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JIM LEHRER: There was a Senate hearing at the Capitol this morning about ecstasy, the new drug of choice among teens that has produced a 50 percent increase in emergency room visits in the United States. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s become part of the scene, dance parties, called raves, that attract hundreds of teenagers, some as young as 13.
They go for the loud, pounding beat of techno music. They go to socialize and let their inhibitions down. But the real worry is that an alarming number go to raves to find the new drug of choice, ecstasy. In just a few years, the drug has become hip among teenagers. One tablet at $20 to $70 a pop will produce an euphoric high that sometimes lasts over six hours. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the percent of teenagers that have tried ecstasy or use it recreationally doubled from 5% in 1995 to almost 10% in 2000. That makes it equal to teen usage of cocaine and LSD.
DR. ALAN LESHNER: Ecstasy is sort of the emerging drug crisis that’s confronting almost the entire country now.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Alan Leshner is the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
DR. ALAN LESHNER: This year for the for the first time we saw an actual spike, an increase in the use of ecstasy by 12th graders, by tenth graders, even by eighth graders, 13- and 14-year-old kids. So we’re very concerned about it and we think this is a public health crisis in the making.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ecstasy, once used therapeutically by psychiatrists, later deemed illegal by the federal government, is a stimulant and hallucinogen that is produced in pill form illegally in Holland and Belgium. It’s a chemical compound named MDMA. When taken, it causes the brain cells to release serotonin, the body’s chief regulator of mood, giving the person a burst of energy and euphoria.
Joanna, a 16-year- old high school student who wanted to have her identity concealed, is a frequent user of ecstasy.
JOANNA: Well, it really intensifies your emotions and it makes everything seem like a much bigger deal. And so, like, being happy, you’re being really happy. And then there’s the whole skin thing where you just, like, everything that you touch feels really good. And it’s just interesting to feel different things and, like, vibrations and soft stuff.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some users call it the hug drug because it creates a desire to hug and touch, as this video from the federal government’s drug enforcement agency shows. Others like to use glow sticks because of their brain’s reaction to light and movement. Many kids on ecstasy use pacifiers and suckers to keep their teeth from grinding, a common side effect. Joanna acknowledges the drug has another downside.
JOANNA: It really does mess with your emotions and make you, like, more unstable. And the day after I would usually cry.
DR. ALAN LESHNER: There’s a myth out there that ecstasy is a harmless, benign substance, and that’s just false. The fact is that even in the short term, some people are extremely sensitive to its stimulant effects. They respond dramatically to the rise in body temperature that it can cause. It can affect your heart rate, et cetera, and then, of course, over time, it’s now well established that it damages critical brain cells, cells that use the transmitter substance serotonin.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far there have only been short-term studies done on humans showing the effects on the brain and human body. Leshner says the current research does point to some permanent damage to the brain.
DR. ALAN LESHNER: This shows you your brain after ecstasy. What we’re measuring here is the ability of an individual’s brain to use that chemical serotonin that you need for normal memory function or mood control. Bright is more, dull is less. What you see on top is a normal individual, and of course you can see bright, healthy serotonin binding. On the bottom you see the brain of an ecstasy user three weeks after the individual stopped using ecstasy. Ecstasy actually injures the brain in ways that last long after you stop using it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. John Morgan, a Professor of Pharmacology at City University in New York, says more research is needed before any conclusions are drawn.
DR. JOHN MORGAN: Every weekend in Europe and in the United States, millions of young people take it, spend an evening and recover without obvious harm. There’s certain findings with ecstasy in the animal brain having to do with diminished serotonin transport. And in the animal brain at high doses, that’s actually associated with some damage to the structure of the cell. It’s entirely appropriate to try to find out if that occurs in humans. But what I think has happened heretofore is that within inconclusive research, people have decided– particularly the federal government has decided– it happens in humans, and they have to wage an all-out campaign.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the last two years, there have been a string of deaths related to ecstasy. This boy, who took ecstasy that night, eventually went into a coma and died.
DR. ALAN LESHNER: If they’re in a hot setting, they can actually go into what are called febrile convulsions, the convulsions you have with a fever. And you can die from that. If your body temperature goes too high, obviously, you’re going to die. We just don’t know enough yet about what the literal causes of death are, but of course if you think about it, it’s all related to the drug.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ecstasy also causes an overwhelming thirst. This 16-year-old Colorado girl died from water intoxication after drinking too much water after taking the drug for the first time. Authorities see evidence that use of the drug is spreading. Lt. Jim Smith of Colorado’s Boulder County drug task force says he believes the drug has moved from the rave scene to suburban basements.
LT. JIM SMITH: It’s pretty simple to say that’s the only time people are going to see this drug, is in a club. You know, so I keep my kid out of a club, I’m home free.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that’s not the case?
LT. JIM SMITH: That is not the case at all. We have probably seen it more in a recreational environment, similar to marijuana or cocaine or any other drug, than a club environment.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The U.S. Customs Office seized 400,000 ecstasy pills in 1997. Turning up the heat on smugglers, Customs seized 9.5 million tablets in the year 2000, and halfway through this year, they’ve already apprehended more than five million tablets. Since ecstasy means big money for suppliers– the tablets only cost pennies to make– big suppliers are getting into the act. Charles Winwood is the Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs.
CHARLES WINWOOD: There is a growing concern in the law enforcement community, that like heroin and cocaine and other forms of illegal substances that have a lot of crime and violence associated with them, we’re beginning to see the same thing in the ecstasy trade.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dealing ecstasy has become more dangerous. A 21-year-old dealer from outside Washington, D.C., is one of many killed over ecstasy. Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, the hit man for the Gambino crime family, recently was connected to an ecstasy ring in Arizona.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even those users who escape the violence are putting themselves at risk since there are a lot of different drugs being marketed as ecstasy. A Web page helps users identify what they have bought, but not all pills on the street have been tested. Teenagers like Joanna often feel safe with the pills they are buying because they think they know the source.
JOANNA: You just have to trust people and basically just get pills from– like I do– from somebody that I know and trust.
LT. JIM SMITH: She doesn’t know who her friend buys from or the four or five people that her friend buys from. Those people don’t know the source of their pills.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Emmanuel Sferios started Dance Safe to protect kids like Joanna. The group informs teens about the drug’s dangers, and even tests pills so kids will know exactly what they are using.
EMANUEL SFERIOS: We have been able to prevent thousands of young people from consuming tablets that they thought contained ecstasy but in fact didn’t, and many of these we know because there have been over 15 deaths in the United States in the last year alone from PMA, one of the many substitutes that are often found in ecstasy tablets on the market.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Authorities hope new measures will soon mean fewer kids will be getting high on ecstasy. Pressure is being put on club owners and rave sponsors to clean up their act. In some cities, pacifiers and glow sticks are now considered illegal drug paraphernalia. And the federal government has made the possession and sale of ecstasy five times more serious than heroin on a per dose basis. Jail sentences have been tripled. Experts like Leshner continue to believe, as long as kids believe ecstasy is a safe drug, its popularity will continue to grow.