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The fight against ecstasy: as the drug spreads beyond raves, everyone from teen users to Congress is trying to undercut the high. (National).

BROWN COUNTY, S.D., IS A PLACE OF rolling hills and farmland. Many of the kids come from families that make their money raising corn, soybeans, and cattle. The nearest big city, Sioux Falls, is a couple of hours away, although many local people will tell you that Aberdeen, the county seat, where most people in the county live, is a big city. Its population: about 25,000.

But Brown County is not idyllic. There are plenty of ways for kids to get into trouble, smoking pot and drinking among them. So last spring, when a bunch of teens got together for an outdoor dance at the county fairgrounds, parents were happy to see that there appeared to be no marijuana and no drinking.

Well, except for the water. The kids did seem to be going through a lot of water from the bottles they carried as they danced into the night, candy necklaces swinging and glowsticks carving colored arcs out of the darkness.

With the hindsight of half a year, things look different to Brown County now. "Our intelligence tells us that that was one of our first raves," says Kim Dorsett, the deputy state's attorney who handles juvenile crime in the county. And it took place, she says, "pretty much right under law-enforcement's nose."

A rave--as teens know, but many parents across the country still do not--is a dance fueled by a synthetic ingredient: Ecstasy. Once largely limited to the clubs of big cities, the drug has spread nationwide to towns and suburbs, to various ethnicities, and to younger kids. The leading survey of teen drug use, done by the University of Michigan, shows Ecstasy is booming as other drug use holds steady (see graph, page 11). The survey found that 8.2 percent of high school seniors used Ecstasy in 2000, a rate that more than doubled in just two years. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Alan Leshner, has called Ecstasy use "truly a national public health crisis."

Now medical evidence suggests that the mildly hallucinogenic stimulant may be far less safe than many proponents believe. Spurred by the news, government officials and anti-drug groups are preparing a counterattack.

In congressional hearings earlier this year, former teen users testified that Ecstasy had wrecked their lives. The Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001 is now making its way through both the House and Senate. It would provide $23.5 million for Ecstasy research, prevention, and teen education efforts next year, while establishing a special task force. A new federal guideline put in place this year calls for a five-year prison sentence for a person who sells 800 Ecstasy pills. The standard used to be 11,000 pills.

In the near future, teens can expect to start seeing a new advertising campaign, also featuring former users. And officials are trying to alert parents and teachers to the warning signs, enlisting them as scouts in the fight.

FROM PARTY USE TO PRIVATE ABUSE

That the job won't be easy becomes clear when you talk to people like Dayna Moore, 16, a former user from suburban Long Island, N.Y., who went before the Senate Government Affairs Committee.

When she began taking the drug just before she turned 15, Dayna says, she had no idea what lay ahead. Within a year, she had dropped out of high school and was stealing money from her family and friends to pay for the drug. "I wanted no part of anything else except doing Ecstasy," says Dayna, now at a Phoenix House drug-treatment center.

Her mother, she says, figured she might be drinking alcohol or smoking pot, but never imagined the problem was worse. "Just because your child's not going out to raves and clubs every night, doesn't mean that they're not using Ecstasy," Dayna says. "I used to use it in my own room."

Even the new director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Asa Hutchinson, who has made fighting so-called club drugs a priority, learned the hard way just how treacherous the terrain can be. Earlier this year, Hutchinson said his 18-year-old son, Seth, persuaded him to go to a rave so that he could see that not everyone was using drugs. But hours before father and son were to show up, law-enforcement officials suggested a change of plans: They were about to arrest the rave promoter that night and charge him with distributing Ecstasy.

Just keeping an eye on raves is no longer enough. In recent months, Dorsett has been traveling to rural South Dakota schools so small that the senior classes number no more than 20. Even there she has found evidence that the Ecstasy culture has arrived, including students wearing pacifiers and sugar-candy necklaces. The necklaces are sometimes used to hide pills, and the pacifiers can help relieve one of the drug's side effects, jaw clenching. The water bottles seen at the fairgrounds dance were another sign, since dehydration is a major downside, sometimes a deadly one, of Ecstasy use.

But much of America is still behind the learning curve. "Our community really doesn't realize there's a problem yet," Dorsett says. "The teachers have no idea what they're looking at, and neither do the parents."

Ecstasy is a relatively new arrival to the drug world. It is the nickname for a methamphetamine known as MDMA, and is sold in the form of pills that can cost about $20 each. Many are smuggled in from Europe; illegal imports have increased by more than 400 percent in the past three years.

The high lasts perhaps six hours, during which users may feel freed from their inhibitions and suffused with love toward others. "You kind of get this warm feeling, and you just have this big smile," says Amy Maloney, 21, who is now in rehabilitation at a Phoenix House in Santa Ana, Calif. "Everything you touch just feels so awesome."

Such descriptions are common, and they demonstrate one of the biggest challenges facing people who are combating Ecstasy. Among many who use it, Ecstasy draws, if you'll excuse the expression, rave reviews.

