ECSTASY— DANGERS, PRODUCTION AND TRADE

BAD SIDE OF ECSTASY USE

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Ecstasy capsules
Responding to the notion that ecstasy has religious qualities, a drug counselor told Newsweek, "The idea that ecstasy is some great religious sacrament, some amazing panacea, is bullshit. It's one thing to give it to an 80-year-old Buddhist monk to contemplate Zen. It's another thing if you're going home to a semi-burnt-out flat and your life is a shithole of poverty and degradation."

Ecstasy accelerates the heartbeat, increases blood pressure, causes dehydration, diziness, overheating and teeth-grinding and jaw-clenching. Men reportedly can't get erections while using ecstasy but they become very horny when the effects wear off. There have been reports of brain damage, depression, psychosis and memory loss linked to long-term use of ecstasy but research is not conclusive.

Ecstasy users describe Terrible Tuesdays, a sort of post-use depression that effects users one or two days after they use the drug. The depression is believed to be caused by using up too much serotonin while on ecstasy. Research by Valerie Curran of University College London indicates that many Ecstasy users do suffer from a midweek depression after using the drug on the weekends. In some cases the depression has lasted for months and users have needed to seek psychological help.

Most ecstasy-related emergency room admissions are for dehydration and overheating. Taking several pills over the course of night can inhibit the body's ability to regulate its own temperature. E users with a body temperature of 110̊F have been recorded. Frequent users avoid the problem by drinking a lots of water when they do the drug, especially if they are doing a lot of dancing in a hot nightclub.

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ecstasy tablets
Many users are harmed by substances which are used to cut ecstasy---heroin, strychnine, ketamine (a stimulate popular in the U.S.), aspirin, dog-worm pills and aquarium cleanser. Another club drug, "Liquid X," which causes similar sensations as Ecstasy but is chemically unrelated, easily causes coma and death. DMX (detraomethorphna), a cheap cough medicine that can cause hallucinations, is sometimes passed off as Ecstasy. It inhibits sweating and can easily cause heatstroke. Studies have shown that 20 percent of Ecstasy pills contain something else. Dancesafe, an organization founded by one of the founders of Microsoft, tests Ecstasy pills for other substances.

Websites and Resources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) justice.gov/dea/concern ; Vaults of Erowid erowid.org ; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) unodc.org ; Wikipedia article on illegal drug trade Wikipedia ; Frank’s A-to-Z on Drugs talktofrank.com ; Streetdrugs.org streetdrugs.org ; Council of Foreign Relations Forgotten Drug War article cfr.org/drugs/forgotten-drug-war ; Illegal Drugs, country by country listing, CIA cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Books: Buzzed by Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. of the Duke University Medical Center (Norton, 2003); Consuming Habits: Drugs in Anthropology and History by Goodman, Sharratt and Lovejoy; Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times and Places by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter (Cambridge University Press).

Serious Dangers and Death from Ecstasy

Many of the more serious problems attributed to ecstasy---liver failure, seizures, brain bleeding, heart palpitations, rises in blood pressures, and even death---may be caused by ecstasy look-alikes rather than ecstasy itself. Many of the look-alikes conation paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA), which raises the body temperature to dangerous levels.

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ecstasy tablet
Perhaps ecstasy's biggest problem is its reputation for being relatively harmless. One emergency room doctor told The Independent, "We still don't know how ecstasy affects the brain, if there'll be a whole generation of depressives." One psychologist who predicts a wave depression and suicide among ecstasy users told Newsweek, "We're in the middle off a huge natural experiment. the price will be paid in human lives.”

Between 1990 and 1995, fifty-three people officially died from ecstasy (the youngest was 16 and the oldest was 24). One British girl, Leah Betts, collapsed after taking a hit of Ecstasy on her 18th birthday and went into a coma and later died. The figure of 53 was derived from press clippings.

Most problems with ecstasy are related to overheating, hypothermia or mixing ecstasy with other drugs. Among those who have died are hard-core partiers who died from dehydration and heatstroke. Some users die after their body temperature rises so high their blood starts to coagulate, bringing on cardiac arrest.

Acute deaths caused solely by ecstasy use are very rare. In the Netherlands there are about 100 deaths a year from heroin but only one or two from cocaine and one from ecstasy. In Britain in the 1980s when around 1 to 2 million people were taking ecstasy at least once a week there were only two deaths attributed to the drug.

Studies on the Dangers of Ecstasy

There is pretty good evidence that ecstasy cause permanent brain damage. Long term studies with rodents and monkeys have indicated that ecstasy damages serotonin neurons. A study with squirrel monkeys and baboons has indicated that ecstasy damages dopamine-producing neurons in the brain, which in turn may hasten the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Animal studies however do not necessarily translate to the same result in humans. In the primate studies, 20 percent of the baboons were killed by the drug. One in five human users haven’t dropped dead from it.

