Pubdate: Sun, 10 Dec 2000
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2000 The Eagle-Tribune
Contact:  P.O. Box 100 Lawrence, MA 01842
Fax: (978) 687-6045
Author: Fernanda Santos


"Mary" tried Ecstasy for the first time this summer at Salisbury 
Beach. She popped a bright-green pill stamped "007" just before 
sunset and embarked on a voyage she said helped her come to grips 
with her chubby looks.

"I felt so beautiful," said the Haverhill High sophomore. "My skin 
felt like silk, and it felt like I'd left the whole world behind and 
it was just me and my friends floating around at the beach."

Ecstasy is an illegal drug that plays with the brain cells and can 
have serious physical, psychological -- and legal -- consequences. 
But nationwide and locally, more and younger teens like Mary are 
trying it. Ecstasy has permeated their world and is slowly becoming 
the drug of choice among local high school students, especially in 
suburban towns, police say.

"We're concerned about it because we're seeing more and more of it in 
this town, and we never saw it two or three years ago," said Andover 
Detective Sgt. Donald H. Pattullo. "The kids who live in Andover and 
in some other towns in the Merrimack Valley have money -- some have 
allowances, others work -- so it's not a problem for them to buy this 

Parents, who may have grown up with marijuana but are unfamiliar with 
Ecstasy, are starting to ask questions about the drug's dangers, 
police say.

A report issued Nov. 27 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America 
found that Ecstasy use among seventh-to 12-graders nationwide has 
doubled since 1995.

The report found that trial use of Ecstasy among teens has increased 
from 5 percent in 1995 to 10 percent this year. In contrast, the 
number of teens who said they had tried marijuana was at 40 percent 
- -- slightly down from the 41 percent reported last year.

"I know a lot of people who have taken 'E'," said Julie-Anne Plouffe, 
a senior and class officer at Methuen High who has never tried the 
drug. "The first time they take it I think it's because they're 
curious. ... A lot of people take it when they go out dancing and 
they seem to enjoy it. I think it makes them relaxed."

Ecstasy is one of a handful of street names for MDMA, or 
3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a powdery synthetic chemical 
derived from an oil of the sassafras tree. Manufactured primarily in 
clandestine labs overseas, MDMA is pressed into pills, stamped with 
identifying designs and smuggled into the United States.

The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 2 million Ecstasy 
pills enter the country illegally every week, most of it smuggled 
through air or ocean cargo. Once on American soil, the pills are 
distributed and sold mainly in night clubs, though they can also be 
found in high schools and on college campuses across the nation.

A 17-year-old who goes to Andover High said the pill is as easy to 
get as it is to find someone willing to buy a case of beer for an 
underage drinker. "It's everywhere," added the youth, who asked not 
to be named.

John Gartland, special agent in charge of the DEA's operations in New 
England, said Ecstasy has become a "huge problem" in the region over 
the last year. The agency has teamed up with local, state and federal 
officials to crack down on the distribution, sale and use of the 
drug, which has reached an all-time high since 1997.

Throughout the five New England states, law enforcement officials 
have seized 400,000 Ecstasy pills so far this year -- a 400 percent 
increase since 1997, when they seized 10,000 pills, Mr. Gartland said.

"We now have 43 active investigations targeting groups that are 
distributing Ecstasy in New England; three years ago, we had none," 
he said. "This is a substance that can be made for 20, 30 cents a 
tablet and sold at a retail price of $25 to $40. It's all about money 
- -- and it's about finding a market, attacking it aggressively and 
trying to convince people that Ecstasy is not a danger."

One of the reasons Ecstasy has become so attractive to young users is 
that it is commonly sold in the form of tablets, which have been part 
of people's lives since their early years.

As a 24-year-old Lawrence native and Ecstasy user put it, "When your 
head hurts, you take Tylenol. When you're feeling depressed, you take 
Prozac. When you can't concentrate in school, you take Ritalin. And 
when you're sad, you take Ecstasy."

