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Nashville Scene Are the Kids All Right?

Ecstasy grows in popularity among drug users

By Rebekah Gleaves

AUGUST 14, 2000:  A low-hanging cloud of cigarette smoke disguises much of the action. The vibrating bass masquerades any superfluous sound. The crush of bodies makes unnecessary movement, other than semi-spastic dancing, futile. Yet somehow the information gets circulated, and people throughout the nightclub crowd are appeased. "Rolls are $28" comes the answer to a question about the availability of ecstasy--also called "E" and "X," among a plethora of other names.

This price is high by big-city standards, but somewhat typical for a mid-sized city like Nashville. The seller is not particularly concerned with the identity of the buyer, only darting his eyes up and down in a quick once-over. Apparently the seller thinks he can spot a narcotics agent on sight.

With euphoria just a covert handshake away, the money is exchanged, the pill is passed, and the giddy user pops it into his mouth. Within the hour, a tingling sensation will creep up his spine, scarcely noticeable at first. The first indication will be enhanced, exaggerated vision. A mild hallucinogen, ecstasy makes lights appear brighter and slightly distorted.

About 45 minutes later will come the question "Are you rolling yet?" and the realization that, yes, the ecstasy is taking effect. For the next four or five hours, the drug will compel the user to dance, to talk, to touch other people. It will make the world seem beautiful, and all people seem friendly; an act as basic as a hand massage will create a near-orgasmic experience.

"When you eat a roll...you get kind of cold," says Jessica, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate. "Your teeth chatter and you clench them. I've had times when I've had that cold feeling and broken into cold sweats, but still had a body temperature of 98.6."

Like the sensation a person feels when a roller coaster begins its rapid descent, muscles will tense, jaws will grind, and a heightened feeling of anticipation will overwhelm the user. But above all else, the controlling thought is love. When in the clutch of ecstasy, it becomes extremely important to spend time with others, particularly those also using ecstasy.

"I heard you were E-ing. I heard it was your first time. How are you feeling?" a smiling young girl named Karen asks as she proffers another girl a bottle of water. "Want a lollipop?" Karen says she does ecstasy every weekend and sometimes during the week. Having only recently turned 21, she has long been excluded from the bar scene, and for the last four years ecstasy has been her drug of choice.

Frequent users learn ecstasy party tricks and are prone to carrying items that are likely to come in handy. Karen's water is not just a beverage but a necessity. Both the drug and the constant dancing that often accompanies its use can cause a user to dehydrate. In fact, the vast majority of ecstasy-related deaths are due to dehydration. The lollipop also serves an additional purpose: to decrease the amount of jaw grinding. Many of those who take ecstasy resort to sucking on baby pacifiers or gnawing on teething rings.

Ecstasy, the popular name for the drug Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), has been illegal in the United States since 1985. Before that, it could be found with relative ease and was even sold in some nightclubs. Now the majority of the ecstasy sold in the U.S. is manufactured in clandestine laboratories primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. Despite its current illegality--and despite the fact that no one really understands its possible long-term side effects--the drug is more popular than ever. While law-enforcement officials work harder than ever to crack down on ecstasy use, more teens and twentysomethings are drawn to the drug, lured by what many describe as a unique feeling of euphoria.

"When you're rolling, your whole body feels intense," Jessica says. "Everybody gets all empathetic and is like, 'I love you, man.' I wish there were more studies out there about ecstasy. It's not as bad as people want to think it is."

Alex, a 16-year-old high school student, agrees. "I love ecstasy because it gives a feeling that cannot be brought on by anything other than X. I have done coke, acid, weed, and X. Ecstasy is my drug of choice. It is just such an intense feeling. The side effects have never scared me. It makes me feel like nothing else."

Ecstasy users are quick to point out that the drug tends to bring out the best in people. Strangers find themselves embracing, sometimes in huge hug chains on the dance floor at raves. "When you're in that frame of mind, everyone and everything is beautiful and takes on a heightened value," says Mike, a 28-year-old investment banker.

Every ecstasy user interviewed for this story agreed with that sentiment. Otherwise dismal situations become appealing; people who might not normally relate well become instant friends. "Rolling--a good roll anyway--can make a dingy warehouse look beautiful, a kid who hasn't showered in two days look attractive, and sweating in a crowd with a thousand strangers seem like the best night of your life," Karen explains. Her roommate Melissa sells the drug, making it very easy for both of them to obtain. Melissa, at 23, has been using it for one year longer than Karen and considers herself an expert.

