Fifteen Minutes: E is for Ecstasy
Somehow you ended up above the crowd. There you are in your backless shirt. Your friend spins next to you in a barely-there, pink leopard skin dress, her strappy black sandals striking the platform. A red beam of light cuts through the glittering crowd. One of the bikini-clad dancers in the center cage catches your eye. You're dizzy. You bend down to ditch the Long Island iced tea.
And then you feel his hand on the small of your back. He looks at you through the film of red, watered eyes, smiling with bleary, imagined recognition.
"Czome jsit," he says, smiling, rubbing that cold hand down your naked back. His other hand, occupied with a slightly squashed Evian bottle, motions to a chair.
"What?" you ask, barely audible above the droning sound of an unfamiliar beat.
Cigarette break. A much older guy with an abundance of hair gel appears to be digging the leopard skin dress
"Ecstasy?" he says as he squashes the butt on the sidewalk. "You should see this place on Saturday. That's when the girls they hire to dance are the most naked. It's all about sex in there; surely you know that."
You don't, but nod in knowledgeable Harvard fashion.
"Of course I've tried it. I own a club. You girls should come."
"Uh huh. Sure."
"What? You will?"
Dorm room, Harvard University.
It's pretty dark tonight in the room, and you can barely see her sprawled there on the bed just a few feet in front of you.
"There are kits out there now, so you know you're OK," she says slowly, staring at you through dark eyes. "I mean, straight e-pure MDMA-is really not that dangerous. It's when its cut with heroin, dust or speed that you have the problems."
Today in the United the States, young people more than ever are entering a new line of dialogue. It's a dialogue centered around Adam, MDMA, XTC, ecstasy-a drug of many names whose ability to create pure euphoria in users makes it a favorite among college students worldwide. But while students everywhere are gabbing about the drug's ability to raise their perceptions, increase their sexuality and elevate their passion for life to whole new levels, many never stop to listen to the words - and the confusion - that develops in the chemical's wake.
Ecstasy is still new. David Rosenbloom, director of Join Together, a Boston-based drug research and prevention center, is fond of calling "e" the next cocaine; it's everywhere, and we don't realize quite what it's all about or how it really works. The research is the stuff you don't hear when you're at the club, on the sidewalk, in the dorm-but if you listen carefully, it raises questions over how far you'll go for one touch, one Cloret mint, one blade of grass in order to achieve unimaginable bliss.
What? Just listen.
MDMA, the psychoactive drug known as ecstasy, is part of a group of chemicals, known as "club drugs," that have recently been gaining the attention of parents, journalists and medical physicians worldwide. In this category fall the baby-boomer staples like LSD and crystal meth, as well as ketamine, a hallucinogen legally used on animals by veterinarians, GHB-a sedative that can be made easily at home-and rohypnol, the much-talked about date-rape drug.
Ecstasy comes in the form of a small pill, usually taken orally and costing from $20 to $40 when sold in the United States. Once taken, the individual begins a process called "rolling," which usually lasts for about six hours and includes a peak period of intensity into the second hour. Kids love it because of the world it takes them to, a world where Cloret mints taste like a small piece of heaven and a mere brush from a neighbor can feel like a reason for living. Easy to conceal and cleverly marketed as a way to stay up all night at dance parties or experience an e-connection - an intimate bond with friends - ecstasy is increasingly an easy sell.
"Hey, I'd do ecstasy, why not?" says Doug, a varsity athlete. "Just listen to the name; it can't be that bad for you. The other day, I saw someone selling it shaped like a Playboy bunny."
But this drug isn't just for playboys. A report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the organization responsible for 85 percent of the world's drug research, shows that while the usage of most drugs in the nation by young people has remained constant over the last year, club drug and steroid usage has skyrocketed. The surge has known no geographic limitations. The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration reports widespread usage of the drug "within virtually every city in the United States," as well as in rural areas.
