Ecstasy Grows More Popular as Many Decide Joy Is Worth the Risk
Winda Benedetti
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
May 9, 2002

One little pill.

It is about the size of an aspirin and made of pressed pastel powder the soothing color of Easter eggs. Baby blue, snow white, frog green, canary yellow. It is called by a nickname that corresponds with the image stamped on one side: omega, dolphin, Ferrari. The picture and the nickname may be absurdly cartoonish: Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Superman.

That one little pill will cost somewhere between $20 and $40. If it is what it's supposed to be, it promises four hours -- maybe six -- of unparalleled bliss.

And if, like so many other people these days, you decide to pop this one little pill in your mouth, then -- blam -- within the hour you will love yourself and you will love the people around you with an incandescent enthusiasm. You will talk passionately, intimately, deeply to friends and strangers alike, even as your jaws begin to clench tighter than a mechanic's vise. You will look into their eyes intently, even as your own eyes begin to bounce back and forth like two rubber balls trapped inside your skull.

Your palms will sweat -- and so will the rest of you -- and yet you'll feel energetic and happy and good -- like the best you've ever felt to the 10th power. And when it's all over, you'll use phrases like "mind-blowing" and "life-altering" and "oh my God, that was soooo amazing" to describe the experience.

One little pill -- one dose of the infamous and illegal drug officially known as methylenedioxymethamphetamine (aka MDMA) -- and you'll discover a new definition for the word "ecstasy."

That is, unless something goes terribly awry, and therein lies the rub.

Although news reports tend to simplify Ecstasy as "a drug that's popular at all-night dance parties called raves," the truth is that it's a drug that's popular, period. Officers from the Seattle Police Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency snatched 50,000 pills off the street earlier this year -- enough to get the entire populations of Wenatchee and Moses Lake high for a night -- and still the drug flows through Seattle.

Working professionals -- techies, lawyers, doctors, journalists -- secret it away in their medicine cabinets. College kids hide it in little snap-shut tin boxes that once held breath mints. Old-school hippies stash it with their weed in Ziploc baggies. And yes, teenagers (aka "ravers") squirrel these little pills into the pockets of their big baggy pants and fluffy neon jackets.

But is this one little pill -- loved by clubbers and loathed by cops -- a plague or a panacea? This question sits at the heart of a roiling debate that has pitted scientist against scientist and doctor against doctor and set millions of enthusiastic users worldwide against those who would snatch the pill from the tips of every tongue if they could.

An army of law enforcement and health officials are on a crusade against Ecstasy and they're warning anyone who'll listen that it's a scourge of terrifying proportions, an insidious phenomenon that, like the Pied Piper, is luring children (and adults) toward a future riddled with brain damage, depression and even death.

But just as one faction vilifies the drug, another champions it. These Ecstasy cheerleaders -- casual and not-so-casual users, doctors and scientists among them -- claim the doomsayers are frightening people with exaggerations and even outright lies. They believe Ecstasy is a groundbreaking chemical that has changed many lives for the better, that it is a welcome remedy for an emotionally stunted culture, and that it is a promising medicine that could be used to treat everything from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder.

And they just scored a big win. The first Food and Drug Administration-approved study of Ecstasy as an aid to psychotherapy begins this summer.

"Here is a drug that can really help people work through trauma and work on feelings of love," says Rick Doblin, founder of the group that's funding the study. "You'd think in any rational society we would be rushing to try and figure this out."

A flood of good vibrations

Although almost every aspect of Ecstasy seems to be the source of some dispute, this much everyone agrees on:

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, body temperature, heart-rate, sleep and appetite. Neurons that manufacture and carefully dole out this precious chemical are located in the brain. When something good happens, these neurons release the appropriate amount of serotonin which, in turn, makes you feel good.

In the case of MDMA, the drug forces those neurons to spew a mighty flood of serotonin into the brain's synapses (think Noah and the Ark) making you feel like you've won the Nobel Peace Prize, kissed the love of your life and hit a home run at Safeco Field -- all at once.

In drug parlance, it's called "rolling."

"Things look prettier. Tastes are very intense. You feel very open and very light and happy," says 32-year-old "Kim," a manager of a Seattle women's health clinic who has taken 15 or so hits of Ecstasy over the past 12 years. (Like other Ecstasy users in this story, she asked not to be identified).

Scott O. Moore, editor-in-chief of Trip magazine, a Seattle-based journal of psychedelic culture, tried Ecstasy for the first time nine years ago. "It was pretty mind-blowing," he says. "It was so rare to feel this sensation of being in love with the universe."