"Depending on what it's cut with, E can have different effects," Melissa says. "If it's cokey, you get really jittery. If it's smacky, it makes you really relaxed." Seeming not at all concerned that the presence of cocaine and/or heroin makes this particular drug obviously more dangerous, she continues: "You find out pretty quick which ones you like and which ones you don't. Buddhas were really big this year, and Mitsubishis were everywhere last year. Lots of people liked those and would ask for them specifically."

Indeed, manufacturers of the drug tend to mark them with recognizable logos, taking the term "designer drug" literally. These logos vary from the Buddha and Mitsubishi symbols to Rolex, Mercedes, Adidas, Nike, the Pink Panther, a Playboy Bunny, signs of the Zodiac, a single butterfly, and a four-leaf clover. Ironically, last year's "AOL"-stamped pills were a big flop.

In Nashville, ecstasy users can expect to find virtually any of the popular varieties. "We see a variety of all the kinds that are out there, but the ones we see the most are the ones they call 'Chocolate Chips.' Those contain heroin, so that especially bothers us," says Sgt. Randy Brock, who works in the narcotics section of the Nashville Police Department's Vice Division.


Humble beginnings

A typical ecstasy tablet begins in the basement of a house in the Netherlands, likely in one of the quiet, pig-farming communities along the Belgian border. These labs are far from the white-coated, sterile environments the term "lab" connotes. Some labs, for example, have been discovered mixing the component chemicals in dirty, rusty buckets.

The "chemists" are typically in their 20s or 30s and possess enough scientific knowledge to mix the complex ingredients. However, recipes for the drug can be easily found on the Internet. The necessary chemicals are inexpensive but difficult to procure and not commercially available in the United States. Dutch police estimate that the average ecstasy lab produces 80,000 tablets a day and will sell them for less than 1 guilder per pill (about 50 U.S. cents).

"Ecstasy is mostly produced in Europe, but there are some labs here too," says Sergeant Matt Pugh, a Memphis police officer who works with the DEA's Clandestine Methamphetamine Lab Team and with the FBI drug task force. Pugh says that he first saw MDMA in Memphis in 1996. "We seized an ecstasy lab from the back of a U-Haul truck. It was being dismantled, and they were going to transport it."

From the Dutch basement, it's likely that the E will make its way into the hands of an organized crime syndicate. The allure of the drug to these groups is obvious, since its inexpensive production costs and high "retail" mark-up give it an astounding profit margin. The same pill that costs $28 in a Nashville club costs the manufacturer between 20 and 50 cents to make in the Netherlands, and will sell "wholesale" for between $6 and $8. A typical user can expect to pay between $20 (in cities like New York) and $40 (in small towns) for a single hit. These numbers add up to the astonishing conclusion that for an initial investment of about $100,000, an ecstasy smuggler can reap nearly $5 million in profit. (In February notorious mob turncoat Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano was arrested for his alleged role in a Phoenix-based ecstasy ring.)

Organized crime employs a variety of techniques to bring the drug stateside. In one of the more creative smuggling strategies, a group of young Hasidic men were recruited last year by an Amsterdam-based ring that believed the men's traditional black hats, dark suits, and prayer locks would deflect any suspicion. The crime syndicates recruit carriers like the young Hasidim by promising free trips to Europe, money, or both. The carriers bring the drug back into the U.S. by stuffing it in hidden compartments inside nondescript luggage or, as in one case, by ingesting as many as 3,000 pills tied inside a condom, then flying back to the U.S. on a commercial airline.


Fed-Ecstasy

On July 26, officials from the FBI and the DEA seized 2.1 million ecstasy tablets at the Los Angeles airport. The seizure, valued at over $40 million, is the largest in U.S. history and is believed by drug-enforcement officials to be associated with several similar large seizures here in the Volunteer State.

Tennessee has emerged as a key point in the ecstasy shipping process, due to its central location and to Memphis' role as the distribution capital of North America. A mid-sized city though it may be, Memphis is actually one of the top cities in the nation for ecstasy distribution due to the fact that it's home to a Northwest Airlines hub and to the headquarters of shipping giant Federal Express. The Memphis-based package delivery company inadvertently ships much of the nation's ecstasy supply each year. This past spring, the largest ecstasy bust to ever take place in New England had its origins in the Bluff City.

Yaniv Yona and Ereza Abutbul, both 23-year-old Israeli citizens, were arrested in Boston after attempting to pick up packages containing nearly 90 pounds of ecstasy from Boston-area hotels. The drugs had been shipped from Paris, via FedEx, in boxes marked "programming guides for compu-training; no commercial value." A customs agent at the FedEx facility in Memphis decided to check the parcels and discovered the contents. Each defendant now faces charges that carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1 million.

