20/20 Downtown: Ecstasy Copycats

Ecstasy is dangerous and illegal in its own right, but it’s the knockoffs of the popular drug that are garnering public attention and raising concern.

Amid reports last week that copycats of the drug are responsible for at least nine deaths across the country since May, DanceSafe, a nonprofit organization that tests pills for Ecstasy — and its often more dangerous copycats — is in the spotlight.

Ecstasy is a psycho-active or mind-altering compound that usually comes in pill form; it’s one of the hottest drugs on the market. Law enforcement officials say they seized 12 million pills last year, up from 200 pills just six years ago. While many users say Ecstasy leads to feelings of joy, euphoria and elation, some say it can also cause brain damage, memory loss, unconsciousness, tremors, chills, dehydration and overheating, which can lead to death.

DanceSafe or Sorry?

DanceSafe, which is headquartered in Oakland, Calif., has 10 local chapters throughout the country and plans on opening 20 more. Volunteers for the group show up at nightclubs and all-night rave parties, where they offer pill testing services for Ecstasy users. Real Ecstasy is MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). But many pills that are sold as Ecstasy do not actually contain MDMA, and may have components like PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) or DXM (dextromethorphan), which can be more lethal.

“The fake pills are often times more likely to kill you,” says Emanuel Sferios, who founded DanceSafe last year. “We screen against fake pills and have successfully prevented thousands of young people from swallowing pills that didn’t contain Ecstasy and had more dangerous substances.”

But the program has drawn fire from parents and drug enforcement officials, who say DanceSafe’s mission ignores the dangers of Ecstasy itself.

“What kind of message are we sending the kids?” asks Steve Casteel, chief intelligence officer for the Drug Enforcement Administration. While he believes that DanceSafe does recognize that Ecstasy is dangerous, he thinks the tests performed by the organization are unreliable, inconclusive and misleading. “I’m really concerned about the false sense of security that DanceSafe brings,” he says. “The message they deliver by having the word ‘safe’ in their title is a false one.”

Jan Aeschlemann, whose 18-year-old daughter died from a copycat drug, says that handing drugs back to kids — which DanceSafe always does — “gives them a feeling that it’s OK. That’s not the message that should be out there. It’s not OK.”

“I think the information that DanceSafe should be putting out is: Stay away from this drug,” says Lt. Richard Hart, head of the Oakland police department narcotics division. “It’s very dangerous.”

But Sferios says that it is “absurd to have as a goal stopping the use of ecstasy.” The “Just Say No” message, he says, “has been a miserable failure. We have not stopped the spread of drugs. We need to try something different.”

His harm-reduction approach, he believes, offers a large segment of the population, whom he calls “novelty seekers,” nonjudgmental information on the risks of drugs as well as risk-reduction techniques. Likening his group’s approach to needle exchange programs that aim to prevent the spread of the HIV virus, Sferios says, “Everyone who’s approached our table to get their pill tested was going to swallow that tablet anyway.”

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