Ecstasy And Its Agony

Often misperceived as safe, this fast-spreading 'club' drug is ensnaring teen-agers and catching parents off-guard.

January 28, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Often, Shawn Shroyer can't think straight. He stumbles over words, forgets what he's just said. Awkward pauses punctuate his speech.

He feels burnt out, fried, silently suffering in some cursed perpetual morning after -- a far cry from the whip-smart, gregarious young man that he used to be.

And he's all of 21.

Shroyer blames Ecstasy, the trendy and increasingly popular illegal drug among teens in Maryland and elsewhere. Once confined mostly to dance clubs and "raves," large, all-night techno music- fueled underground parties, Ecstasy is a little pill that's big and getting bigger.

"They'll never be able to stop it from coming in," says Shroyer, a Westminster construction supervisor who has been clean (and subject to random testing) since a drug possession arrest last summer. "Remember how coke was an '80s epidemic? I think 2001 will be Ecstasy."

The numbers suggest that's entirely possible. While teen drug use has generally fallen or stayed at about the same level for the past four years, use of Ecstasy -- a stimulant with mild hallucinogenic properties -- is on the rise.

A federal survey released last month found use of MDMA or Ecstasy among high school seniors was up nearly 50 percent last year from 1999--- jumping from 5.6 percent of 12th graders reporting Ecstasy use in the past year to 8 percent.

An identical survey -- based on anonymous self-reporting by teens -- had already uncovered a similar pattern in Maryland. Other indicators -- arrests for possessions, hospital emergency cases, police confiscations -- show considerable spikes in the past two years.

"It's the stealth drug amidst all the falling drug use," says Dr. Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda. "We're seeing a precipitous rise. Parents should be concerned."

What makes Ecstasy particularly scary, says Leshner and others in his field, is that teens and parents know so little about it. In that vacuum of knowledge, a lot of misinformation has spread -- most alarmingly that Ecstasy is safe and non-addictive.

A 'safe' drug

The widespread but misguided belief that the drug is relatively benign has helped fuel Ecstasy's dramatic rise like gasoline on a flame, says Mike Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Bureau of Substance Abuse.

"My biggest fear is that this is a drug kids are not afraid of," says Gimbel. "If they see it at a party, they're more likely to take it."

Parents can hardly be blamed for not knowing about the drug. First invented in a German lab in 1914 and used experimentally for psychiatric treatment, Ecstasy didn't gain broad recreational use until the 1980s in Europe. Suppliers didn't achieve large-scale production until the last decade, according to officials at the National Drug Intelligence Center.

As recently as 1996, it was still a relative rarity in the U.S. That year, police confiscated fewer than 12,000 Ecstasy pills -- usually small round tablets imprinted with a design such as a butterfly or a Nike-like swoosh. In 1999, police reported taking 954,878 pills.

Ecstasy arrived in raves -- and still has a strong association with the hard-pounding dance clubs and techno-music. It has been, at least initially, a drug with an appeal for young adults in the middle-class suburbs.

"We rarely see adult users of Ecstasy but we see adolescents," says Shirley Knelly, clinical director of Pathways, an Annapolis-based chemical dependence treatment program. "We see a lot more kids experimenting with it."

Sometimes known as the Hug Drug or Love Drug, Ecstasy's appeal has been to break down social barriers. Users talk about feeling a mellow glow and warmth -- both literally and figuratively. On Ecstasy, teens have the energy to dance all night and their body temperatures spike -- sometimes to dangerously high levels.

"In a dance club, you go into a normally hot situation and then raise your body temperature phenomenally," says Dr. Leshner. "What shows up in emergency rooms are these cases of hyperthermia. People go into convulsions."

Leshner says research still needs to be done on long-term effects on the brain (some recent studies have suggested potential long-term damage to the parts of brain critical to thought and memory) but some of the immediate effects are clear -- and similar to those found with amphetamines and cocaine.

Ecstasy users crash within hours after taking the drug. They can suffer confusion, depression, sleep problems, drug cravings, anxiety, paranoia and occasionally, psychotic episodes. Physical effects include nausea, blurred vision, faintness and chills.

First-hand experience

Shroyer knows a thing or two about those sensations. The day after a night on Ecstasy he was often stuck in bed recovering from the after-effects, tired and irritable.

But it didn't stop him.

"It was awesome. It was one of the best things I'd ever tried," he says. "You forget your worries. Your stress goes away. And I liked the hallucinations - the way things seemed wobbly, the tracers, the colored smoke."

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