"We see the bad guys using FedEx to transport drugs, and because everything is routed through Memphis, a lot of ecstasy goes through there," says Dean Boyd, spokesman for the United States Customs Service. "FedEx is more obvious because it is more efficient. But it's just one technique for smuggling. There are some smart smugglers out there."

Officials with U.S. Customs and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are quick to add that FedEx has been eager to assist the agencies in catching the smugglers. Packages sent through the FedEx facility are routinely X-rayed, and many must pass the scrutiny of ecstasy-trained sniffer dogs.

"We work very closely with FedEx. We do controlled deliveries. That's where we intercept the drugs and then try to deliver them to the intended recipient as soon as possible," Boyd says. "We deliver it to them and then bust them. A lot of the packages go on to other places, though, and don't stay in Memphis. Some ecstasy is smuggled in through passengers on commercial airlines too. This is a problem nationwide."

While Memphis is one of the top three cities for ecstasy distribution--New York and Miami are also hubs--a relatively small amount of the drug actually stays there. Neither Memphis-based DEA and customs officials, nor officials with the city and county police or the crime commission, had exact statistics related to ecstasy consumption and distribution in Memphis, though all contacted agreed that ecstasy is not a top drug concern there. In fact, Memphis' ecstasy problem is on par with the problem in Nashville; marijuana, cocaine (including crack cocaine), and heroin use all rank higher.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in ecstasy abuse across the nation in the past few years. GHB, ecstasy, ketamine--it's all here, all part of the designer drug and rave scenes," Pugh says. "But there are so many drugs out there that ecstasy is not our first priority."

Nashville, with its never-ending supply of dance clubs, has proven to be a fertile breeding ground for the proliferation of ecstasy use. According to the police department's Brock, most of the ecstasy in Nashville comes from Atlanta and Memphis. He estimates that probably 2,500 to 3,000 MDMA tablets have been seized this year in Nashville and says that the police department has seen a marked increase in the number of MDMA-related investigations it's conducting.

"This whole ecstasy thing has hit us by surprise," he says. "It caught on quicker than we expected, and we had to scramble to catch up, but I think we're caught up now."


Widespread appeal

While ecstasy use has not yet reached epidemic proportions in Nashville, its appeal has stretched beyond the club and rave kids who have long favored it and has moved into crowds of both young and established professionals. Mike, the investment banker, says he uses ecstasy on occasion, and Tom, a 31-year-old attorney, first used the drug in 1989 and then didn't touch it again until this year.

"The first time I tried it was in 1989, and I was on a date with a girl who had some and talked me into taking it with her," Tom says. "I had never heard of it and had no idea about what the effects were. I was playing NCAA Division I football at the time, and the next week the coach announced that there would be random drug tests and that they were specifically looking for ecstasy. Needless to say, I was pretty freaked out and didn't ever touch it again until about eight months ago."

After college, Tom smoked marijuana frequently but this year decided he wanted to try something different. A friend of his had about a dozen ecstasy pills and gave him one. Tom estimates that he has since taken the drug 16 times, usually two pills at a time.

Phillip, a 24-year-old landscaper, says he first used ecstasy in college and estimates that he has now done the drug 20 or 30 times. "The first time, a friend of mine had a bunch of ecstasy that he was trying to get rid of, so we all took some. I don't really look for it now. I guess I'm kind of growing out of it."

Mike says his curiosity about ecstasy was piqued after friends told him what the effects were and that they could get him some. "I've done it probably three times now and I definitely think I'd do it again. It makes me have really intensified sexual urges and a euphoric state of mind. It's like cocaine without the edge. It makes you really confident and aggressive. On ecstasy, I can walk up to the most beautiful woman in the room and know that she'll want to go out with me."

Sam, a self-described ecstasy dealer, says that he regularly sells the drug to professionals in their 40s and 50s, baby boomers who have heard rumors about the drug and want to try it.

Drug-enforcement officials confirm Sam's observations about the drug's expanded appeal. "It's reaching up into the 30s-, 40s-, and 50s-age crowds right now," Pugh says. "A lot of people say it's the drug they like the best." While the bulk of those busted for ecstasy in the Music City are in their late teens and early 20s, Sgt. Brock says that he has seen users "as young as 12 and as old as 60."


Feeling the effects

Though it has only attracted worldwide attention within the last 10 to 15 years, MDMA's history can be traced back to 1913, when it was initially discovered and patented by the German pharmaceutical company Merck. Intended to be used as a weight-loss drug, it was never marketed because of the possible side effects. However, it was rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s by some psychiatrists who saw it as a means of reducing their patients' inhibitions during therapy sessions. MDMA, which has no approved medical use in the U.S., was granted emergency scheduling as a Class I narcotic (the same as heroin) in 1985.

