The Lure Of Ecstasy

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SCOTT HOUSTON/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

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SCOTT HOUSTON/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME
Ecstasy heightens the senses. Clubbers like these women in Ithaca, N.Y., find that Vicks VapoRub electrifies the nasal passages

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 antiproliferation 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 downsides. "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.

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