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ecstasy tablet
A lot research has focused on the impact of ecstasy on the serotonin system. Does the system recover? If so, how long does it take? Is there any long term damage? Can that be reversed? Studies conducted by George Ricaurte at John Hopkins University indicated that people who took ecstasy more than 200 times over a five year period had damaged cells which release serotine. Loss of serotonin can cause psychological problems. The studies also showed "the vast majority of people who have experiment with MDMA appear perfectly normal.”

The flood of serotonin may cause damage to the ends of the axons. Some studies show the nerve endings die off. Other show they grow back, although abnormally. The axons may also be altered so they no longer reach the part of the brain they were intended to reach.

Ecstasy seems to use up the supply of serotonin so that their isn't any left when users stop using the drug, which at least partly explains the Terrible Tuesday phenomena. Some studies have shown that frequent ecstasy users are often depressed for a long time after they stop using the drug. An Italian study suggests that chronic use may cause DNA mutation.

Dr. Michael Morgan, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, found that former ecstasy users who had not used the drug for more than two years suffered from memory loss similar to that suffered by people in the early stages of dementia. Studies of people on ecstasy show they perform about 10 percent to 15 percent worse on memory tests than people given a placebo but the impairment vanishes after six hours. There is little evidence that the damage persists.

Studies with ecstasy are tainted by the fact that ecstasy users usually use other drugs and it is difficult to say which drugs causes a certain problem. One British man, for example, who took ecstasy 40,000 times over nine years was studied by doctors who found his memory loss was so severe he had trouble determining where he was and what time of the day it was. Still the doctors couldn’t point their finger at ecstasy because he also took a lot of LSD, cannabis, heroin, amphetamines, solvents and cocaine.

Ecstasy Production

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Ecstasy lab in Jakarta
Unlike amphetamines, ecstasy is relatively hard to make and requires sophisticated chemical and pharmaceutical knowledge and equipment to make it.

Ecstasy tablets have contained the images of Donald Duck, Batman, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, and the Flintstone's Dino as well as four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, the Nike symbol, the Yin-yang symbol, the Mercedes symbol and candy canes. In the late 1990s, Mitsubishis were especially popular.

Netherlands and Belgium are believed to be the two largest producers of ecstasy and amphetamines in Europe. Poland, Romania and other countries in eastern Europe are also producers. The Netherlands is also a major distribution point. It funnels ecstasy produced in Eastern Europe to points in Europe.

In the late 1990s, about 80 percent of the world’s ecstasy was produced in clandestine urban and rural laboratories in the Netherlands. Along the Dutch-Belgian border a number of labs were set up in abandoned barns and garden sheds, where chemicals were sometimes mixed in filthy cans. The cost of producing a single pill is about $.10.

In the early 2000s, ecstasy tablets were manufactured in makeshift mobile labs set up inside large trucks or floating barges. Many were run by Israeli gangsters. Dutch officials tried to shut down the labs but said they were "overwhelmed" by the extent of the problem.

Ecstasy Sales and Distribution

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Seized Ecstasy
Ecstasy sells for about $20 to $50 a hit on the street and at raves and clubs. According to the United Nations annual report on drugs, issued in June 2009, global production of stimulants---namely methamphetamines and ecstasy---rose in 2008.

Much of the ecstasy in Europe and the United States is distributed by Israeli and Russian organized crime. Egyptians, Syrians and Koreans are also reportedly involved in the trade. Many of the Israelis in the trade are Russian émigrés with prior convictions for cocaine and heroin smuggling. Many are also involved in diamond smuggling from Antwerp, which has traditionally been the turf of the Russian mafia.

Couriers to the United States have included Hasidic Jews, middle-class Texas families and Los Angeles strippers. Young Hasidic Jews, recruited because they were believed to arouse little suspicion by customs inspectors, reportedly have been given $1,500 each for carrying 30,000 to 45,000 pills in their suitcases. One major ring has used Federal Express to ship large amounts of ecstasy from Amsterdam to places in Europe via Korea, France and Mexico.

Efforts to Crack Down on Ecstasy

Most of the chemical used to make Ecstasy are controlled by international law. The Europe Commission has proposed disrupting the drug manufacturing business by placing more restrictions on chemicals that can be used to make Ecstasy, amphetamines and LSD. They also want to expand present drug laws to cover new synthetic drugs that appear on the market. At present it takes two to three years for a new drug to become outlawed.

Unlike heroin, cannabis and cocaine, which all originate from field plants, amphetamine and ecstasy production can not be monitored by satellites because it takes place in garages, shacks and small factories that can not be easily identified.

Image Source: DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Text Sources: Buzzed, the Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy by Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D., Duke University Medical Center (W.W. Norton, New York, 2003); National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, The Independent, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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