The Lure Of Ecstasy

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SCOTT HOUSTON/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

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SCOTT HOUSTON/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

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.

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