The surge in popularity has come despite the events of 1985, when police took a major crack at the drug - or at least attempted to - when the DEA deemed ecstasy illegal. The DEA was reacting to the widespread usage of the drug by truckers, who used it as a sleep suppressant for long nights of rolling down the open roads. But as the drug cruises into the university radar range, it works its way into our personal stories, and becomes an integral part of college conversation.
Kids today are talking about ecstasy on a much more frequent basis than they did five years ago. These are the voices, the stories from the blockmate that stick in people's minds, stories that tend to be related to transportation. But unlike their ecstasy counterparts of old, this conversation isn't about cruising the freeway in a Mac truck. It's about the trip to a higher state of mind that many claim can't be repeated in their normal, mundane lives.
The drug works by raising the level of seratonin within the body, a condition that makes the user of the drug highly sensitive to every touch. In the college scene, where students exercise their mental capacities on a daily basis, such a highly physical experience can point some down uncharted roads.
"I never expected ecstasy to be so physical and so incredibly sexual," says Eileen, a Harvard sophomore. "Any touch, any touch at all, has the capability to feel just so amazingly good. It's comparable to sex in that it's the only time ever when I've felt that all of my pleasure could be such a physical experience."
Many leaving for this trip pack with them a set of stimuli that serve to make their travels all the more intense. For Chris, a Harvard sophomore who used to do ecstasy with his entire freshman hallway, the ultimate physical pleasure came when he rubbed Vicks Vapo Rub down on to his slim neck. For students at Northwestern University, it was a blade of grass when they lay watching G-Love at their own Springfest. For others, the feeling of Mardi Gras beads, lotion, a pacifier in the mouth or the taste of a mint is enough to send them reeling. Websites today describe one of the hottest fads in the ecstasy world-that of designating a group leader to remain off the drug to help those experiencing its effects to feel the full physical bliss.
Hear this: Louise. When Louise popped her first pill, she had the coaching of a group leader. He made her feel comfortable. After all, he did the stuff all the time and he was a trustworthy character. He was headed off to law school, and had a picture-perfect girlfriend who kept her toothbrush in his bathroom. And he still managed to excel at a contact sport. And on those days when she doesn't eat because she wants to look like Jennifer Aniston, and on those nights when she's up late studying because she wants to work at Goldman Sachs, she remembers that night and the place of ultimate bliss where she was taken. If only all her memories were so rosy.
"I just remember sinking down into the soft chair at the club while he rubbed his fingers right below my eyes," says Louise, who is a sophomore. "Every time he massaged my temples, it just felt like the most pleasurable feeling on earth. It was just this slow and exaggerated place where everything felt liquidy and wonderful. Everything-every problem, every sensation-just felt like it was rolling right off of me."
Certainly Louise's memories don't recall alcohol. Unlike alcohol or LSD or "shrooms," ecstasy is known for its effect as a "clarity of mind drug," and its users often praise its effects, recounting a journey to whole new levels of learning.
"I was so surprised by the naturalness of it all," says Mona, a Harvard sophomore describing her first experience with the drug. "You feel like you are just there, exploring the crevices of your brain. It's like real life, only you just realize some of the sensual things about living, things you miss on a day to day existence."
The sensuality that people remember comes from the close relationship between ecstasy and one of the most fundamental of human desires: the achievement of beauty. For those like Louise, this feeling of beauty that is achieved on an ecstasy journey is what makes the pill an experience without comparison.
"I remember that feeling more than anything," Louise says. "I just remember walking through that club and thinking to myself, 'I own this place.' I remember looking in the mirror and really believing it when I said to myself, 'You are the most beautiful person on earth.' And I never felt like that before... and never do today, really. It was so intense then; it's something you wish you could just capture forever."
The discovery of inner beauty for some leads to an escape from all mental inhibitions and a chance to let the soul run free. Listen to Chris' story. He had a hard freshman year. It's difficult to adjust to Boston, to intimidating classmates from Manhattan, to Harvard-style education. He's shy. He feels like he is always being judged...and reminded he is no longer the boy who sat on top of the world at his small high school. Sometimes he likes to pop a pill, because then he doesn't have to be scared, and his face looks so beautiful he hardly recognizes himself in the huge mirror at the back of Tommy's.