"Originally, this was a drug used by therapists to break down defense mechanisms," says Robert R. Butterworth, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the effects of drug abuse. "There is some medical research about the effects of ecstasy on the brain."

Though there have not been any conclusive tests regarding the long-term effects of ecstasy, scientists have proven that it causes permanent damage to the serotonin pathways in the brains of rats and monkeys. Furthermore, short-term, high-dose use in lab animals has caused incidents of amphetamine-like psychosis and severe, irreversible hyperthermia leading to death.

In the mid-1990s, a series of tests showed that similar neurotoxicity was present in humans who ingested MDMA as a recreational drug. Further results have shown cognitive impairment and memory loss in humans, related to the interaction between serotonin and midbrain dopamine systems, all of which lead to the progressive degeneration of nerve terminals. (Doctors and researchers say, however, that widespread rumors that ecstasy use can cause the draining of spinal fluids are false.)

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is responsible for controlling moods, sleep patterns, pain, sexual activity, and violent behavior. Little is known about the long-term consequences that may result from serotonin depletion. But some researchers fear that today's heavy users may suffer from chronic depression later in life.

Some ecstasy users do admit that, in the short term, the drug can induce troubling aftereffects. "The only thing that has ever scared me about X is the come-down the next day," says Alex, the high school student. "If you are rolling and you get a bad tab and you are rolling really hard, when you come down, you want to hit something because you are so furious."

Studies aside, experts agree that the negative effects of the drug can differ wildly, depending on the individual and the drug. As ecstasy is not legally manufactured anywhere in the world, it is not regulated. Users never know what the ingredients are, even approximately. Experts concede that the drug itself may be harmless and the negative effects could be attributed to the additional ingredients, like cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin.

"That's the only scary thing about it," says Mike. "It does bother me that I don't know what I'm taking. That's definitely a concern."

Many experts feel that because ecstasy has a reputation as a "happy" drug, users are not likely to take its potentially harmful effects seriously. They worry that ecstasy users are less likely to fear the drug because there are no reported incidents of death from overdose and few immediately noticeable side effects.

"I like taking it because I never wake up with a hangover--it's like I didn't even do anything the night before," Tom says. "The cost of a couple of pills is cheaper than what my bar tab would be if I had been drinking, and I don't have to worry about getting a DUI."

These attitudes, Butterworth says, are precisely what pose the greatest danger. "We have to be truthful and let everyone know what we're finding. Not as a scare tactic, but to inform users of the potential for long- and short-term side effects."


Few answers

There are those, however, who believe that the information on ecstasy's potential dangers is all hype. The bottom line is that there have been no conclusive studies regarding the long- and short-term effects on humans. Therefore, some users and activists argue, any warnings against ecstasy are just part of America's rhetoric-heavy "war on drugs."

"In a national sense, this is an issue that is being exaggerated, over-hyped. The fear is being exploited," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and National Drug Strategy Network in Washington, D.C. "This is a common phenomenon with drugs. The rhetoric is that this is a 'new' drug epidemic, but MDMA was banned in 1985 because it was a 'new' drug epidemic then."

Sterling says that law-enforcement agencies and ambitious politicians typically exploit the public fear surrounding drugs by magnifying a specific drug problem. "This same thing happened with a drug called 'Ice' in the late 1980s. Also, LSD is subject to routine rediscovery. You hear 'LSD is back' every few years, when in truth, it never really went away. It was simply re-hyped."

Others just take their ecstasy use in stride, rationalizing that many other activities are dangerous too. "I don't really worry about that stuff," Karen says. "Every year you hear about people getting killed on roller coasters, but every year people still ride them. Or, if you bungee-jump a lot, your chances of getting hurt are greater."

Using this same rationale, Jessica feels that if she uses the drug only occasionally, she probably will not be at risk. "It's certainly a drug you have to do in moderation," she says. "With any drug, there can be long-term effects, so I only do it in moderation. I can't really worry about the long-term effects right now anyway."

Regardless of why and how often ecstasy users partake, the fact remains that their ranks are growing. The U.S. Customs Service has predicted a huge increase in confiscations over last year, and officials are quick to remark that this percentage only reflects the drugs they catch. In 1997, Customs agents seized 350,000 pills; in 1998, that number grew to 750,000. 1999 brought 3.5 million seized pills, and already this year agents have seized 6 million ecstasy pills.

Perhaps the only thing that's certain about ecstasy is that it remains illegal--which means that there's always going to be a risk involved with taking it. Just as certain, though, is the drug's incredible popularity. Judging from the numbers, it doesn't appear as though it will drop out of use anytime soon. Given these facts, it seems our best bet is to cross our fingers and hope that the kids are, in fact, all right.


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