Ecstasy & Agony

New Mexico users seduced by the ‘love drug’ acknowledge its life-threatening dangers
Rick Nathanson, Journal Staff Writer
Albuquerque Journal
June 2, 2002

At 22 years old, Dave is a veteran of the rave scene – and he has done his share of the designer drug Ecstasy, which is as much a part of the big underground parties as the loud, non-stop dance music. “Dangerous? Sure it is,” said Dave, when asked about the risks of popping a pill of Ecstasy, or E as it is often called. “Any drug is dangerous.”

But he is eagerly anticipating the summer rave scene, and he is not about to stop using Ecstasy at the parties, which draw crowds of young people to vacant warehouses or secluded outdoor areas.

“To me, it’s like not wearing a seat belt,” he said during an interview on the University of New Mexico campus, where he is a junior. Taking Ecstasy is “a gamble,” he said, “but I’m willing to take the gamble.”

That casual attitude is exactly what makes Ecstasy so dangerous, say law enforcement officers and doctors. Caught up in the excitement of raves, many young people find the $20 white tablets irresistible.

Ecstasy is often called the “hug drug” or “love drug,” because it floods the brain with serotonin and washes away inhibitions. But it has dangerous side effects.

One of the most deadly is that Ecstasy impedes the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Users often dance long and hard, unaware that they are becoming dehydrated and that their core body temperature is rising alarmingly. In some Ecstasy-related deaths, investigators have recorded core body temperatures as high as 108-110 degrees.

Dr. Ross Zumwalt, chief medical investigator with the state Office of the Medical Investigator, said that, at temperatures above 106 degrees, internal organs can begin to hemorrhage, the heart begins to beat abnormally, and the liver and kidneys begin to shut down.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is particularly alarmed by the spread of Ecstasy in high schools.

“Ecstasy is the third most popular drug, behind alcohol and marijuana, according to every poll and survey of students we’ve done,” said Finn Selander, a special agent and public information officer for the DEA in Albuquerque. “It’s got us concerned, and we’re really targeting it because of how fast it’s grown in popularity.”

Secret Parties

Another thing that makes Ecstasy dangerous, said Albuquerque Police Department narcotics detective Mark Putnam, is the clandestine nature of its use.

“The crowd that uses the drug – high school and college kids – are part of a close-knit circle,” Putnam said, “where knowledge about these all-night parties is fairly secretive, as are the people who have access to the drug.”

Raves are usually publicized by word of mouth or by fliers, whose distribution is highly controlled to target specific groups. Timing of the flier distribution is also highly restrictive. There is usually no more than a day or two advance notice of the party. Some fliers give sparse details and list a telephone number to call for directions.

All this may slow down law enforcement officers, but rarely does it stop them. The police “almost always show up,” said Dave. They are tipped off by complaints of noise, traffic or unusual activity.

“By the time they get there, though,” Dave said, “the rave has been going on for three or four hours, and all the E has been sold and gone.”

Legally, said Putnam, “we have no probable cause to pat down every kid, but we can shut down the party, depending on the situation. If they’re doing the drug, generally it’s in them, not on them. Unless we see a hand-to-hand transaction, it’s very difficult for us to do something.”

Police believe that the primary source of Ecstasy is the Netherlands. “We have never come across a lab here in Albuquerque,” Putnam said.

Pills cost up to $40

Determining how much Ecstasy use is going on locally is conjecture at best. “I wouldn’t say it’s widespread, but it’s certainly out there and I know kids have access to it,” Putnam said. “It’s hard to gauge.”

Within the last year, and Albuquerque Public Schools resource officer arrested a high school student with 50 Ecstasy pills. “That may not sound like a lot, but at $20 a pill a kid can make $1,000,” Putnam said.

According to users, the street value of Ecstasy ranges from $7 a pill to as much as $40, depending on supply and demand, purity, and how well the buyer knows the dealer. The average street price seems to hover around $20-$25.

In compiling statistics on drug use in the schools, Ecstasy is clumped together with other drugs. Consequently, the usage among students is not clear, said Penny Holland, APS substance abuse and intervention specialist.

However, the students provide some indication of usage, Holland said.

“When I go to a health education class or make a presentation to a group of kids and ask for questions, one of the things they always ask about is the effects of Ecstasy. They want to know if you can die from it, if you can get brain damage from it. They’re asking because they are exposed to it. They either know people who are using the drug or they have had the opportunity themselves to use it.”

In the last couple of years, police in Sandoval County have responded to outdoor raves held west or Rio Rancho. “The raves are an emerging problem, as is Ecstasy,” said David Waymire, senior trial prosecutor with the Sandoval County District Attorney’s Office.

In 2001, his office received 111 drug cases for prosecution. “We don’t break them down by specific drugs as far as how they are tracked, but anecdotally I know about 10 of the cases involved Ecstasy. Most were simple possession, but one involved about 200 pills.”

The medical community isn’t even sure how much Ecstasy use is going on. None of the emergency room doctors at local hospitals has reported any significant increase in visits from people who had ill effects from taking the drug, according to hospital representatives.

Neither has the state Office of the Medical Investigator seen any deaths directly attributed to Ecstasy.

“We know it’s out there, and we’ve been on the lookout for it,” said chief medical investigator Zumwalt. “It doesn’t necessarily show up on our drug screen of victims. ... Drug screening takes a lot of time, money and personnel, and you can’t screen for everything in every case; but we’ve been looking for it in cases where there’s a potential. We just haven’t found it.”

Millions of pills

Ecstasy use nationally is on the rise, especially in port cities on the East and West coasts. Not surprisingly, seizures and arrests are also on the rise.

Two years ago, the U.S. Customs Service seized more than 5.5 million Ecstasy pills, including 500,000 from the airport in San Francisco.

Last year, the Wyoming State Patrol pulled over a speeder on Interstate 80, just east of Cheyenne. Inside were duffel bags stuffed with 210,000 Ecstasy pills valued at $3.1 million.

It remains the largest highway seizure of Ecstasy in U.S. history, said Stephen J. Miller, deputy director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations. The drugs, he said were manufactured in Europe and shipped to New York City, where the driver had picked them up for deliver to Las Vegas, Nev.

In Albuquerque last year, Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested an Amtrak passenger traveling from New York to Los Angeles. His baggage contained 50,000 Ecstasy pills worth an estimate $1.25 million.

DEA agents also arrested a Greyhound bus passenger in Albuquerque who was en route from Los Angeles to New York. Drug sniffing dogs alerted police to a suitcase the woman was carrying. It contained more than $1.5 million worth of Ecstasy.

The DEA is also concerned about the access the Internet gives kids to information on how to make Ecstasy. “They can actually get formulas and directions on how to cook it up.” Selander said.

The raw chemicals are not easy to obtain, and it takes some chemistry and laboratory expertise to properly synthesize the component parts, Selander said. Still, that didn’t stop a group of college kids in Flagstaff recently from attempting to do just that. “The DEA shut them down before they could get the stuff to the street.”