"I like myself better when I'm on it, I guess," he says. "I'm not as timid and get very sociable and friendly. We live in a world of sociable beings, and when you're shy like me, sometimes it's nice to feel a part of that."
It seems to work for just about every sort of person. Many have described ecstasy as an experience where "all seems right with the world," where beauty isn't just something they see in themselves, but in many of the others that find themselves within their gaze. This can lead to some surprising situations.
Listen to what Rachel is saying. But first hear two words about Rachel: she's straight.
"I kissed a girl when I was on ecstasy," says Rachel, a sophomore. "It was kind of funny; she was hooking up with a guy, and I was hooking up with a guy, and I looked over at her, and she was wearing these wonderful leather pants. And I'd never realized before just how amazing some girls look in leather pants."
But when ecstasy opens the doors of sexuality, many more people than Rachel take a peak at what lies on the other side. Hear a little speech on Lucas. He looks like a supermodel. He works out everyday and says alcohol makes him feel fat and disoriented. And pot-he feels like he might as well be wearing his rattiest hooded sweatshirt. He confesses he's not really all that sexual. But last year when he hit gay clubs on ecstasy or liquid G or K, he was awakened to the beauty and sexuality right beneath his sparkling surface.
"The euphoria I felt on liquid G - it's the kind of thing that's not so easy to come by," Lucas says. "It makes you so very, very horny-it's like a rush that overwhelms you....And there was this one time when I hooked up when I was peaking [on ecstasy] in the middle of this club. The music, the person, the dancing-it all just kind of gelled together into this absolutely amazing experience."
The results still don't validate one of the most frequently heard myths about the drug: that a person who has an orgasm on ecstasy, might not ever be able to have an orgasm, or want to have sex, ever again. According to one sophomore, the myth seems far from true.
Storytime. Hear about Mona. It doesn't seem like that long ago that Mona lost her virginity. Having sex with her boyfriend is something that she hadn't always found to be entirely exciting. One weekend when they were away, they tried popping pills. The next day, they had sex six times in 48 hours.
"Sex on ecstasy is really good," Mona says. "If anything, ecstasy awakened me to just how beautiful and soft and warm the human body is. I was always aware of it all in the back of my mind, but on ecstasy, I was so surprised by how warm and soft his body felt against mine. And sex is an extension of that all; it sheds light on that only more so."
Ecstasy for females, in fact, can be a tool for sexual empowerment. In a world where women sometimes feel their sexuality shameful, or where masturbation is considered vile, many girls discover that ecstasy helps them to gain ground where males have already exceeded, and then some. Jane, a Harvard junior, says that it wasn't until she tried ecstasy that she realized she had a G-spot. And Louise talks about how, for once in her life, hooking up became something so incredibly easy, where it didn't take waiting around for things to begin to feel really pleasurable.
"We were on this crazy stage at Lansdowne Playhouse, and he had me pressed up against the wall facing him," Louise says. "And I remember when he stuck his hand deep into my pants and it just felt like the most amazing hook-up I'd ever experienced, and it was instantaneous."
Listen really closely to the stories of these trips, though, and you might get within earshot of a less-than-blissful part of the experience: the easily recognized side effects, the ones that don't take four years of medical school to discern. A night on ecstasy can bring some pretty nasty consequences-excessive teeth grinding, body odor, an inability to pee, just to name a few. The night itself becomes a long one, leaving the individual unable to sleep. Indeed, savvy ecstasy users sometimes pass the time with long bong hits of marijuana, a drug that is said to add more peaks to the average trip on the drug.
Some conditions and emotions don't fare well in the world of ecstasy, where heightened seratonins cause all feelings to be amplified. Chris discovered the hard way the dangers of taking the drug on a completely empty stomach.
"I could feel my heart beating so strongly that time," Chris says. "I knew I was hungry, but at the same time I just didn't want to eat. I saw myself trembling, but there was nothing I could really do."