Rave reviews like these have helped make Ecstasy a global phenomenon. Despite health warnings and a spate of gruesome (and false) rumors (that Ecstasy dissolves the spinal column) people have embraced this drug with a zeal not seen since the '80s when Americans were vacuuming cocaine up their noses like obsessed janitors.

U.S. Customs officials nabbed 9.3 million MDMA tablets in 2000, up from 3.5 million the year before. And the Drug Enforcement Agency seized more than 3 million tablets in 2000, compared to 1 million seized in 1999.

Of course, no one knows how many pills are slipping through the dragnet, but judging by how easy it is to find people who have dabbled in the drug it must be, well, a lot.

Love and lucidity

MDMA's mind-boggling rise to illicit stardom isn't hard to figure.

"It's a drug called Ecstasy," Moore says. "It markets itself pretty easily."

"You take it and you will have a good time," says "Matt," a 31-year-old computer programmer who has taken Ecstasy intermittently for the past five years. "It's possibly the best, most effective party drug there is."

Ecstasy-fueled revelries that last around the clock are legendary. But those who champion the drug insist it is much more than just a party favor.

For starters, euphoria and lucidity rarely come together in drug form. Booze makes the drinker buzzed but sluggish and too often a boorish wanker. There's a reason marijuana is also called "dope." LSD -- for all its candy-colored trippiness -- can make the user feel as if he's gone so far off his nut he'll never find his way back.

Ecstasy proponents insist this singular substance not only makes them feel good, it also gives them mental clarity -- the ability to look honestly at themselves, to examine their lives, and then use what they've learned when they're sober.

"Before I took Ecstasy, I don't think I had a clear understanding of what happy was," Matt says. "Now, with a little bit of work I can push my emotions in that direction because that's where I want to be headed."

"It's like blowing the mist away from the top of the mountain and being able to see 'oh yeah, there's the path,'" says "Dave," a local neuroscientist who has taken Ecstasy 10 times. "The mist descends again when it's over, but you still remember where the path is."

And while Ecstasy is typically portrayed as the drug of choice among a fringe of bedeviled youngsters with a fondness for glow sticks and all-night dancing, in reality the drug cuts a wide swath across society.

"Joanie," a 46-year-old nurse from Skagit County, tried Ecstasy for the first time at a summer barbecue. She was reluctant at first but a friend vowed, "it's going to allow you to talk from your heart."

The experience didn't disappoint. "It was amazing," says the mother of two teens. "There's a sense of well-being with it that's difficult to put into words -- but it's real."

On a recent Saturday evening, an architect, two software developers, a graphic artist and a singer gathered at a Wallingford apartment. They threw pillows, blankets and a couple of furry throw rugs on the floor. They set out a plate of fruit, cheese and crackers, turned down the lights and turned up the music. At 8 p.m. -- about the time a bottle of wine would have made an appearance -- each guest swallowed a pill instead.

And then ...

"We started to get into these really intense conversations," says "Eric," a 31-year-old software developer with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. "Ecstasy is great to take with a close group of friends. It makes you feel very loved and like you have good friends who care about you. And the cool thing is that doesn't go away when the drugs go away."

Indeed, Ecstasy's biggest selling point -- the thing that almost everyone who's tried it points out first -- is its ability to help people connect and communicate. Under Ecstasy's influence, social barriers crumble like stale cake. People talk to each other without feeling self-conscious. They hug unabashedly. It is a social lubricant of unparalleled power.

"Before I tried Ecstasy, I felt like I didn't know how to express my emotions to other people. It didn't seem like a cool thing to do," says "Jason," a 26-year-old who has used the drug for the past six years. "I took Ecstasy and after several times of having these open conversations with people, I realized I like that. Ecstasy has shown me that it's OK to talk to people about things you wouldn't normally talk to them about."

The 'Tuesday Blues'

But even Ecstasy's proponents acknowledge that the happiest drug on Earth has its dark side. For starters, the laws of physics refuse to be defied: What goes up, must come down. And sometimes that comedown lands like a piano dropped from a skyscraper.

It's called the "Tuesday Blues" or "Suicide Tuesday." Not everyone gets it, but it is acknowledged among Ecstasy users that the days following an E-trip can bring on a mild and sometimes a major bout of depression.

"Say you take Ecstasy on a Saturday night," explains Jason. "On Sunday you feel apathetic. By Tuesday or Wednesday this sudden depression hits. It's like, I'm crying to 'Forrest Gump' and I don't like that. And sometimes it's not just a day or two. It lasts a couple of weeks."

