..Flirting with Ecstasy
Even the most
clueless among us are hip to “ecstasy” today-thanks
to the news media, who’ve labeled it a “thrill
pill” and “love drug,” and proclaimed it America’s
newest “drug problem.”
“E,” “X,” and “XTC” at dance clubs
and concerts, N-methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphet-amine in research
labs and medical journals.
But no matter
what else it’s called, call the hallucinogenic amphetamine MDMA
(ecstasy, to you and me) controversial.
For one thing,
it’s been hailed by therapists for its ability to boost insight
and aid communication without the freaky, unpredictable twists
and turns of LSD and other hallucinogens.
On the other
hand, it’s been knocked by researchers, who say it may damage
receptor sites in the brain for the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Adding to its
early luster was that, until 1985, ecstasy wasn’t even a controlled
substance. That meant it was as legal as a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s
— and only slightly more expensive.
No more. Laws
against MDMA and its chemical cousins have pushed the drug underground
— and its price up.
But to an army
of devotees, ecstasy is the ticket to the fastest fast time and
the coolest cultural conclaves of the new century: raves-all-night
dance parties that merge hypercharged techno music with the feel-good
recreational love vibe of Generation X and Y.
we put together this pamphlet. Because ecstasy is on (and in)
a lot of people’s minds these days.
And they need
— and have a right — to know what’s in MDMA and what’s up with
the downside (because there’s one of those, too) of America’s
latest pharmacological flirtation with ecstasy.
..Research & Raves
is a member of a chemical family known as phenethylamines.
which includes a string of similar compounds such as MDA, MMDA,
and MDEA, are chemically related to both amphetamines and the
not as new as you might think.
its counterculture stripes and its “love drug” reputation
in the 1960’s and ’70s, due to the mild sensual arousal and euphoria
it produces at low dosage levels.
MDMA rode in
on its wake. First synthesized in 1914, it was little more than
a forgotten formula in a research lab until it broke out onto
the street in the 1970’s. Initial interest in MDMA was so scarce
that the government didn’t even bother outlawing it.
Then the ’80s
rolled around, and ecstasy emerged as the gotta-try-it drug of
that decade-and the next.
use and early rumors of possible MDMA-related brain changes convinced
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to ban the drug in July
1985. MDEA followed in 1987.
drugs are listed as Schedule I controlled substances. That means
that they-like heroin, LSD, and marijuana-have no recognized
legitimate uses and are illegal under all circumstances.
And that meant
that research involving the drugs ground to a fast halt, and
stayed that way until 2004, when a U.S. researcher finally won
authorization to study the potential value of MDMA as a treatment
for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
..Actions & Effects
Over the years,
MDA and MDMA have been sold in powder, tablet, or capsule form,
and can be inhaled, injected, or swallowed. Today, tablets are
the most common format, and street prices range from $20-$30
get for their money is largely determined by dose. At 50-150
mg, the drugs light up the brain’s pleasure-reward system, sparking
feelings of increased confidence and relaxed arousal.
This dual action
is tied to changes in brain chemistry. Like amphetamine, both
MDA and MDMA boost levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that
regulates alertness and heart rate.
And like mescaline,
both drugs also increase the supply of dopamine, a neurotransmitter
that figures into a variety of physical and emotional states.
within 30 minutes and last 4-6 hours. Side effects can include
dilated pupils, dry mouth and throat, nervousness, and muscular
“E” found a market niche so fast (and has held onto
it so long) is that its effects are more manageable than the
harder-hitting effects of LSD and other drugs.
phenethylamines cause less dissociation and disorientation —
and fewer panic reactions — than more potent psychedelics.
along with reports of MDMA’s ability to enhance empathy and communication,
prompted early researchers to test the drug as a possible tool
in treating depression and other emotional problems.
DEA halted that research, a number of U.S. psychotherapists reported
favorable results with MDMA in helping patients resolve painful
blocks. Their work was so promising, in fact, that it probably
helped win approval of the current PTSD research.