Louise, too, felt the helplessness. Listen to this story of an ecstasy superfan. After her one evening of joy, bliss and feeling like the "belle of the ball," Louise decided to duplicate the experience once more the very next evening. After dancing the night away at the "Screw Your Roommate" dance, she found herself sitting alone in her common room, her roommate hooking up behind a closed door. And that's when she discovered the emotion that mixes the worst with ecstasy: fear.
"All of a sudden I didn't feel so well and starting thinking about what I'd heard - that ecstasy could cause your heart to explode," she says. "I knew it was bad to get scared, but I was and there was nothing I could do about it. I started getting really hot, and I just flipped out and started thinking, 'This is the end. My parents are going to lose their daughter. It's gonna tear them apart. My heart's gonna go. It's over.'"
And if you keep listening she'll tell you how the story ends. It involves her bursting in on the roommate; it involves pacing for 45 minutes that seemed to stretch into 45 hours. It involves curling up in a cashmere sweater and listening to a Billy Joel CD and staring intensely at the anchorwoman flashing across the television screen. And it involves a resolution.
"I don't care that ecstasy is the greatest I've ever felt," Louise says now. "After the experience I had, I never could do it again. I'd be too paranoid now."
The after-ecstasy experience for most people tends to be less than positive. The drug is known to cause depression for up to a week after it is first taken. Following a night of heavenly pleasure, ecstasy users awake to find their seratonin levels at rock bottom-a condition that impairs emotional depth and restricts memory. Although more experienced ecstasy users like Lucas will tell you a dose of St. John's Wort can lessen the side effects, many students count the overwhelming emotional change they associate with this period as the thing that keeps them from making the drug a regular part of their repertoire.
"After ecstasy, I usually feel like I'm just observing the world from above for the next day or two," says Liz, a Harvard sophomore. "It's just sort of this emotional plateau. Nothing really makes me that sad, but I'm not hyper about anything either. It's just like being in a weird zone that just doesn't really go away for a while."
The zone can be especially daunting for some students, who say it makes them doubt things that they once held to be of importance. "For the whole week after, I would just sit at my desk and ask myself, 'Why?' and 'What am I doing here?'" Louise says. "I could work my ass off, get a good job, fall in love, but will I ever feel that bliss I felt after I took that pill? I remember going to a Crimson Business meeting and just thinking how much it sucked. Regular life just seemed so mundane compared to that feeling of ecstasy."
At Harvard University, where working one's ass off encapsulates the College experience, ecstasy's voice is still a murmur. While many have heard a story or two about a trip, the number of Harvard students who use ecstasy on a semi-regular basis remains small. Devotees to the drug claim they do it at final clubs-most commonly the A.D. or Phoenix-or in the comfort of their common rooms, dorm rooms, or even mailrooms, on their way out to a club. This is a group of people who tend to be well-connected to the greater Boston drug market, with several claiming they could get you a pill within an hour.
"It's one of those things where you all know each other, but don't really hang out and don't necessarily ever want to," Lucas says. "It's pretty diverse, but if I had to describe it, I'd say its some of the more laid-back people on campus, or those that seem to have a little less inhibition."
The Harvard University Police Department has had few run-ins with these members of the community. According to HUPD spokeswoman Peggy McNamara, the most notable ecstasy seizures on campus include a 1996 seizure of liquid G from several students in the Quad and a confiscation last September. But no matter what the record for 1999 might show, hardcore ecstasy users at Harvard see themselves being eclipsed this year by cocaine and the prep school holdover, Ritalin.
"There was an ecstasy subculture here at Harvard," says Marc, a senior who also plays a varsity sport. "There still is, sort of-but not like there once was. Last year there was a whole bunch of us. We did it nearly twice a week. It was pretty intense. So many people that really appreciated it, though, graduated or a lot of kids moved on to cocaine. Kids at Harvard want to be up."
But the words of this superstar shouldn't come as much of a newsflash to students who like to "go out" at Harvard. Cocaine, many of its users will tell you, creates a subculture where users bond because the dialogue about the consequences is loud enough to be heard. Lucas, after expanding his horizons from ecstasy to liquid G to K within the span of a year, found cocaine to be the easy conclusion when he started school this fall.
