Critics Counter Countys Claim of Ecstasy Epidemic

Originally appearing here. A dark-haired boy writhes against the tiled wall of a high school bathroom. He clutches his chest, gasps for breath and then drops his head into his hands and begins to pull at his hair. A packed crowd of adults watches him in silence, jotting down notes. The lights come up, and an onslaught of questions follows the first public viewing of Ecstasy: Lives Out of Balance, a documentary for public schools put out by Santa Clara County health officials. The film was made in response to what health officials call an ecstasy epidemic in the South Bay. The popular “rave” drug is crossing over to at-home use, health officials warn, citing a 2010 survey of 1,850 Santa Clara high school students that found that one in four say they have tried ecstasy, or MDMA. But some local scientists who study the effects of psychoactive drugs are calling the county’s epidemic claim a new form of Reefer Madness propaganda. “MDMA is a relatively safe drug, without a lot of risks, that really should be legal for recreational use—and most certainly it should be available for medical use,” says David Jay Brown, a researcher and writer based in Santa Cruz who calls the anti-drug campaigns short on science and long on politics. While not everyone agrees with that assessment, even those charged with monitoring the trafficking of drugs in Santa Clara County say it’s not time to panic about an ecstasy epidemic. “I haven’t seen a huge spike in it,” says Jim Sibley, the supervising deputy of the narcotics unit at the district attorney’s office. “We’ve seen ecstasy for a long time—for the better part of 15 years. It comes and goes.” If anything, Sibley says, it’s the drugs that aren’t MDMA or ecstasy that can do the most damage. MDMA, colloquially referred to as Molly, often comes in through black-market shipments of pills or capsules containing powder, Sibley says, which can lead to the drugs being cut with methamphetamine, ketamine, benzopiprozene (BZP), or dextromethorphan (DXM). According to county figures, five people have died from taking drugs they thought were ecstasy since 2009. “The frightening thing, when you look at it, is that so few of them actually contain [MDMA],” Sibley says. Of the tablets seized by law enforcement, Sibley estimates that as few as one in four may actually contain MDMA. Healing Effects The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Research (MAPS) is a California organization that conducts evaluations on the risks and benefits of psychedelics in medicine. At the moment, it is the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and the results have been promising. A recent case study, which was carried out in South Carolina with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), shows that a high percentage of women sexually assaulted and abused can overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with the help of MDMA-enhanced therapy. “We found that 83 percent of participants in that study no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD,” says Brad Burge, a communications director at MAPS. “And those benefits we saw were confirmed with long term follow-up.” The organization hopes that study and one currently taking place, which looks at reducing PTSD in war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, will pave the way for MDMA to be FDA-approved in the next 10 years. “We have so many brave Americans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, and we’ve now shown that MDMA can treat PTSD better than any other treatment, by a landslide,” says Brown, a guest editor with MAPS. “Keeping MDMA from our military, and allowing them to suffer, is one of the meanest and most misguided things that our government is doing.” Soldiers returning from war aren’t the only population that Brown says could benefit from MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. MDMA induces oxytocin, the hormone released when a mother bonds with her baby or when people fall in love. Anecdotal research suggests that MDMA could even help alleviate the symptoms of autism. “MDMA helps to facilitate communication,” Brown says. “It helps to facilitate empathy, bonding with people—these seem to be the primary things that autism attacks, and some people with autism who tried it have reported that it not only benefited them during the actual experience, but long after the drug wore off.” But Larry Silveira, a school counselor who helped produce the county’s new documentary, says he has noticed an increase in students talking about ecstasy, which he doesn’t separate from pure MDMA. “[MDMA] is not any safer,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘Which is safer, the bite of a tiger or the bite of a lion?’ In my opinion, it is still a high risk, and it can still kill you.” Silveira and county health officials hope the documentary stops kids from taking pills, yet many people acknowledge the chances are slim. But instead of relaying information to students about testing kits that can easily be found on the Internet, the county chose to take an approach similar to promoting abstinence over sex ed. “It’s very important to help educate parents, and other people who are concerned about their kids, to get the scientific facts to them, and to help them distinguish this from propaganda,” says Brown. But, he adds, “If it really is hurting people, then the thing to do is to legalize and regulate it. So, like alcohol and tobacco, kids can’t get ahold of it, and it’s only available to responsible adults in a regulated manner. Then, if there are any problems, there won’t be any difficulty in knowing whether what one had was actually pure MDMA or not.” Health officials are concerned about a rise in recreational Ecstasy use, and law enforcement and researchers agree that the danger lies not in the MDMA (which illegal Ecstasy may or may not contain) but in the uncertainty of the criminal black market.