Party-drug scene: 'E' trade spreads largely unchecked

Jackie was wearing light-blue tennis shoes with pink and mint-green stripes when she walked into the private rave dubbed "the Lemon Party." Once inside, she reached into her baggy jeans and took out a white, aspirin-size tablet pressed with the word "E-mail."

The "E" is for Ecstasy, the most popular of the "club drugs" used in the dance culture known as rave. From weekly private parties in the suburbs of New Jersey to the all-night dance clubs in cities like Orlando and L.A., thousands of young, mostly white, upper-middle-class kids are succumbing to the promise of high-energy excess.

Even as overall drug use has declined among teens in the past few years, this synthetic drug that ravers commonly call "E" or "X" has been attracting more users, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

"It seems to be kind of an accepted drug to use at this point in time among teens," says Paul Jacquith, the program director of the Manhasset Day Treatment Center in New York's Long Island. "There are other drugs that are seen as, if you use them, you're out of control. But Ecstasy has that cachet to it: that it's OK to use as long as it's at a rave."

At the Lemon Party, Jackie, a recent college graduate who asked that her last name not be used, swallowed the pill with a swig of water soon after she walked in the door.

"Being on Ecstasy is literally ecstasy," she explains. "The music is amazing on E, too. You can feel it in your body, the beat and the bass - everything is just heightened, all sensations." Each pill - manufactured for as little as 50 cents - usually costs from $15 to $20.

Bottled water and lollipops

Hundreds of other teens, many wearing fluorescent-colored visors with twinkling rainbow lights, were already dancing on the floor of the cavernous converted theater. The yellow- and silver-foil streamers hanging from the ceiling were jiggling from the steady, pounding beats of drum and bass music.

Bottles of water were everywhere, but not a single bottle of beer.

Alcohol is rarely, if ever, to be found at a rave.

Instead, dancers seeking the stimulation and mood-altering effects of Ecstasy drink a lot of water, in part to keep their bodies from overheating or dehydrating after hours of constant dancing. Ravers on E often suck pacifiers or lollipops to keep their jaw from involuntarily clenching.

In addition to being able to dance until daylight, users say the drug makes them feel euphoric and amorous.

But new studies warn that the "hug drug," officially known as 3,4 methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), can also lead to brain damage and sometimes even death. Ecstasy is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, like heroin.

Around the country, state officials say autopsies show young people at raves are dying from both the direct effects of overdosing as well as the indirect effects of dehydration. In Florida, at least 72 people have died from taking Ecstasy and other "club drugs."

"Ecstasy is such a problem in our state," says Brian Collier, regional director for the Florida chapter of Phoenix House, an international drug-rehabilitation organization. "There is such a lack of public awareness about its dangers." Mr. Collier plans to raise the issue with Gov. Jeb Bush at a town hall meeting in St. Petersburg next month.

Ecstasy has not been a major focus of the drug war in recent years. But with more young people starting to use it, law-enforcement agencies are beginning to focus more resources to fight its sale and distribution.

The US Customs Service has already seized some 4 million tablets this year - up from 3.5 million in 1999 and 750,000 in 1998. New York's airports are considered the primary hub for the drug, which is smuggled in from Europe. Miami and Orlando, Fla., are also main entry points.

There are signs that organized crime is also taking an interest in Ecstasy. In February, for example, federal agents arrested former New York mob hit man Sammy "Bull" Gravano, accusing him of operating an Ecstasy ring in Arizona.

One of the reasons law-enforcement officials have only recently begun focusing their energies on Ecstasy is that it has for the most part been confined to the underground culture of private parties and clubs for wealthy kids.

Unlike cocaine or heroin, the E trade has not been accompanied by theft and violence by addicts desperate to feed their habit.

Rave culture

Rave culture evolved in the dance club scene in Britain in the late 1980s, combining the use of Ecstasy with "house" music, a steady-beat music from the Chicago underground. According to Mireille Silcott, author of "Rave America," one of the first books on the culture, rave was morphing into different shapes in various cities around the US by the early 1990s.

"There are great regional differences in terms of what's done at a rave, the different styles of clothing, the different styles of drug taking," she says.

In the Midwest, for example, raves are dark, and black clothing is the norm.

In Los Angeles, a bubbly "kiddy" aesthetic prevails, and teens wear fluorescent-colored clothes, suck pacifiers, and even sport huge white Mickey Mouse mascot gloves. In Orlando, Ms. Silcott says, hip-hop and rave culture intermingle. In New York, every style prevails.

The one constant: the small, white tablets that can be found in almost all of these flamboyant dances.

After the parties end, however, experts point out that the euphoria and intensity of the drug can leave a raver sad and depressed.

Days after her night at the Lemon Party, Jackie's mood was down. "I loved it, but as soon as I felt myself coming down, it was terribly depressing," she says. "Your sober state is so much different, and you've just come from the most incredible high, and it's a major letdown."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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