"It's like PMS but worse," says Kim.

There are other not-so-pleasant side effects. Many users find that their jaws clench uncomfortably and their eyeballs bounce and roll uncontrollably during the high. Some people get nauseated and the only thing they end up "connecting" with is the toilet bowl.

"Paul," a 33-year-old software developer who has used Ecstasy for the past six years has quit the drug temporarily because he started having anxiety attacks. He doesn't know if Ecstasy is to blame -- he admits to using speed and LSD as well -- but, he notes, "I never had any mental problems before I started taking drugs."

And although Ecstasy has not been accused of being physically addictive like, say, heroin or alcohol, it's clear that some people don't know when to say when. There's even a nickname for these people: "E-tards."

"I've known people who were addicted to the Ecstasy experience," Jason says, explaining that he too went through a "honeymoon phase" with the drug. "I started going to parties every weekend and doing E like two or three times a month. I was starting to revolve my life around parties and doing E and I didn't see anything bad about it."

"A friend of mine was doing 10 tabs a night. He was just lost in space," says Tina Ilvonen, treasurer for the Seattle chapter of DanceSafe, a group dedicated to drug education. But she also points out, "I have friends who've been taking Ecstasy almost every weekend since 1985 and they don't have any problems." And that's the big question: Just how bad is this drug that feels so good?

This is your brain on Ecstasy

Here are some terrible things that could happen if you take Ecstasy.

One: You could overheat. As mentioned earlier, MDMA tweaks the system that regulates body temperature and at the same time it tends to make people feel energetic. Some partiers end up dancing into the wee hours of the morning, sometimes in places that seem less like a nightclub and more like a sauna with a fancy sound system. Without even noticing it, some get too hot and dehydrated; they pass out, sizzle with fever, and some have even dropped into seizures and died.

Two: You could "drown." Some people -- wary of overheating -- overcompensate by drinking too much water. This dilutes their blood and causes their brain to swell. Brittney Chambers, a 16-year-old from Colorado, took Ecstasy, drank too much water and died.

Three: You could buy something you think is Ecstasy but isn't. "Ecstasy is the most adulterated drug on the black market," says Jennifer Keys, spokeswoman for the Seattle chapter of DanceSafe.

If you're lucky, the adulterant turns out to be aspirin or caffeine, and the only thing you suffer from is the knowledge that you just spent $30 for a buzz you could have bought for 50 cents at a Pepsi machine. But if you're unlucky, someone sold you the drug PMA or DXM. A hallucinogen and a cough suppressant respectively, both can cause nasty hallucinations and life-threatening rises in body temperature. Nine people in Florida and Chicago died after taking pills they thought were MDMA but were actually PMA.

Four: You could damage your brain cells. Maybe permanently.

Number four is by far the most controversial of the Ecstasy dangers. Many doctors and researchers believe Ecstasy is a Trojan horse of a drug -- a pill designed to soothe people with feelings of joyful connectedness while it secretly ravages the parts of their brain that help them feel that way in the first place. The damage may not be immediately noticeable, say some, but it could surface later in life like a neurological time bomb.

These claims have divided the scientific and medical communities, and have left many Ecstasy users bewildered and unsure whom to trust as they sift through medical literature that seems to change daily.

Dr. George Ricaurte of Johns Hopkins University says the studies he and his fellow researchers conducted on rats and squirrel monkeys show that when MDMA forces brain cells to spill huge amounts of serotonin, parts of these cells (the axons and axon terminals) are damaged in the process. And although the damaged areas may grow back, they often grow back abnormally, resulting in a rewired serotonin system.

Various studies on both animals and humans also suggest that using MDMA can impair visual and verbal memory and reduce serotonin levels on a long-term basis. One study suggests women may be more susceptible to the aforementioned brain damage than men.

"It is a toxic drug," insists Wilkie Wilson, a Duke University professor of pharmacology and co-author of "Just Say Know: Talking with kids about drugs and alcohol." "We think the evidence is definitely in favor of not using it."

But while governments here and abroad have used these studies to fuel anti-Ecstasy campaigns and to carve out public policy on the topic, a growing number of doctors and scientists are saying they consider much of the research to be severely flawed and misleading.

In April, New Scientist journal, a United Kingdom-based science and technology magazine, examined Ecstasy research projects. The magazine published a scathing editorial: "Our investigation suggests the experiments are so irretrievably flawed that the scientific community risks hemorrhaging credibility if it continues to let them inform public policy."

