DrugSense FOCUS Alert #173 June 3, 2000 

DrugSense FOCUS Alert #173 June 3, 2000 
Posted by FoM on June 03, 2000 at 08:44:43 PT
Time Magazine Tempers Ecstasy Hysteria 
Source: MapInc.
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. WRITE A LETTER TODAY It's not what others do it's what YOU do  PLEASE SEND US A COPY OF YOUR LETTER OR TELL US WHAT YOU DID (Letter, Phone, fax etc.) Please post a copy your letter or report your action to the sent letter list (sentlet if you are subscribed, or by E-mailing a copy directly to MGreer Your letter will then be forwarded to the list with so others can learn from your efforts and be motivated to follow suit This is VERY IMPORTANT as it is the only way we have of gauging our impact and effectiveness. CONTACT INFO Source: Time Magazine (US) Contact: letters ARTICLE URL: Mon, 05 Jun 2000 Source: Time Magazine (US) Copyright: 2000 Time Inc. Page: 62 Contact: letters Address: Time Magazine Letters, Time & Life Bldg., Rockefeller Center, NY, NY 10020Fax: (212) 522-8949 Website: Author: John Cloud Note: With Reporting By Carole Buia/Miami, Greg Fulton/Atlanta, Alice Park/New York, Elaine Shannon And Dick Thompson/WashingtonCited: Cited: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies: DanceSafe: Bookmark: For more on ecstasy click this link: 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 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 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 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." SAMPLE LETTER 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 information. 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. Stephen Young IMPORTANT: Always include your address and telephone number Please note: If you choose to use this letter as a model please modify it at least somewhat so that the paper does not receive numerous copies of the same letter and so that the original author receives credit for his/her work. ADDITIONAL INFO to help you in your letter writing efforts 3 Tips for Letter Writers: Letter Writers Style Guide: TO SUBSCRIBE, DONATE, VOLUNTEER TO HELP, OR UPDATE YOUR EMAIL SEE: TO UNSUBSCRIBE SEE: Prepared by Stephen YoungFocus Alert Specialist The Lure Of Ecstasy MapInc. Archives:
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