Interview with DanceSafe's Emanuel Sferios 8/11/00

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As the ecstasy situation continues to heat up, Emanuel Sferios of DanceSafe is in a unique position to comment. DanceSafe is a harm reduction-based organization best known for providing access to pill-testing for purity or adulteration at raves or through its several offices. DanceSafe can be found on the world wide web at

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WOL: We have Customs figures that show a dramatic increase in ecstasy imports and we certainly have increased law enforcement attention, but the measures for ecstasy use, such as the DAWN emergency-room reporting system and the "Monitoring the Future" surveys of high school students are both tenuous and behind the curve. Is ecstasy use really increasing?

Sferios: I think it is the hot drug now. Aside from my work, those are the only indicators I have. I think the "Monitoring the Future" project is a good indicator, but the number is probably higher because of self-reporting, the tendency for people to understate their involvement in illegal acts. We should note, however, that in England the figure is 17% of high school students having used ecstasy as opposed to the 2.5% here. The only reason is that England is closer to the source. The US is lagging behind a couple of years because of the time it takes for criminal syndicates to develop effective import strategies.

There is no reason to assume that ecstasy will not be as popular in the US as in rest of the Western world. The drug produces a very pleasant experience that is highly appreciated by a great many people. It's appreciated by middle class professionals who would otherwise not use an illicit drug, such as speed or heroin, because ecstasy simply doesn't have the side effects, doesn't destroy peoples' lives like addictive substances. It produces an almost therapeutic experience; many users report ecstasy use helped them.

The bad news is frequent use can cause depression in many people. It's very common. Heavy users will often report depression in midweek. My professional opinion is that those people may have preexisting depression that ecstasy exacerbates through depletion of serotonin. This is all happening without there necessarily being any neurotoxic effect.

WOL: But Gen. McCaffrey is telling us that it causes brain damage.

Sferios: This has become the leading justification for the crackdown and the heavy enforcement emphasis being taken by the police and the DEA; they're claiming to be saving the children from this drug that produces brain damage. But there is currently no evidence that there is any permanent cognitive impairment from ecstasy use. In the 11 studies comparing heavy ecstasy users with a control group on which this argument is based, only about half of them found slight but statistically significant differences in short-term memory, and only short-term memory. Even here, those differences were subclinical; no one's memory was considered to be a problem. We know there's probably neurotoxic damage going on in heavy users, but we don't see any evidence for permanent cognitive impairment.

I can say that there is no one on the planet today who has put more effort into explaining the risks of ecstasy neurotoxicity than myself. And I can say that neurotoxic effects should have no bearing whatsoever on crafting drug policy. Take alcohol, for example. Alcohol is also neurotoxic and damages the brain so significantly that it doesn't take any sophisticated controlled studies to see its effects on the brains of alcoholics. Yet we have decriminalized and regulated alcohol in such a way as to reduce the harm it has upon young people in our society. If ecstasy is extremely dangerous, the most appropriate response would be harm reduction. If ecstasy is a relatively benign, the most appropriate response is harm reduction. The most appropriate response is harm reduction.

WOL: What about these reports of deaths, overdoses and emergency room visits?

Sferios: The vast majority are heatstroke. Heatstroke can happen whether or not a person has taken a stimulant drug, although stimulants certainly increase the chances. The emergency room visits and the vast majority of deaths have not resulted from an overdose of ecstasy but rather from behaviors and an environment which contributes to heatstroke. By calling these incidents ecstasy-related, the media gives users the false impression that as long as they don't take too much they'll be okay. But these are not overdoses; the adverse reaction is not related to the amount of the drug consumed.

The good news is that adverse reactions such as heatstroke are easily preventable. Harm reduction methods which educate users to drink water and stay cool have greatly reduced the number of medical emergencies and deaths in the rave scene in England. Regulation of the rave industry would help. DanceSafe is going to launch a national "safe settings" campaign to encourage club owners to adopt harm reduction measures.

WOL: Much of the ecstasy furor seems to be infused with fear or disdain toward the rave culture. Any comment?

Sferios: I think we live in a prohibition-industrial complex and it's easier to demonize a drug if it can be associated with a subculture that's perceived as countercultural. What's ironic about the rave culture, compared, say, to the hippie culture in the 1960s, is that young people in the rave scene don't see themselves as countercultural. The rave culture doesn't exist in an overtly political context, there is no anti-war movement, nothing like that. Remember, the music they listen to is mainstream; the same DJ's and the same drugs exist in nightclubs in major cities across the country.

Ecstasy is also popular with middle class professionals, but the police don't seem to know how to deal with that. The DEA just had an ecstasy conference in Washington, and perhaps they're trying to figure out how to disrupt its distribution and are looking at the rave scene. In their minds, this is where the drug is being sold the most. Ecstasy is not a street drug, it's not being pushed by inner city youth on street corners or in crack houses where drug selling becomes a nuisance. Ecstasy sales are more hidden and non-problematic; there is no violence. It's clear that the drug is being used by many people outside of the rave culture, but the only locations that are publicly known are the raves.

WOL: Can I tell my mother you said it's okay to take ecstasy?

Sferios: No. Any risk-taking activity is a personal decision and should be carefully thought out. If you are using ecstasy, take lower doses less often and not more than once every couple of months. Test your pills; fake ecstasy is very common. And take precautions to avoid heatstroke. Drink plenty of water. Stay cool.

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Issue #149, 8/11/00 Marijuana Spraying Kills One, Sickens Hundreds, Mexican Villagers Report | Ecstasy Panic Spreads, Draconian New Laws Claim First Victims | Interview with DanceSafe's Emanuel Sferios | New Mexico Courts Face Consequences of Asset Forfeiture Double Jeopardy Ruling | California Medical Marijuana Fight Continues | Trial for Former Gubernatorial Candidate to Resume Next Week | How Many Drug Offenders Behind Bars: New York Times Distorts the Numbers | Drug Testing on the Job Loses Popularity, Tight Labor Market Cited | Job Listing: Pennsylvania Coalition to Save Lives Now | AlertS: Colombia, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Editorial: America Needs Its Drug Users
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