cover bar Title: Ecstasy: Dancing with Mister "E"
Author: Jim Parker
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: March 2011
Catalog Number: 153

..Flirting with Ecstasy

Even the most clueless among us are hip to "ecstasy" today-thanks to the news media, who've labeled it a "thrill pill" and "love drug," and proclaimed it America's newest "drug problem."

It's called "E," "X," and "XTC" at dance clubs and concerts, N-methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphet-amine in research labs and medical journals.

But no matter what else it's called, call the hallucinogenic amphetamine MDMA (ecstasy, to you and me) controversial.

For one thing, it's been hailed by therapists for its ability to boost insight and aid communication without the freaky, unpredictable twists and turns of LSD and other hallucinogens.

On the other hand, it's been knocked by researchers, who say it may damage receptor sites in the brain for the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Adding to its early luster was that, until 1985, ecstasy wasn't even a controlled substance. That meant it was as legal as a scoop of Ben and Jerry's -- and only slightly more expensive.

No more. Laws against MDMA and its chemical cousins have pushed the drug underground -- and its price up.

But to an army of devotees, ecstasy is the ticket to the fastest fast time and the coolest cultural conclaves of the new century: raves-all-night dance parties that merge hypercharged techno music with the feel-good recreational love vibe of Generation X and Y.

That's why we put together this pamphlet. Because ecstasy is on (and in) a lot of people's minds these days.

And they need -- and have a right -- to know what's in MDMA and what's up with the downside (because there's one of those, too) of America's latest pharmacological flirtation with ecstasy.

..Research & Raves

MDMA itself is a member of a chemical family known as phenethylamines.

The group, which includes a string of similar compounds such as MDA, MMDA, and MDEA, are chemically related to both amphetamines and the hallucinogen mescaline.

Still, they're not as new as you might think.

MDA earned its counterculture stripes and its "love drug" reputation in the 1960's and '70s, due to the mild sensual arousal and euphoria it produces at low dosage levels.

MDMA rode in on its wake. First synthesized in 1914, it was little more than a forgotten formula in a research lab until it broke out onto the street in the 1970's. Initial interest in MDMA was so scarce that the government didn't even bother outlawing it.

Then the '80s rolled around, and ecstasy emerged as the gotta-try-it drug of that decade-and the next.

Skyrocketing use and early rumors of possible MDMA-related brain changes convinced the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to ban the drug in July 1985. MDEA followed in 1987.

Today, both drugs are listed as Schedule I controlled substances. That means that they-like heroin, LSD, and marijuana-have no recognized legitimate uses and are illegal under all circumstances.

And that meant that research involving the drugs ground to a fast halt, and stayed that way until 2004, when a U.S. researcher finally won authorization to study the potential value of MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

..Actions & Effects

Over the years, MDA and MDMA have been sold in powder, tablet, or capsule form, and can be inhaled, injected, or swallowed. Today, tablets are the most common format, and street prices range from $20-$30 each.

What buyers get for their money is largely determined by dose. At 50-150 mg, the drugs light up the brain's pleasure-reward system, sparking feelings of increased confidence and relaxed arousal.

This dual action is tied to changes in brain chemistry. Like amphetamine, both MDA and MDMA boost levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that regulates alertness and heart rate.

And like mescaline, both drugs also increase the supply of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that figures into a variety of physical and emotional states.

Effects begin within 30 minutes and last 4-6 hours. Side effects can include dilated pupils, dry mouth and throat, nervousness, and muscular tension.

One reason "E" found a market niche so fast (and has held onto it so long) is that its effects are more manageable than the harder-hitting effects of LSD and other drugs.

In particular, phenethylamines cause less dissociation and disorientation -- and fewer panic reactions -- than more potent psychedelics.

That fact, along with reports of MDMA's ability to enhance empathy and communication, prompted early researchers to test the drug as a possible tool in treating depression and other emotional problems.

Before the DEA halted that research, a number of U.S. psychotherapists reported favorable results with MDMA in helping patients resolve painful blocks. Their work was so promising, in fact, that it probably helped win approval of the current PTSD research.

..Up The Downside

Still, even proponents concede that the drugs can cause problems for users-particularly when self-administered and used without supervision.

