Pubdate: Mon, 26 Feb 2001
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2001 The Dallas Morning News
Contact:  P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas   75265
Fax: (972) 263-0456
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Author: Charlie Brennan
Note: Charlie Brennan is a free-lance writer based in Boulder, Colo.

ECSTASY ALLURE GROWS DESPITE HEALTH RISKS

Popularity Among Youths Concerns Anti-Drug Groups

DENVER  Brittney Chambers' friends thought they could give her a safe high 
for her 16th birthday, presenting the girl with a green "ecstasy" pill 
shaped like a four-leaf clover.

But that myth was shattered when Brittney died Feb. 2 after drinking too 
much water to offset side effects from the popular party drug. And the 
message was driven home further three days after a memorial service for 
Brittney, when a 15-year-old girl was hospitalized after taking three 
ecstasy pills that she bought at a dance club.

Experts across the country point to the two Denver-area cases as proof that 
while ecstasy's popularity is soaring among youths who see it as an 
innocent drug, it can be nothing short of lethal.

"Using ecstasy is like playing Russian roulette," said Dr. H. Westley 
Clark, director for the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment in 
Rockville, Md. "It may be that only two out of 100 people are going to die, 
but is ecstasy so important to you that you want to be one of those two?"

The second girl, whose name was not disclosed, was hospitalized for two 
days after being admitted in a state of toxic delirium. Doctors said she 
had taken the drug on several occasions without problems.

"This drug has a very warm, fuzzy public relations image associated with 
it," said Dr. Ken Kulig, a toxicologist at Littleton Adventist Hospital, 
where the second girl was treated. "But I hope this case and the Brittney 
Chambers case will alert teens in this area that this is a very bad thing 
to do. This is a dangerous, dangerous drug."

Ecstasy  also called "E," "X," "Adam" and "XTC"  is chemically known as 
methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA. It was first synthesized and 
patented by a German pharmaceutical company in the early 1900s but was not 
outlawed in the United States until 1985.

Popular at raves

Described by Dr. Kulig as a chemical hybrid between methamphetamine and the 
hallucinogen mescaline, it is popular with devotees of so-called rave 
clubs, where users find it provides a sense of euphoria and energy to keep 
them dancing for hours. A typical dose is one pill.

An Internet posting from an ecstasy user identified as "angel_X" offers 
this representative narrative: "When I get up to walk, I feel like I'm 
flying, totally weightless. ... I lovE getting hugs and 'shaking hands,' 
and I feel so warm and loving."

Several measures indicate that the popularity of ecstasy has spread far 
beyond the narrow demographic of dance-club clientele.

The U.S. Customs Service confiscated 400,000 doses of ecstasy entering the 
country in fiscal 1997; by contrast, it intercepted 9.3 million doses in 
fiscal 2000, customs spokesman Dean Boyd said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration confiscated more than 1,775,000 doses 
of ecstasy nationwide last year, compared with 26,111 in 1997, said Dennis 
Follett, a spokesman for the DEA's Denver office.

Police say the increased seizures of the drug signal wider use, and that's 
backed up by an annual survey of 45,000 secondary school students released 
in December by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The 
study showed a 38 percent increase from the previous year in the number of 
12th-graders who have used ecstasy. It was the largest one-year increase 
among high school seniors for any drug in the 26-year history of the study.

"It's perceived as harmless and non-addictive, which is contrary to the 
facts," Mr. Follett said. "And when there's a perception that there's no 
risk, young adults are more likely to use this substance."

Law-enforcement officials say they are responding to the drug's increased 
popularity by targeting the suppliers.

The Customs Service created an ecstasy task force last March to combat its 
influx, primarily from the Netherlands and Belgium. Customs has about 75 
dogs trained to detect the drug at entry points around the country and 
plans to add more this year.

"We can only do so much as law enforcement," said Mr. Boyd, the customs 
spokesman. "We can plug holes in the dike, but there's a lot of people out 
there who are convinced this is a harmless drug, the neatest thing since 
sliced bread. But the facts tell us otherwise."

Efforts are under way to get that message out. The Partnership for a 
Drug-Free America, in conjunction with the Office of National Drug Control 
Policy, launched a federally funded radio advertising campaign Jan. 15, 
urging parents to educate themselves about ecstasy and to talk to their 
children about the drug's dangers.

Deaths tied directly to ecstasy are rare. The best statistics come from the 
federal Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN, and cover 40 metro areas 
nationwide. Because they are based on a wide range of reporting policies, 
the published numbers are not definitive.

The DAWN report for December 2000 showed nine ecstasy deaths in 1998, the 
last year for which numbers were available. Dr. Clark said 27 deaths have 
been tied to ecstasy from 1994 through 1998.

The dangers of ecstasy cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse range 
from short-term dehydration, hypothermia and high blood pressure to 
long-term problems such as brain and liver damage.

Measures taken to combat its adverse health effects can backfire fatally, 
as happened with Brittney Chambers.

Some users drink more fluids to counter dehydration, but that can also be 
dangerous because the drug releases an anti-diuretic hormone that impedes 
the body's natural secretion of fluids.

Brittney's brother told authorities that she drank 3 gallons of water 
within 45 minutes. Boulder County coroner John Meyer said that diluted the 
sodium ions in her blood and triggered swelling in her brain, resulting in 
a coma from which she never awoke.

Doctors said the other Colorado girl also showed a dangerously low level of 
blood sodium upon arrival at the hospital.

"The mechanism is the same," Dr. Kulig said. "The serum sodium in both 
young ladies was excessively low, and that is a life-threatening event. One 
survived and the other did not."

Boulder County sheriff's Lt. Jim Smith, commander of an eight-agency county 
drug task force, marveled that publicity surrounding Brittney's death did 
little to avert a second incident.

Boulder authorities are prosecuting in juvenile court the four friends who 
they say gave Brittney the fatal dose of ecstasy. A couple accused of 
selling the drug to the girl's friends have been charged with several 
felonies, including a sentence-enhancing count for selling the drug on a 
school campus.

Police have accused a 15-year-old boy of selling the three pills to the 
second girl. He turned himself in to police and was charged as juvenile 
with one count of drug distribution.

In the Boulder coroner's comments after Brittney's death, he emphasized 
that one of ecstasy's dangers is the unpredictability of the body's 
response. He was echoed by Lt. Smith.

'No quality control'

"Your experience with it one day might not be the same the next," he said. 
"And what is for certain with this drug is that there is absolutely no 
quality control. Most people that get this drug have no idea what they're 
taking, or what it has been cut with. You're just kind of banking the 
quality of your high on what someone wants to sell you to make money."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart