Rapture and fears

There’s a lot of talk about Ecstasy these days. That’s 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, or MDMA, the drug that in most users triggers the “rapturous delight” that so entices them, and so frightens parents and law-enforcement officials.

From fairly benign takes in the New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone to a long, mostly knee-jerk report in the Detroit Free Press, Ecstasy has been making the journalistic rounds.

There was a first of its kind “State of Ecstasy” conference in San Francisco in February, drawing users, therapists and law-enforcement officials. During that same month in Seattle, an Academy of Forensic Sciences convention spent a day discussing Ecstasy. Let’s just say that the pill is on the tips of a lot of tongues these days — of both users and haters.

A recent World Health Organization report said that drug use has generally held steady or declined in recent years, except for rising use of Ecstasy among young people. The newest recreational drug of choice creates a euphoria in the user and an empathy for others; it enhances physical sensations and brings an introspective sense of well-being.

Physically, the drug causes a feeling of euphoria by triggering a flood of serotonin and dopamine — naturally occurring substances in the brain. The main downside is that with natural serotonin depleted, the user may experience depression afterward. It takes about a week for seratonin levels to return to normal, so regular users can end up taking more and more while getting less and less high. The other problem is that, especially on the dance-club scene, a user can become dehydrated — or their body temperature can rise. Hence the expensive bottled water ever-present at places where people are likely to take Ecstasy.

People feeling good about themselves and others. Dancing the night away. Don’t do it too often and make sure you drink water. These seem to be rather benign effects.

Oh, yeah — and it can kill you.

Sherry Goodson, a 21-year-old Sterling Heights mother, took two Ecstasy tablets while celebrating New Year’s Eve at Motor nightclub in Hamtramck. Around midnight, just as 2001 was rolling in, Goodson began convulsing and went into a coma. A few days later she was pronounced dead. Her boyfriend was charged with possession and distribution for giving her the pills.

Goodson’s is one of a relatively small, though growing, number of deaths attributed to Ecstasy. That Sherry Goodson died is tragic, an example of the possible terrible consequences of drugs. Fair enough — except that authorities have been telling people not to take drugs for decades and people continue to take drugs. Lots of them. To the tune of billions of dollars in profits for the drug traffickers.

“Why aren’t young people listening? I blame the media which overexaggerates the risk so that no one will believe what the risks of Ecstasy are,” said Stephen Kish, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “The other problem is that science isn’t clear about the long-term effects of Ecstasy. We don’t know. Science is not clear yet, and the media will take a 20-second sound bite to overstate the danger of Ecstasy, and when that happens young people don’t believe it.”

Prohibition follies

Throughout history, people have always figured out a way to get themselves a buzz. As Mark Greer, executive director of DrugSense (www.drugsense.org), an organization focused on providing accurate information on drug policy, says, “Prohibition of anything has never been effective in the history of man.”

And when you look at the harm of the drug war, from the recent deaths of a mother and child whose plane was shot down over Peru, to the Detroit police officer killed in a drug raid, to the billions of dollars spent in this wasted cause and the number of otherwise peaceful citizens jailed, it gives you pause.

Now Ecstasy has been targeted, tossed into the same class with heroin and cocaine, with ever-stiffening penalties for sale and possession. We’re going down the same road with Ecstasy as with marijuana. And that is exactly where the drug war loses young people.

The lies and overstatements are so transparent that young people begin to doubt everything they hear about drugs from adults. Not that their peers are better informed. But they see friends taking drugs with no apparent ill effects. The kid in English class doesn’t seem the depraved monster they’ve been told drug users are. And it’s all downhill from there as far as believing the grown-ups.

Ecstacy — like marijuana — is simply not in the same class as cocaine and heroin.

Then you point to the deaths caused by Ecstasy and say it kills. And that is sadly true. Yet, as Simon Reynolds wrote in his 1999 book, Generation Ecstasy, “Statistically, you’re more at risk driving to the rave than being on E at the rave.”

Increasing penalties and driving it further underground creates more problems than it solves. The drug is produced in illicit labs with no standard purity or dosage guaranteed; lots of pills being pushed as Ecstasy are not. And the zero-tolerance mentality only tells people not to take drugs, not what to do when drugs are taken.

But there seems to be a growing space for a drug dialogue without everyone blowing an emotional fuse. A growing number of people — even politicians — are arguing for drug policies that focus more on treatment and education rather than criminalizing people for drug use. Which is where organizations such as DrugSense and DanceSafe come in.

DanceSafe (www.dancesafe.org) volunteers agree that there are no safe drugs, but there are ways to reduce the danger.

“We go to places where people are likely to use drugs and give information so that they can make better decisions about their lifestyle,” says Doris Payer, a volunteer with the Detroit chapter ([email protected]) of the organization. “So they can know what they are doing and hopefully act a little more safely.”

DanceSafe also sells drug-testing equipment, and members sometimes set up tables at dance clubs and parties for drug testing so that people who think they are taking Ecstasy can be sure that they are.

“It takes about five seconds to test a pill,” Payer says. “It’s really, really quick.”

Payer says that at one event three-quarters of the pills they tested were not Ecstasy. Talk about a recipe for trouble.

Soul searching

OK, so you say that they shouldn’t have been taking drugs in the first place. True. But telling people not to take drugs is like telling teenage boys not to drive fast. It’s an often futile exercise.

Is decriminalization or legalization the way to go? The same WHO report that pointed to a rise in Ecstasy use also showed that the percentage of drug users in the United States is higher than in Europe — where several countries have more lenient policies. Maybe a little soul-searching in America about why people feel the need to take drugs would be useful.

Might a different policy have saved Sherry Goodson? Maybe not. But then, maybe regulated Ecstasy would have a standard dosage. Maybe more user education would have steered her away from either the first pill she took that night — or away from the second pill that killed her.

Maybe a different policy would have saved her. Maybe not. But in the bigger picture, there are definitely more people being harmed by drug war policies than are being harmed by drugs.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]