The Eagle-Tribune interviewed a handful of local teen-agers who have 
used Ecstasy. The names of those quoted in this story were either 
changed or omitted to protect their identities.

High And Low

Ecstasy -- which has been dubbed the "love drug" -- is said to 
produce profoundly positive feelings, eliminate anxiety, and suppress 
the need to eat, drink or sleep, enabling users to easily endure the 
all-night dance parties known as raves. About half an hour after 
swallowing a hit, Ecstasy users begin to feel peaceful, empathetic 
and energetic -- not edgy, just clear. The drug allows their minds to 
wander, but users say they still remain in control.

"The first time you take a pill, you feel better than you've ever 
felt in your life," Mary said. "It's almost an orgasmic feeling. 
There's an extremely high fun factor involved with taking Ecstasy. It 
makes people happy very easily."

An Ecstasy high can last as many as six hours, with its peak varying 
between one to three hours. Ecstasy is popular because it appears to 
have few negative consequences -- and because all it takes to get 
high is to drop the aspirin-size, colorful pill.

"You don't have to smoke it, you don't have to snort it, and you 
don't have to inject it," said Kevin J. Stanton, deputy director of 
the Governor's Alliance Against Drugs. "A lot of kids don't like to 
inhale or to inject drugs, so when they do Ecstasy, it's like they're 
taking a pharmaceutical prescription, but what many of these kids 
don't know is that there are serious consequences involved with using 
the drug."

With Ecstasy's elation comes an array of potentially dangerous 
short-term effects that include tremors, increase in body 
temperature, loss of bodily fluid, involuntary teeth clenching, 
muscle cramping, blurred vision, hallucinations, chills, nausea and 
sweating, experts say. Overdoses are characterized by high blood 
pressure, faintness, panic attacks and, in more severe cases, loss of 
consciousness, seizures and drastic rises in body temperature.

Ecstasy-related emergency room incidents rose from 68 in 1993 to 
1,142 in 1998, according to national statistics provided by the Drug 
Abuse Warning Network.

Some neuroscientists say Ecstasy's perils stem from the same 
neurochemical reaction that causes its pleasures.

After MDMA enters the bloodstream, it aims with a laser-like 
precision at the brain cells that release serotonin -- a chemical 
messenger that controls mood, appetite, sleep, memory and body 
temperature -- causing them to disgorge their contents.

By taking Ecstasy, users risk short-circuiting the body's ability to 
control its temperature, according to a 1999 study published in the 
Journal of Neuroscience. In some cases, the study says, the body 
temperature can climb as high as 110 degrees, and at such extreme, 
the blood starts to coagulate.

In the past decade, Mr. Stanton said, 69 people around the world have 
died this way.

Suburban Market

Until recently, young professionals and college students who frequent 
the club scene were the main targets of Ecstasy dealers, but the drug 
has now become popular among high school students.

In 1997, 4 percent of 12th-grade students nationwide tried Ecstasy, 
but in 1999, the figure jumped to 5.5 percent, according to DEA 
statistics. Among 10th-graders, the numbers are 3.9 percent and 4.4 
percent respectively.

Police officers in Andover, Methuen and North Andover agree that 
Ecstasy is mostly marketed to upper middle-class teens, who have no 
problem affording it. While cocaine and heroin have plagued 
inner-city neighborhoods with their low cost -- a bag of heroin sells 
for $5 in Lawrence streets -- Ecstasy is starting to spread in 
affluent towns despite its high price.

In March, Andover police seized 100 Ecstasy hits and arrested the man 
they said was trying to sell the pills from a hotel parking lot. 
Other busts happened this summer in Pelham, N.H., and Kingston, N.H., 
resulting in the arrest of eight people, who were charged with trying 
to sell Ecstasy to undercover police officers.

