On Dangerous Meds, the Feds and Heads

On dangerous meds, the feds and ’heads’


By Eugene Schoenfeld
San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday, June 16, 2010, Page A – 10

In the 1960s, there was a variation on the caveat: “Buyer beware.” It was: “Know your dealer.”

Numerous deaths have been associated with raves, those boisterous, drug-fueled parties, and MDMA (methylene-dioxymethamphetamine), a drug now better known as “ecstasy.” If the victims are found to have really ingested ecstasy, the deaths are usually attributed to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Ecstasy has a stimulatory effect, allowing revelers at raves to dance for hours to hypnotic electronic music. Sixteen thousand dance fans paid $85 a head (and most of them were “heads”) at the recent San Francisco Cow Palace rave debacle.

Even without the use of powerful psychoactive drugs, everything is magnified in such a venue – heat, loud music, close contact with many people, a large police presence (like Grateful Dead concerts, raves are easy pickings for the drug police). Two deaths occurred, and several people were hospitalized. Were their health problems caused by ecstasy? Too much ecstasy? Adulterated ecstasy? Drugs totally different from ecstasy? Toxicology reports are pending.

Ecstasy was first synthesized in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company. By the 1970s, it was being used non-medically in the United States. But the first scientific report of its psychological effects in humans described an “altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensuous overtones” and compared it with psilocybin, though “devoid of the hallucinatory component.”

Ecstasy usually produces the opposite of paranoia. Under its effect, individuals are more open to intimacy, both psychological and physical, and many therapists administered MDMA to their patients, generally with beneficial effects. The patients were warned, however, not to make enduring relationship agreements until several weeks after the last treatment, because a person under the drug’s influence is likely to love everyone and everything. Until it wears off. Few adverse effects were noted from MDMA used in therapeutic situations.

But in the 1980s, widespread use of ecstasy began in dance clubs and at raves. In 1985, despite protests by respected scientists, the Drug Enforcement Administration banned its therapeutic use and severely restricted research into its potential for beneficial use. Studies of MDMA toxicity and possible lasting harm from its use have varied in their conclusions, depending on the funding source of the study. Nonetheless, a huge underground demand continues for the recreational use of ecstasy. Chemicals necessary to its synthesis have become scarce and, with testing measures generally unavailable, ecstasy customers can’t know the quality or quantity of the pills they ingest – or whether the alleged ecstasy pills contain any MDMA at all.

Because of the “war on drugs” attitude initiated by President Richard Nixon, there is scant attention even now to reducing harm from illicit drug use. Consider the usual advice given to ecstasy-using ravers – drink lots and lots of water. Yet at a recent San Jose conference on psychedelics, an emergency room psychiatrist opined that ecstasy casualties are caused by drinking too much rather than not enough water.

Due to federal government interference, we don’t know how best to prevent harm at raves other than to just say no to drugs, obviously and tragically an ineffective strategy. We need to embrace the philosophy of old-time traditional Republicans (not the current version) – get the government off our backs, out of our bedrooms, away from our pursuits of happiness, wrong-headed or not. A good start would be decriminalizing drug use and treating drug abuse and dependence as medical problems.

Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld wrote the Dr. Hip Pocrates newspaper columns for The Chronicle and other newspapers in the 1960s and ’70s. He practices psychiatry and provides forensic consultations in Sausalito.

Psychiatrist Schoenfeld, author of this opinion piece, remarks on two deaths that took place at a rave in San Francisco over Memorial Day Weekend. He points out “Due to federal government interference, we don’t know how best to prevent harm at raves other than to just say no to drugs, obviously and tragically an ineffective strategy.” Schoenfeld mentions Julie Holland M.D.’s presentation at Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century.