SPREADING THE WORD ON RISKS

The problem goes beyond the high of the drug. Much as cocaine once did, Ecstasy has gotten a reputation as an intensely pleasurable drug with little health risk. "Ecstasy has enjoyed a free ride across this country," says Steve Dnistrian, executive vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

In fact, its safety is very much in question. Hospitals have reported a growing number of Ecstasy-related cases in their emergency rooms, up 58 percent between 1999 and 2000, to 4,511 incidents a year. While most users may steer clear of the hospital, recent research has linked regular Ecstasy use to potentially permanent changes in the brain.

"This is different," says Dr. Terry L. Horton, national medical director for Phoenix House, a nonprofit organization devoted to treatment and prevention of substance abuse. "This drug actually goes in and damages very sensitive parts of the brain that are involved in core emotions and memory and some higher-level functions."

Some experts say they see signs that Ecstasy use may soon begin to drop, pointing to surveys that show an increase in the number of young people who now associate the drug with health risk.

But others warn that the message has to be carefully tailored to be successful. Among them is former user Maloney, who is planning to go back to college to be a teacher, like her parents.

"Teenagers are not going to listen to medical doctors," Maloney says. "You've got to hear it from someone your own age, someone you can relate to."

FOCUS: Government, Doctors, and Former Users Unite to Rein in Teen Ecstasy Use

TEACHING OBJECTIVES

To help students understand why there is a new effort by government and medical authorities to fight the growing use by teens of the drug popularly known as Ecstasy.

Discussion Questions:

* What do you think it would take to convince a majority of American teenagers that Ecstasy is a dangerous drug?

* Some state laws require automatic jail terms for possession of illegal drugs. Do you support such laws?

* Were you surprised to learn that 80 percent of teen deaths involve alcohol consumption? Do you think this information would cause most teens to alter their drinking behavior?

CLASSROOM STRATEGIES

Before Reading: Ask how many students have heard about Ecstasy. Next, poll those who have heard about the drug. How many believe Ecstasy is dangerous?

Critical Thinking: Note that hospitals report an increasing number of Ecstasy-related emergency-room admissions (see also page TE 5). Ask students why, if the dangers of Ecstasy are becoming apparent, does the drug have a reputation among teens for posing little health risk?

Young people often discount dangers that seem unlikely, or that might affect them at some time in the future. Discuss what the article reveals about the dangers of Ecstasy. Do these dangers seem remote? How would students equate the danger of Ecstasy use with other types of risky behavior, such as drunk driving?

Debate: "The Fight Against Ecstasy" reports that the Ecstasy culture includes students wearing pacifiers and sugar-candy necklaces. Ask students to imagine they are producing a rock concert. A co-producer asks that they set a strict rule: No one may attend the concert if he or she is dressed in Ecstasy-culture garb. Have students debate. Is one's dress a form of speech? Would such a dress rule violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech?

Do students believe that Ecstasy-promoting garb increases the likelihood that young people will use Ecstasy?

Web Watch: See the National Institute on Drug Abuse at www.nida.nih.gov/ For an extensive list of PDF files on all aspects of drug abuse and crime, see virlib.ncjrs.org/DrugsAndCrime.asp

TRYING TO DRY UP DRINKING

Though Ecstasy use is rising, alcohol remains the top teen drug by far. According to the latest University of Michigan study, 73.2 percent of high school seniors used alcohol in 2000, compared with 73.8 percent in 1999. Some students and experts say the abuse is out of hand.

"The prevalence of binge drinking in high school is of great concern," says Michael Windle, author of Alcohol Use Among Adolescents. "Over a third of teens recently polled say they've binge-drank in the last two weeks.... Eighty percent of teen deaths involve alcohol consumption--and unfortunately, it's not getting any better."

One new approach aims to change teens' perceptions of normal drinking behavior. The idea is to steer students away from excessive drinking by stressing that heavy drinkers are actually in the minority, and that most people drink only in moderation. Advocates say this method is better than using scare tactics such as displaying a crashed car or trying to stop people from drinking altogether. One such program at Northern Illinois University led to a 44 percent reduction in binge drinking.

Students Against Drunk Driving stresses that family communication is the key. Teens who spend more time talking with their parents are less likely to drink, a SADD study found.

In a survey by International Communications Research, 16 percent of students supported raising the drinking age from 21. Meanwhile, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism argues for stricter enforcement of existing drinking laws. "We can't ignore the dangers teens are facing," says George Dowdall, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University. "Use is abuse, and we need to get our communities in motion."

Elizabeth Mayer
Percentage of high school seniors who said getting
Ecstasy is easy (below in blue):

'96 36.9%
'97 38.8%
'98 38.2%
'99 40.1%
'00 51.4%

Note: Table made from pie chart.
Increase in the percentage of seniors who have used
these drugs, from 1996 to 2000:

alcohol 1%
marijuana 2%
cocaine 2%
amphetamines 11%
Ecstasy 78%

Note: Table made from pie chart.


ERIC NAGOURNEY is a staff editor for The New York Times.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Nagourney, Eric
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 10, 2001
Words:1987
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