Those who are caught using or selling Ecstasy face between one and 20 
years in jail -- a sentence as harsh as that imposed on cocaine and 
heroin users and dealers.

"Ecstasy is a difficult drug to find because some of the kids take it 
at home or at a friend's house and then go out, so they're not 
possessing it when they're out on the street," said an undercover 
Andover detective.

In October, North Andover police nabbed a 23-year-old Methuen man 
they said was bringing 5,000 Ecstasy pills into town. Earlier in the 
year, police seized 1,000 pills, but failed to make an arrest.

"Six thousand tablets is a frightening statistic," Detective Lt. Paul 
J. Gallagher said. "When that amount of Ecstasy comes into a suburban 
town like North Andover, it's quite scary. We haven't seen too many 
possession cases yet, but if these drug dealers are coming here with 
that many pills, there has to be someone out there buying it."

The Internet is one of the most effective marketing tools used by 
dealers to market their product, according to DEA officials. A search 
of the keyword "Ecstasy" produced 141,000 matches -- from scores of 
newspaper and magazine articles on the drug, to Web sites such as, which carries testimonials from people who say the drug 
can treat schizophrenia and help you make "contact with dead 

A major obstacle for police in the war against Ecstasy is the fact 
that Ecstasy is so small that it can be easily concealed and that 
dealers can easily blend in with buyers, local law enforcement 
officials said.

"The Ecstasy dealer is totally different from the heroin or cocaine 
dealer," said the Andover detective, who did not want to be 
identified because of his undercover work. "You're talking about kids 
with a lot of money who don't look too different from a high school 

Mr. Gartland said dealers will walk into a party, approach and 
befriend the teens and get them to use the drug through peer pressure.

"Of course nobody will make you do it, but it's a fact that Ecstasy 
is out there and for the first few times kids use it, the drug seems 
to be fun," he said. "What they don't know is that they will build up 
tolerance and will need more and more pills to get high, but when 
they abstain from the drug, they will start feeling depressed. And 
once the damage is done, there's no way back."

Last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse released a study that 
provided the first direct evidence that Ecstasy can cause 
long-lasting damage to brain areas responsible for thought and 
memory. Researchers found that habitual Ecstasy users have memory 
problems that persist for at least two weeks after they stop using 
the drug, though they have yet to determine how long the damage 
persists and what the consequences are to human behavior.

Educating Parents

In August, the federal government launched a $5 million radio and 
Internet campaign to educate parents about the dangers of Ecstasy. 
With spots in 106 radio markets across the country and advertising on 
popular Web sites, the campaign also warns parents that because most 
all-night dance parties are alcohol-free, they are not necessarily 
safe for teens.

"One of the things we're trying to do is to get parents and school 
teachers involved in learning exactly what Ecstasy is, what the 
effects are," Mr. Stanton said. "Ecstasy really wasn't a popular drug 
two generations ago. Most parents know a good deal about marijuana 
and alcohol, but they know little about Ecstasy."

Over the past 10 months, the DEA has been running an extensive 
program with law enforcement officials, educators, community leaders 
and students. Just last week, Mr. Gartland said, 450 people -- 
including local police officers, state police troopers and high 
school teachers -- spent the day learning about the drug and its 
dangers. "We're very aggressively trying to get the word out."

Local police have also joined in the fight. Some police departments 
have been visiting schools and talking to seventh-to 12th-graders 
about health risks that come with dropping Ecstasy.

Because Ecstasy has only recently begun to circulate in the area, 
police are also taking the time to talk about it to older officers, 
who may never before have seen or dealt with the drug.

In North Andover a few months ago, Lt. Gallagher said he took some 
time to show the old-timers what Ecstasy pills look like and explain 
the effects on users and the type of behavior to watch for.

"What's also happening now is that we have a lot of parents and 
school teachers calling the station to try and find out what Ecstasy 
is," he added. "It's a fairly new drug to all of us, and I guess we 
all have to be educated one way or another."
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