"It's hard to explain the idea of glamour that's so prevalent in the coke scene here," Lucas says. "So many people here have this intense desire to wear designer clothes, to look like they are from New York, and coke is a big part of that. And coke is so much better here when you are high. You can do it at the Phoenix, before Grafton, at a room party. This is something you can enjoy at a bar. You talk. You have fun. With ecstasy, things are so wonderful, you can't always relate to people. With coke, that never happens."
But to some who relish the beauty that life is given when it is viewed through ecstasy, the glamour property in cocaine is of a much different flavor. Jane says she avoids coke out of fear-fear of relapsing into an eating disorder, a common companion to the cocaine culture.
"I just can't go back to that," she says. "It scares me."
Jane is part of a growing number of college students who view other drugs with fear but who engage in recreational ecstasy. Many users here on campus elect only to use ecstasy when hidden away from the normal social scene in the comfort of their own homes, or in the arms of their blockmates.
Listen to the story of Eileen. She heard about ecstasy in an e-mail from her male blockmate. It wasn't going to be a very scary thing. They could do it right there in the common room, he said, and it could just be the five of them.
"We got a lot of shit for it when we decided to do it," Eileen says. "Most of my friends at home would never do it, and at Harvard I knew of a lot of people doing it who I wasn't really friends with. It was so wonderful for us though; it was completely happy-not weird at all. We laughed, we talked, we read Walt Whitman. It was wonderful."
But the buzz surrounding ecstasy and friends is much louder than just a few blockmates bonding over verse. As a freshman last year, Chris says ecstasy and the conversations surrounding it were a near everyday occurrence for the boy who lived across the hall and several others living nearby. Freshmen in his dorm were eager to try new things and to combat the depression that comes from rejected auditions and social pressure at school. And when these students looked for an escape, ecstasy became an answer. But yet the words, the dialogue never reached the nearby proctor.
Ecstasy here also bears another face-that of students like Liz. Listen to her story. Liz never liked Harvard all that much. She figures there's a lot more out there. Ecstasy is something she learned to enjoy at home in the summer lying on a valley and taking life one stress-free moment at a time. She's an in-the-know girl, so one night she tried ecstasy at a final club party. But now she knows it's just not something she finds enjoyable here.
"It wasn't a good experience at all," Liz says. "People were drunk, falling all over each other. I was just miserable the whole time."
The common perception of Harvard students like Liz is that at other universities-maybe with more diverse social options-ecstasy is easily merged with the students' weekend fare. Kurt, a senior at Brown University, recounts how he too, like Liz, enjoyed ecstasy for the first time while lying on the grass. Only he was lounging at school, listening to Sonic Youth as a part of the school's annual spring festival.
"Ecstasy merges well here with what kids are doing in terms of social activities," Kurt says. "People go to music events, small parties off campus and sometimes at small events at the frats. It's nice to have it there every now and then."
Jane's exposure to ecstasy also came through an experience at another college. Working as an intern in D.C., Jane-who'd never even thought about trying ecstasy at Harvard-soon found herself consorting with a new sort of crowd, where the atmosphere was more "anything goes" than her usual scene at Harvard. Jane considers herself to be a bona fide final club girl. Involved with a guy she acknowledged to be "gay or bi or something," Jane found herself drawn into a peaceful environment that turned out to be a time of self-discovery.
"There was a culture centered around these parties," Jane says. "There were never fights at the parties, never even any bad feelings. It's the kind of place where the kids constantly touch one another. It breaks down all barriers of interaction and makes them all that much more attractive and uninhibited in return."
And to return to the Boston area, it seems that other colleges within our midst, seem to have us beat on the scale of ecstasy consumption. Thatcher, a Northeastern senior who claims to sell ecstasy on a regular basis, told FM that he sells to Harvard once a week, while other universities like Boston University, MIT and his own Northeastern give him business on a daily basis.
But perhaps a better question than where ecstasy is going is where it is coming from. The police appear unwilling to answer the question. Listen to this conversation with the Boston police department:
"Hi. I was calling to inquire if you got my fax and to see if I might be able to interview someone about ecstasy in Boston."
