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The Agony Over Ecstasy

Group tests safety of 'club drug' at raves

FRIDAY, May 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Every Saturday night, 26-year-old Justin Garcia heads out to a "rave" -- an underground party where teens and young adults gather to dance the night away.

But Garcia doesn't go to dance. He arrives armed with a drug-testing kit and leaflets about the dangers of ecstasy, an illegal drug that's said to make users feel euphoric and energetic.

Garcia is director of the Sacramento, Calif., chapter of DanceSafe, a controversial group that dispatches volunteers to raves to test pills. When a partyer hands them a pill, DanceSafe volunteers scrape off a sample, place a droplet of a chemical solution on it and determine by the color change whether a drug is ecstasy -- or possibly an even more dangerous fake.

The principle behind the effort is "harm reduction" -- accepting that young people have continued to experiment with drugs in spite of abstinence-based drug prevention programs. So the best thing to do is make it safer for them to do so.

"We don't make judgments," Garcia says. "We give them factual information, and we let them make the decision for themselves. If you tell someone what to do, they're probably not going to listen to you."

But drug-prevention advocates and law enforcement officials think "harm reduction" is absurd. DanceSafe, they say, may actually serve to encourage drug use by telling potential users a pill is pure.

"At best, the practice they have of pill testing at clubs, then handing drugs back to kids is deeply misguided," says Howard Simon, spokesman for a Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "At worst, some people might say it's an accessory to the crime."

But DanceSafe's Garcia says the group's volunteers never tell kids a pill is OK to take. Instead, they remind them that even if the sample didn't turn up positive for ecstasy, the pill could still contain other dangerous chemical substances.

By making kids pause to consider what they might be about to ingest, the hope is they'll think twice about swallowing it, Garcia says.

DanceSafe, which was founded in Oakland three years ago, has chapters in almost 30 cities, from New York to San Francisco, and Madison, Wis., to Pittsburgh.

Ecstasy, also called "XTC" or "E", is the street name for MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), a synthetic drug that's part amphetamine and part hallucinogen. It's one of about a dozen illegal substances known as "club drugs" or "party drugs."

Research suggests ecstasy causes the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that can promote feelings of peacefulness, empathy and energy.

However, much is unknown about the effects of using ecstasy, especially long-term. Researchers believe it may cause heart, kidney, brain and liver damage, as well as memory problems, especially among chronic users.

In the short term, ecstasy can cause nausea, blurred vision, chills and sweating. It increases heart rate and blood pressure and can be very dangerous for those with circulatory or heart disease.

"Ecstasy is a dangerous drug. Period," says Simon. "The dangers vary from person to person, but there's no way to know in advance which person is going to be hurt by it. Some kids will use ecstasy and apparently walk away unscathed. And some die from it."

Simon cited a case in which a young woman from Henderson, Nev., died from using ecstasy, according to the coroner's report.

Drug dealers also sometimes pass off more dangerous drugs as ecstasy. One of the most lethal is PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine), known on the street as "Death" or "Mitsubishi Double Stack," which has been blamed for at least a dozen deaths.

What to Do: For more information about the dangers of club drugs, visit the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, or the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. For more information about DanceSafe, visit its Web site.

SOURCES: Justin Garcia, director of the Sacramento, Calif., chapter of DanceSafe; Howard Simon, spokesman, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, New York City
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