It has become the millennial “it” drug, but researchers stumbled upon what is now known as ecstasy by accident 88 years ago. While developing Hydrastinine, a never-marketed blood-vessel constrictor, German chemists created MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). The substance was patented and shelved, and did not pop up again
until the 1950s, when it was tested on animals as part of the CIA’s mind-control experiments. By the mid-1970s, however, the substance had a following among American therapists. Some swore the “hug drug” was worth months or years of intensive therapy, and lauded its unique ability to induce empathy and release buried emotions. They administered half a million doses of MDMA over the course of a decade, until the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration made it illegal in 1985, after it had become popular on campuses and in dance
clubs (it is now banned everywhere except The Netherlands). Now, ecstasy is rivalling cocaine as the second most popular recreational drug—after marijuana—not only among ravers, but also club-goers, college partyers and even, perhaps, that nice middle-class couple next door.
Police say the manufacture, smuggling and availability of ecstasy are booming. In the past 15 months, the RCMP has seized about half a million pills and capsules of MDMA and the similar but stronger MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine). The DEA has confiscated more than three million doses of MDMA since January. Ecstasy-related deaths are increasing, though the total number for Canada—at least 17—is low compared with mortality rates for other drugs.
Ecstasy causes release of the neurotransmitter serotonin,
which regulates mood, sex drive, appetite and sleep. Serotonin is also thought to be associated with the high of being in love. That MDMA-sparked surge of the feel-good chemical leads to elation, heightened senses and increased energy. It can also backfire. Those on some antidepressants or with heart problems are at greatest risk, but every user is in danger of overheating: MDMA interferes with the body’s ability to regulate internal temperature. If ravers fail to drink enough water and take rest breaks from dancing, they can suffer extreme heat stroke leading to seizures, kidney and liver failure, and, possibly, death. Yet a smaller number of ravers on ecstasy—including two in Canada—have died from consuming too much water and failing to urinate, which led to either brain swelling from reduced sodium levels in the blood, or ruptured bladders.
Ecstasy’s long-term effects, if any, are a matter of dispute. Some researchers believe that MDMA can permanently destroy serotonin receptors, causing chronic depression, memory loss and reduced ability to concentrate. But overall, many consider MDMA one of the more benign illicit drugs. “It causes relatively fewer problems,” says Cpl. Jocelyn Chagnon of the RCMP’s Drug Awareness Service in Montreal, noting that ecstasy is non-violent and physically nonaddictive. “Some of the problems and deaths are due to the confusion that happens when kids really don’t know what they put in their mouths. It may be unknowingly or knowingly mixed with more damaging drugs.” Half the pills and capsules said to contain MDMA or MDA that the RCMP seized at raves in the past year and a half actually contained other drugs. Of the half that contained MDMA or MDA, only 24 per cent was pure.
Despite the danger, ecstasy still has great word of mouth. “I felt appreciative of everything—family, friends, myself,” says Eric Malinski, 20, a business student at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. “When you’re on it, you perceive all the good in the world.” But for those who suffer adverse effects, ecstasy can be the grimmest trip of all.
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