"Yeah. We're not going to be doing that. You've really blown this whole thing out of proportion. We don't think ecstasy is that big of a problem in Boston."
"Can I quote you on that?"
No matter how disquieting it might be to members on the squad, ecstasy today is flowing into this country at lightning speed as a part of a highly lucrative drug trade that originates in the Netherlands. The U.S. Customs Service today views it as a major problem-seizures of the drug have grown from 350,000 pills in 1997, to 750,000 pills in 1998, to 3.5 million in 1999, and to 2.9 million already in the first two months of this year. Recently, Israelis travelers and Russian immigrants with ties to organized crime have emerged as repeated offenders.
On the seventh of this month, the biggest raid in New England to date took place in Boston, when police arrested two Israeli men attempting to collect packages from Paris stuffed with $4 million of ecstasy. This amounts to a whopping 172,000 pills, all of which had been carefully concealed in large boxes designed to appear full of computer software.
In New York, seven Hasidic Jewish couriers, now indicted, are said to have brought more than $1 million worth of ecstasy into the area as a part of a ring that doled out more than 100,000 pills a week in its prime. In March, a family arriving in New York from the Netherlands was caught trying to cart 200,000 tablets of ecstasy in their suitcases. According to police, their employers had offered them $10,000 each and a free trip to Aruba.
"This is trade is more profitable than heroin," says John C. Varrone, director of investigative operations for customs on the East Coast.
The money that is tied up in the ecstasy trade is due today to the huge markup on the pills. First entering the world in 1912 as a German-manufactured appetite suppressant, ecstasy soon found its production hub relocated to the Netherlands, where factories pump out pills by the thousands. Each pill costs mere pennies to manufacture. Environmental concerns and pressure from international authorities have already led police to shut down 35 such factories in the country.
While authorities in the Netherlands look to close the prosperous factories, the Office of Consumer Affairs and Licensing in Boston, the board that grants licenses to area nightclub owners, is launching its own assault on club drugs. The new stance, however, comes only after numerous stories of overdoses and allegations that club owners hired private ambulances in order to avoid attention.
Listen to this: One February night at the Roxy four people overdosed on GHB in one night; four people were whisked away to the nearby New England Medical Center in private ambulances conveniently waiting in the back alley of the club. One was a waitress who received a bottle of water from a regular at the club, offering her a drink. She passed out 20 minutes later. One was former employee, Mark Amato, who overdosed in the nearby parking lot. He went on to tell authorities that such drugs are "everywhere" in the clubs.
Lucas knows. Last year, when he was spending his evenings on the club circuit, he found Boston nightclub security measures nothing more than mere formalities or, at most, brief inconveniences.
"Sometimes they really are genuinely searching in some of the bigger clubs," Lucas says. "They watch strongly for people buying or selling. But it's not like you can't get around it. You just have to be a little more sketch with the money."
For Roxy owner Louis Deplido, the conditions set forth by the licensing board appear much more serious than an easily skirted rule: Within the next 20 days, Deplido must work with the Public Health Commission to create a plan for educating patrons and staff about club drugs. In a club where large signs in the bathroom already discourage patrons from ingesting the pills, and European DJs have been carefully splicing public service warnings that "ecstasy is not cool" into their evening playlists, it is questionable whether additional steps will succeed in curbing the drug trend.
Even the five policemen stationed on detail in the larger clubs on Friday and Saturday night will tell you that locating a small pill or detecting those who ingested it hours before is quite a formidable test. Jane's boyfriend and his friends used to get past the D.C. searches with special pockets sewn into their jackets, and a group of junior girls who head out to the clubs every Thursday will tell you they pop the pill right before they hop into their cab. In March, Captain Bernarde O' Rourke of the Boston Police Department told reporters about the most noticeable-and sometimes the only-clue left by users.
"The biggest telltale sign is water consumption," he told the journalists.