First among these is the possibility of overdose -- and the related risk of hyperthermia, or dangerously high body temperature.

Since MDA and MDMA are amphetamines, tolerance develops quickly and overdose is possible. Other speed-like dangers include the risk of liver damage and plain old exhaustion.

At high doses, MDA and MDMA can trigger the same symptoms of over-amping -- with anxiety, delusions, and paranoia -- seen in heavy speed users.

The drugs can also intensify heart problems. Some early deaths tied to MDMA involved cardiac arrhythmia-irregular heartbeat-in users with previously-undiagnosed heart disease.

But the hottest current controversy surrounding ecstasy-aside from hyperthermia-related problems (See the sidebar "FYI: Rx = H2O" below, for details) -- involves questions about the drug's possible effects on the brain.

A Johns Hopkins University study of high-dose effects on monkeys and rats showed that the drug attacks areas in brain cells that manufacture the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Researchers also found evidence that the damage may last: Half the serotonin-producing nerve cells in test animals were still damaged eight weeks later.

And in a study released in May 2000, ecstasy was linked by German researchers to decreased performance on tests measuring memory and learning.

But questions remain. Evidence of neurological damage is less clear-cut in humans. And those who took the drug during psychotherapy have shown no signs of long-term problems.

Still, some experts worry that the drug's seductive effects may lull users into believing that ecstasy is side-effect-free before all the evidence is in.

..Fast Forward

And don't forget to add this to the mix about America's newest "drug problem."

Given the popularity of ecstasy-like drugs and the eternal fascination with pills that purport to open the head and heart, it won't be long before another "problem" turns up in the form of another MDA/MDMA chemical spin-off.

Underground chemists are nothing if not inventive, and they can be counted on to continue churning out supplies of the drug (and variations involving any of its dozens of chemical cousins) to meet demand for instant ecstasy, today and for the forseeable future.

And while they may be creative, they're not always good. In fact, at least two overdose deaths were linked in Spring, 2000 to an MDMA-like drug, PMA, that was sold as ecstasy.

That's why it's worth remembering -- with "E" just as much as other chemicals -- that a healthy dose of caution can be the best recreational drug option available to anyone.

Think about it. Because ecstasy doesn't mean a thing if you don't stick around to enjoy it.

..Sidebar 1 | FYI: Rx = H20

All-night dancing to the restless pulse of trance and techno music can make participants oblivious to more than just the world outside.

In some cases, dancers forget to pay attention to what's going on inside their own bodies.

And while the number of ecstasy-related deaths is low -- a handful have been reported in Britain and the United States -- dehydration, heat exhaustion, and dangerously high body temperature are common and serious enough to warrant special note.

Simply put, dancers risk slowing down for good if they stay too long at the dance.

The solution? An ancient one, as it turns out: H20. Experts recommend plenty of it -- and frequent breaks to keep cool -- for those who plan to keep on dancing (and otherwise kicking) till dawn.

..Sidebar 2 | Herbs, Hype and 'Legal' Ecstasy

For those who find dancing around fine points of drug law unnecessarily nerve-wracking, good-old American
know-how and greed have conspired to provide a variety of safe (at least, theoretically safe), legal, and over-priced ecstasy alternatives.

Like "look-alike" and "act-alike" drugs of years past, the mysteriously-misspelled "Ecstacy" and similar herbal products are promoted wherever young people with money mingle, riding the coattails of their more famous (and sought-after) pharmacological prototypes.

The ingredient line-up in herbal "E" reads like the inventory list at the local health-food store, and differs only in price from a variety of over-the-counter herbal energizers and diet pills. Ephedra used to stand alone at the top of the list, until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned it as inherently unsafe in 2004. Now, users of the products are more likely to trip out on guarana, kola nut, Siberian ginseng, and green tea, at levels that may pack too much punch for some users and none at all for others.

Adverse reactions to any one of these herbs can include rapid heartbeat, insomnia, and intense anxiety. Other severe reactions have been reported, too, and serve to underscore both the wide variability of human response to drugs of all kinds and the very real need to exercise caution whenever you exercise your right to party.

This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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