The magazine is hardly alone in its stance. Although Dr. Julie Holland, editor of the book "Ecstasy: The Complete Guide" does not believe excessive Ecstasy use is healthy, she accuses some researchers of using "inventive statistical model."

"A lot of these studies are really suspect," Holland says.

She and others point out that the monkeys and rodents used in the research were given extremely high doses of MDMA. And they say the human studies are equally flawed.

"They've taken poly drug abusers who use massive amounts of Ecstasy and then they say they're finding abnormalities with their memory," Holland scoffs. "This is a skewed population to start with -- the average Ecstasy user does not take 400 tablets in his lifetime. And people who do use it to this extent are people who may have low-functioning (serotonin) systems to begin with. The other thing is, you have no idea if they've actually taken MDMA. They've taken tablets they've bought at clubs. These are not very clean studies."

This is not the first time this type of debate has raged. In the late 1960s, scientists accused LSD of damaging chromosomes. Their studies were proved wrong. In its editorial, New Scientist pointed out that the anti-Ecstasy fervor harkens back to the '70s when scientific papers claimed to show that marijuana damaged brain cells in monkeys. Those findings were refuted as well.

"We are not saying that Ecstasy is harmless to brain cells," wrote the magazine's editorial board. "It might not be. But the jury is still out. Which means scientists must resist the temptation to turn their always complex -- and sometimes flawed -- findings into simple scare stories in pursuit of grants and headlines."

Anti-Ecstasy ads could backfire

Some believe that as authorities have tried to stamp out what they see as a looming epidemic, they have overstated and misstated Ecstasy's dangers to the detriment of their own cause.

Earlier this year, for instance, the Partnership for a Drug Free America began running a series of advertisements trumpeting the Ecstasy-related deaths of Danielle Heird and Kelley Patton.

The problem is, "The Partnership's ads do not reflect the scientific knowledge about Ecstasy," says Mark A.R. Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis program at the University of California-Los Angeles. "There are good reasons to worry about MDMA abuse, but fatal overdose is actually quite rare. So 'Don't take this drug because it might kill you' is not really a reasonable thing to say."

Meanwhile, the Web site for the government's own National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign implies that taking Ecstasy could cause Parkinson's disease -- an unfounded claim. The Orlando Sentinel caught Florida drug czar Jim McDonough massively overstating the number deaths due to Ecstasy and other club drugs.

"I think part of the consequence of demonizing certain drugs is, we throw the baby out with the bath water," Dave says. "The overwhelming majority of people who take it aren't going to die from taking one hit of Ecstasy. And all it takes is for one friend to take the risk and see that it isn't true and all of a sudden people start thinking that everything they've been told is bull ... and that's dangerous because some of the things they're being told are true."

Even anti-drug educator Wilson -- who insists Ecstasy harms the brain -- says he doesn't think the government can educate people about drugs anymore.

"They've lost their credibility," he says. "It's really important to never exaggerate the bad effect of drugs. We believe that you give people the straight information and after that it's up to them what they do with it."

Meanwhile, DanceSafe officials say the extreme reaction against Ecstasy has made it hard for them to get potentially life-saving information to people who do choose to use the drug. The non-profit group sets up information booths at parties and clubs from which it hands out educational leaflets that advise users how to minimize their health risks when taking various drugs. DanceSafe volunteers also test Ecstasy pills for people to help prevent them from accidentally taking something like PMA or DXM. DanceSafe spokeswoman Keys says anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of the pills tested at an average party contain something other than MDMA.

"When we start going to clubs and start testing consistently, the dealers start showing up with unadulterated pills," says DanceSafe treasurer Ilvonen.

But as law enforcement continues to crack down on the drug, many Seattle club operators and party promoters have refused to allow DanceSafe to test pills on the premises (and in some cases to even be on the premises), worried that they will get in trouble for even admitting they knew Ecstasy could be present.

"The reality is, people are going to take drugs," Keys says. "I don't think people should die because of a lack of information."

Whether Ecstasy eats more holes in the brain than a moth does a wool sweater ultimately does not matter for many users, who believe its benefits outweigh its risks.

"I've learned there are side effects and I've radically cut off what I do," Jason says. "But for me, a slight change in my emotional state or memory capabilities 20 years down the road is acceptable for life-changing experiences now."

"You are taking something to alter your brain chemistry -- there is a risk associated with that. Of course, there's also a risk to crossing the street," says "Tom," a 30-year-old Microsoft employee who first took Ecstasy three years ago.

Ultimately, he says he feels about Ecstasy much the same way Winston Churchill felt about liquor. To wit: "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."

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