The state of Florida has made some real progress in their war against these drugs. In September, Florida officials upped the ante, sending 300 undercover agents into the dance club scene. Within five days, the agents intercepted more than 150,000 doses of club drugs, 50,000 of which were "date-rape drugs." This action came in a state where drugs have long been a part of public dialogue-19 people had died from club drug complications in the months immediately leading up to the action.
Join Together's David Rosenbloom sees the trend in crackdowns, or attempted crackdowns, as a way of raising the amount of responsibility on the part of the clubs.
"In the next few years I think we are going to see these clubs emerge with an entirely new set of responsibilities," Rosenbloom says. "Today, bars are held responsible for under-aged drinkers, and I think we'll see this same sort [of accountability] in the club circuit. The licensing board seems like it is ready to be more effective in this area, and it will just take one lawsuit-one death caused by a drug purchased within the clubs-to turn this trend in the licensing board's favor."
Students like Lucas who are familiar with the scene, however, recognize that getting to the heart of the ecstasy rings might not be found in lawsuits against the big boys of the club scene. Despite Boston's blue laws that force clubs to close at 2 a.m.--a far cry from the all-night clubs that rage on in New York or London-Lucas and his friends often found themselves last year spending their later hours in elite after-hours clubs where the drugs flowed that much more.
"In a lot of the gay clubs, it's easier to buy and sell, and in the after-hours clubs, even more so," Lucas says. "These clubs are built so people can do it more easily. These are the kind of places where the owner would sit down and do a bump with you."
Listen fully to Lucas' story, though, and you will hear that his venture into the depths of the club world developed into a Catch-22. For although ecstasy is known for its ability to create e-connections between groups of people, Lucas found his nights were becoming much more serious than where they started in his freshman year, when ecstasy was about shower parties with friends, and just being silly.
"It became like it was all about the drug," Lucas says. "It wasn't about fun, or enjoying my friends, or even noticing the people I was there with anymore. It was always, 'Where am I going to get the next line? Who's got the next pill?' I wasn't buying food at one point so I could have money for K, for Christ's sake. It's hard to live like that."
But maybe the hardest way to live is when you exist as a person whose voice isn't heard at all. Today, a chorus of voices clamors about ecstasy, but their song goes unheard by those popping pills in cabs or simply checking e-mail in Lamont. Their stories aren't those of a trip but rather of an arrival. Listen closely and you might arrive at a new conclusion about where the body's going and the price the trip is costing.
In January, the National Institute on Drug Abuse made club drugs their new target for assault. Dr. Alan I. Leshner, who directs the organization, says the problem was so massive and the repercussions of the drug so unknown to the larger community, that NIDA was willing to donate $52 million to a research and awareness campaign.
Leshner wants this to be out there for you to hear. But here is what he has already heard. He heard about a study conducted by John's Hopkins in 1996. The study indicates that ecstasy has an immediate toxic effect on humans, causing a decrease in the level of seratonin and the 5HT neurons that produce it in the brain - an effect that kicks in from the moment of the first pop of the first pill. And hear this: Seratonin might just be a little important, seeing that it effects memory, cognitive abilities, level of emotion, depression...The list goes on. When the study came out, scientists could only say they knew for certain that this brain damage lasted two weeks. But today, researchers are trying to pull their proof together to show that the effect is permanent.
"If we think about this recent research, the usage of ecstasy becomes ridiculous," says Kevin Sabet, a junior at the University of California at Berkeley. Sabet founded the nationwide anti-drug coalition known as International Students in Action.
"Ecstasy is the only drug we know of today that does proven damage to the brain the very first time you use it. I mean, that's a pretty serious statistic." Rosenbloom will tell you that such information about ecstasy has led him to the conclusion that ecstasy shouldn't really be called a drug at all, but rather a poison. He knows you hear about how ecstasy can be fatal, or nearly fatal, when combined with alcohol, but to him and many others who follow the drug dialogue closely, it should be considered fatal by its own right.
"It shocks me whenever I hear of students who think a test for pure MDMA is a test that ensures their drug's safety," Rosenbloom says. "A test for pure MDMA is, after all, a test for pure poison."