..Up The Downside
proponents concede that the drugs can cause problems for users-particularly
when self-administered and used without supervision.
these is the possibility of overdose — and the related risk
of hyperthermia, or dangerously high body temperature.
Since MDA and
MDMA are amphetamines, tolerance develops quickly and overdose
is possible. Other speed-like dangers include the risk of liver
damage and plain old exhaustion.
At high doses,
MDA and MDMA can trigger the same symptoms of over-amping —
with anxiety, delusions, and paranoia — seen in heavy speed
The drugs can
also intensify heart problems. Some early deaths tied to MDMA
involved cardiac arrhythmia-irregular heartbeat-in users with
previously-undiagnosed heart disease.
But the hottest
current controversy surrounding ecstasy-aside from hyperthermia-related
problems (See the sidebar “FYI: Rx = H2O” below, for
details) — involves questions about the drug’s possible effects
on the brain.
A Johns Hopkins
University study of high-dose effects on monkeys and rats showed
that the drug attacks areas in brain cells that manufacture the
also found evidence that the damage may last: Half the serotonin-producing
nerve cells in test animals were still damaged eight weeks later.
And in a study
released in May 2000, ecstasy was linked by German researchers
to decreased performance on tests measuring memory and learning.
remain. Evidence of neurological damage is less clear-cut in
humans. And those who took the drug during psychotherapy have
shown no signs of long-term problems.
experts worry that the drug’s seductive effects may lull users
into believing that ecstasy is side-effect-free before all the
evidence is in.
And don’t forget
to add this to the mix about America’s newest “drug problem.”
Given the popularity
of ecstasy-like drugs and the eternal fascination with pills
that purport to open the head and heart, it won’t be long before
another “problem” turns up in the form of another MDA/MDMA
chemists are nothing if not inventive, and they can be counted
on to continue churning out supplies of the drug (and variations
involving any of its dozens of chemical cousins) to meet demand
for instant ecstasy, today and for the forseeable future.
And while they
may be creative, they’re not always good. In fact, at least two
overdose deaths were linked in Spring, 2000 to an MDMA-like drug,
PMA, that was sold as ecstasy.
it’s worth remembering — with “E” just as much as
other chemicals — that a healthy dose of caution can be the
best recreational drug option available to anyone.
it. Because ecstasy doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t stick around
to enjoy it.
..Sidebar 1 | FYI: Rx = H20
to the restless pulse of trance and techno music can make participants
oblivious to more than just the world outside.
In some cases,
dancers forget to pay attention to what’s going on inside their
And while the
number of ecstasy-related deaths is low — a handful have been
reported in Britain and the United States — dehydration, heat
exhaustion, and dangerously high body temperature are common
and serious enough to warrant special note.
dancers risk slowing down for good if they stay too long at the
An ancient one, as it turns out: H20. Experts recommend plenty
of it — and frequent breaks to keep cool — for those who plan
to keep on dancing (and otherwise kicking) till dawn.
..Sidebar 2 | Herbs, Hype and ‘Legal’ Ecstasy
For those who
find dancing around fine points of drug law unnecessarily nerve-wracking,
know-how and greed have conspired to provide a variety of safe
(at least, theoretically safe), legal, and over-priced ecstasy
and “act-alike” drugs of years past, the mysteriously-misspelled
“Ecstacy” and similar herbal products are promoted
wherever young people with money mingle, riding the coattails
of their more famous (and sought-after) pharmacological prototypes.
line-up in herbal “E” reads like the inventory list
at the local health-food store, and differs only in price from
a variety of over-the-counter herbal energizers and diet pills.
Ephedra used to stand alone at the top of the list, until the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned it as inherently unsafe
in 2004. Now, users of the products are more likely to trip out
on guarana, kola nut, Siberian ginseng, and green tea, at levels
that may pack too much punch for some users and none at all for
to any one of these herbs can include rapid heartbeat, insomnia,
and intense anxiety. Other severe reactions have been reported,
too, and serve to underscore both the wide variability of human
response to drugs of all kinds and the very real need to exercise
caution whenever you exercise your right to party.