Ecstasy Panic Looms: 1985 All Over Again? 6/2/00

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In signs of an impending moral panic, in the last three weeks, media outlets across the U.S. and Canada have published a spate of Ecstasy (MDMA) scare stories, with a major Time magazine article hitting the newsstands this coming week. The stories, clustered in the San Francisco Bay area, Western Canada, the U.S. Midwest, Toronto and Florida, tend to follow a similar pattern: young person dies after ingesting Ecstasy (or often another drug sold as Ecstasy); drug fighters raise hue and cry; reporter describes exotic rave scenes; police issue ominous warnings of impending doom.

This flurry of interest bears a remarkable resemblance to previous drug panics, including the Ecstasy panic of 1985, when the drug emerged in Texas nightclubs and was being touted in press reports as the "yuppie drug." Headlines like "Madness, Not Ecstasy" and "The Agony of Ecstasy" (which has lamentably been reached for again by more than one uninspired headline writer) prodded the DEA to undertake an emergency reclassification of the drug to the prohibitive Schedule I, severely increasing criminal penalties for its use and distribution.

Now, fifteen years later, the Ecstasy menace again threatens the nation. Or does it? In the University of Michigan's annual surveys, high school seniors report a slight upward trend in experimental use, from 5.8% in 1997 to 8% in 1998. Still, the number using Ecstasy on a monthly basis is so low -- less than one percent -- that the drug doesn't even register on the federal drug use survey.

Still, based on a handful of reported deaths and an increase in the amount of the drug seized by Customs authorities, federal officials began hyping the threat. Last November, NIDA began a web site, http://www.clubdrugs.org, as part of its public relations campaign against Ecstasy, and Customs officials show up as sources for many of the stories. In a May 19 San Francisco Chronicle story on Ecstasy, Mike Fleming, Customs spokesman in Los Angeles, tells the reporter, "It's out there in great quantities. American teenagers have fallen in love with it... it's a serious drug with serious side effects. We call it 'lobotomy in a pill.'"

In Florida, the state's new drug czar (an alumnus of the National Office on Drug Control Policy) has been caught exaggerating the threat from Ecstasy and other "club drugs." After last summer's Operation Heat Rave, a statewide raid on the clubs, Florida state drug experts decided they needed proof of the deadly epidemic. They claimed to have found a total of 254 club drug deaths, but the Orlando Sentinel ripped those findings to shreds (previous WOL coverage at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/138.html#floridacount).

The Florida paper found that the drug fighters had included every death that tested positive for a list of some 20 drugs, some widely used in the rave scene, some occasionally used, and some not even linked to that scene. Even worse, the numbers included such hard-partying teens as the 58-year-old man who died after a heart bypass, an infant crib death, middle-aged methamphetamine users and terminal cancer patients.

Now, with more than half of the "club drug" deaths being rightfully attributed to other causes, the Florida drug czar's credibility is severely damaged, and even NIDA is concerned. "Questionable data on the nature of the problem will tend to put all data in question... There's a tendency not to believe any of that government drug data," a NIDA researcher told the Sentinel.

Observers less excitable than those Florida officials recognize that MDMA is a relatively safe drug with a low death rate, although its use does carry with it serious health concerns. In the short term, the greatest danger (and the cause of most Ecstasy-related deaths) is "overheating," caused by the drug's effects on the body's ability to regulate body temperature. According to Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (http://www.maps.org), overheating deaths represent a tiny minority of Ecstasy users, and the best available numbers back him up. The national medical emergency room survey, DAWN, reports a total of 27 deaths from 1994 through 1998. And, Doblin notes, simple harm reduction measures (drink lots of fluids, move to cool or air conditioned areas) can virtually eliminate that threat.

The primary long-term health concern with MDMA remains its impact on serotonin production and changes in brain structures. The research in this area is not conclusive, but some scientists warn of possible memory loss or premature aging as a result of repeated use. Again, Doblin demurs, pointing out that these possible effects are "clinically insignificant," meaning that no research done thus far has found statistically conclusive evidence of quantifiable behavioral change.

Some of the recent deaths that have fueled press attention are in fact not from Ecstasy but from substitutes sold to unsuspecting consumers as Ecstasy. Two Chicago area youths who thought they were taking Ecstasy died when the pills they ingested turned out to be PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine), a more dangerous substance. Still, this fact did not stop the Chicago area press from parroting alarmist information from local police and prosecutors. As area police went on the alert for Ecstasy, however, other area papers were forced to admit "Ecstasy Drug Not Yet an Epidemic in the Region," (Munster Times). One suburban Chicago policeman was quoted as saying "no arrests" had been made in his district; another worried, "I don't know how bad it is now. I want to focus on how bad it is."

It is worth noting that much of the risk associated with Ecstasy derives from adulterants or substitutes, as was the case in Chicago. DanceSafe (http://www.dancesafe.org), an Oakland-based Ecstasy harm reduction organization, has reported that 20% of the tablets tested at local raves were not Ecstasy, with that figure rising to 40% for samples sent to its offices from elsewhere in the country. In the forthcoming Time article, the writers describe an Oakland rave where nine people required hospitalization; DanceSafe confirmed that all but one had actually taken something other than Ecstasy.

None of this has prevented law enforcement and elected officials at all levels from pursuing efforts to heighten penalties for MDMA use and possession. Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Bob Graham (D-FL) recently introduced the Ecstasy Antiproliferation Bill, which would dramatically decrease the amount of the drug sold needed to trigger serious trafficking charges. In Illinois, the Chicago Tribune reports, a move is afoot to elevate Ecstasy sales from a Class 3 to a Class X felony, which imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of at least six years. Class 3 felony sentences, on the other hand, range from probation to a maximum of two years.

And the drug itself is not the only target. Officials in Chicago, Toronto and Vancouver, among other places, are using the Ecstasy scare to attack raves, the popular all-night dance parties around which a young counterculture is centered. In Chicago, the City Council quietly passed an ordinance to inhibit raves. After the death of a 20-year-old at a Toronto rave last October, authorities there are considering a variety of measures to restrict or ban the parties.

The combination of a vibrant youth counterculture -- the rave scene -- and a pleasure-enhancing drug such as Ecstasy is a fertile breeding ground for a full-blown moral panic. The forthcoming article in Time is reasonably balanced (although visit http://www.maps.org/research/mdma/time.html for some criticisms), but other media, law enforcement and elected officials have their own motivations for exaggerating or sensationalizing the issue. If the past is any indication, we may well be in for the Summer of Ecstasy, and such frenzies usually result in a new round of harsh criminal penalties for the substance in question. And why not? After all, Ecstasy is "no different from crack, heroin," according to an Orlando detective quoted on 60 Minutes II in April.

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Issue #139, 6/2/00 DEA Supersnitch Goes Down in Flames, DEA Supervisors Next? Or, Who Will Investigate the Investigators? | Ecstasy Panic Looms: 1985 All Over Again? | Grow Canada: Health Canada Medical Marijuana Contract Has Bidders Abuzz | Two Drug Policy and Sentencing Reform Newsletters Come Out | ... While Another Newsletter Concludes Its Distinguished History | Pressure Builds to Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws | US Customs Urges Congress to Allow Searches of Out-of-Country Mail | Massachusetts State Senate Approves Needle Exchange Bill | Action AlertS | Media Scan | Event Calendar | Hartford, Connecticut Job Opportunity | Editorial: My First Controlled Substance
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