This is also the story of another voice you probably haven't heard - Dr. Brien A. Barnewolt, director of Emergency Medicine at the New England Health Clinic, one of the closest medical facilities to the bustling club scene. His story is of the 130 patients who pass through his doors on a given night, and he'll recount how a small handful are college kids. Their bad trip on club drugs didn't end merely by bursting in on a sexually satisfied roommate.
Listen up to the story of those who mix ecstasy with alcohol. He'll tell you about the kids who get so lethargic on the pill that they guard their airways and come in choking on their own vomit. He'll tell you about the girl who was found passed out in the bathroom, her skirt hiked high above her panty line, only moments before it would have been too late to save her life. But he's been doing this a while, and he realizes it's hard to make you hear.
"Part of my job is taking a role in public education and getting the information about these drugs out there to people," Barnewelt says. "Although newspapers and pamphlets are useful, it always seems like it takes seeing your best friend lying there on a gurney with a tube up her nose to really come to a realization about ecstasy. Because of what we hear about ecstasy today, kids just tend to think, 'It won't hurt me. It's no big deal.' But it is."
Hear the end of the story for Lucas. After doing the club drugs pretty hardcore for a year, he, for the New Year, resolved to cut them, as well as cocaine, completely out of his weekend fare. He looks back on his ecstasy nights with regret.
"I regret it now when I think about it," Lucas says. "At least with coke you know more about what you are doing to your body in the long run. This is the kind of thing where my future is on the line, and I hate looking ahead with no idea how e is going to affect me when I get there. Everything we know now about long-term effects of e are just predictions.
"This year, I'm scared to death when I look at myself and realize that my vocabulary and my cognitive abilities just aren't what they used to be. I came to Harvard and realized I was mediocre, and now I'm just worried that I'm never going to get rid of that feeling because I've made myself even more so."
But hear the story of someone else who was probably scared too, at least right at the end. It's the unheard story of Melissa Ross. As a freshman at Emory, Melissa decided, like Chris and his freshmen friends at Harvard, to try ecstasy. The next day she didn't wake up. No alcohol was involved. Why did ecstasy kill her? Unknown. No one seems to know the whole e story.
Ecstasy today has a rap sheet. Adam kills people, sometimes. But he's fun. He teaches about that wild, sexual side - you can feel like the most beautiful person on earth - or you can feel nothing at all ever again. Like 19 people in Florida in the past few months. Like a group of junior high kids in San Diego last year. What went wrong? Why did they die?
"Some folks just have a predisposition to these things," Barnewelt says. "The bottom line is you can never really know. You play Russian roulette when you do a club drug. Sometimes even people who have been doing drugs like this for years will take one hit and they're gone. You just ask yourself how much your life means to you."
And what are we, we Harvard experts, saying?
"And when we left the club, we went back to this guy's apartment at BU. This place was really phat. We're talking plush carpet. We're talking a huge bar. We're talking alcohol from floor to ceiling. And we had a few drinks, you know, to cap off the night."
"There are kits out there now, so you know you're OK. I mean, straight e -pure MDMA - is really not that dangerous. It's when its cut with heroin, dust or speed that you have the problems."
"Yeah, I'd do it again. I wish it was more accessible on campus. There's no way you could have a bad trip. This is really amazing stuff."
Chris' dorm room.
He looks at you sitting there with those intense, big eyes, the shadow from his desk lamp falling across his gaunt face. And he sees you look a little worried.
"I mean, honestly, this isn't something I really do anymore now that freshman year is over. I turned down an offer just last week. It's not something that's important to me."
He can do whatever he wants, you say; after all, you thought you might want to try it once, just to see what it would be like - and your good friend told you at dinner she would do it tonight if she had the chance.
He leans to open his desk and pulls out a small pill bottle.
"Do you want to buy this one pill from me?"
Angie C. Marek '02 is not her real name. No just kidding, it is. She lives in Mather and is a former journalism major, no bullshit. She recommends the Betty Ford clinic for the entire staff of the Harvard tampoon, the Adams House house committee and Parker R. Conrad '02.