The Pill That Has Parents in a Panic

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A few years ago it was heroin. Before that, everyone was talking about cocaine. Today, the drug of the moment is ecstasy, otherwise known as "E" or MDMA. The man-made psychotropic tablets — like LSD, a product of the lab rather than the poppy field — have experienced a stunning surge of popularity in the last 10 months, demand that has led to a surge of trafficking from the drug's main source, Europe. Stepped-up vigilance at American airports since January has yielded 4 million doses. That's compared to 3 million in all of 1999 and 750,000 in 1998, according to U.S. Customs officials.

The rapid growth in demand for ecstasy can be directly linked to its insidiously cuddly reputation. Since users only have to pop a pill — rather than snort a line or inject a dose — ecstasy isn't perceived as being nearly as dangerous as cocaine or heroin. It has also gained a reputation as being a "safe" drug that brings few side effects. But the little pills, which are sold for up to $40 each, can have a devastating impact: although users often experience feelings of extreme joy and contentment, they can suffer from dizziness, severe dehydration and even brain damage. "There's a notion that ecstasy makes you feel good, that there's no downside," said U.S. customs commissioner Raymond Kelly. "But there's plenty of horror stories."

That it is safe is only the first misconception surrounding the new "it" drug. While still popular with black-clad, street-smart city kids dancing to techno music at all-night "raves," ecstasy has now begun to infiltrate the suburbs as well as college frat houses and dorm parties from Oregon to Virginia. "A lot more people are doing E these days," says TIME senior writer John Cloud. "So law enforcement agencies are cracking down." Unfortunately for anti-ecstasy forces, adds Cloud, the same characteristics that make ecstasy so popular among pushers and partygoers — it's easy to hide, disguise and consume — also make it very difficult to track down the culprits.