and reports of the user. The majority of the emotional effects reported on the website were described as “spaced out” with physical effects of jaw clenching and stiffness.
Christopher Clancy, a drug counselor at Narconon, described receiving phone calls from people asking questions such as how many ecstasy pills are considered an overdose and how many pills are needed to commit suicide. He said he tries to find out what’s going on with these people and help them as much as he can.
“Some pills are stronger than others so it’s hard to tell what an overdose would be, but it’s foolish to take any more than one pill at a time,” he said.
He also described the website www.erowid.org, as a sight where people go to get information on drugs. This website contains information about psychoactive plants and chemicals as well as other related topics.
“I think a lot of kids honestly go to this website to find out which drugs are ok to mix and things like that,” said Clancy. “It shouldn’t even be allowed on the Internet.”
When asked to send one message to readers about drugs, Clancy responded, “It’ll strip them of their soul.”
*Some names have been changed to respect people’s privacy*