Calling it the "rave generation's cocaine," a nonprofit antidrug group is putting out a stern warning about Ecstasy, an increasingly popular drug that is being embraced by more and more teens.
"We're finding it alarming," Ginna Marston, the executive vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America told Good Morning America. "Teen drug use is down and holding steady, but Ecstasy use is going up steadily."
A synthetic stimulant that comes in a pill, Ecstasy used to be the province of 20-somethings who used it at dance clubs or all-night raves, but now it is drawing the teen set.
The number of teens using Ecstasy has jumped 20 percent since last year, and 71 percent since 1999, with an estimated 2.8 million teens at least trying the drug once, according to a PDFA study released today on Good Morning America. Starting today, the nonprofit coalition is launching a series of public service announcements warning of the dangers of Ecstasy.
The new study, which looked at 6,937 teens across the country, found that more than 12 percent of teens had tried Ecstasy at least once in 2001, compared to previous studies that found usage rates of 10 percent in 2000, seven percent in 1999, and five percent in 1995, the PDFA reported. Overall teen drug use has been diminishing since 1997 and remained stable between 2000 and 2001, but Ecstasy has been the exception, the only type of drug that is attracting more teens.
It is now about as widely used by teens as cocaine, crack, heroin, LSD or methamphetamines. Marijuana remains the most widely used drug, with 41 percent of teens reporting that they have tried it.
Cocaine Marketing Strategy
Experts say the big problem with Ecstasy is its image — one that is so positive, it is almost as though some clever marketing wizard came up with a campaign for it. Though current statistics show that most teens will never try the drug, experts worry that the hype surrounding it could prompt the number of teens using Ecstasy to double.
Dubbed the "love drug" or the "hug drug" or just "X," Ecstasy accelerates the release of serotonin in the brain, creating an intense high, and filling the user with feelings of love and acceptance, emotions that teens crave most.
"I loved it," said Clarissa McKennie, a former Ecstasy user who said she started using the drug at the age of 13 when older friends told her it would raise her self-esteem.
Word in the school hallways is that the drug will give users a great high with low risk. It is a reputation similar to the one that cocaine enjoyed in the 1980s, when that drug's use was buoyed by widespread social acceptance and aggressive word of mouth, Marston said.
Teens view the drug as only slightly more dangerous than alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and inhalants. Though its street names make it sound benign, Ecstasy is a potent and potentially dangerous "cocktail mix of acid and speed," that can cause brain damage, Marston said.
McKennie, who is now in a long-term residential treatment program, had this warning for her peers: "It is not the fun that you seem to have when you're on it.... It's a dangerous drug."
Side Effects of ‘Love Drug’
Ecstasy, known scientifically as methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, is a synthetic, psychoactive pill that induces feelings of euphoria, and has properties similar to amphetamines and hallucinogens.
It dramatically raises blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature, and can lead to muscle breakdown, as well as kidney and cardiovascular system failure. In heavy doses, it can be lethal and addictive, damaging neurons in the brain. Ecstasy-related emergency room visits increased from 421 in 1995 to 4,511 in 2000, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The use of Ecstasy can also have psychological impacts and cause brain damage, research has found.
"After someone uses Ecstasy, they can have depression or mood problems several days or weeks later," Dr. Terry Horton of the Phoenix House treatment center said. "It doesn't always require taking a lot of it."
Studies have also documented that Ecstasy damages sensitive parts of the brain, leading to memory and learning problems that can be long-lasting, Horton said. "That's frightening, especially at a time in their lives when brains are developing," he said.
Where’s the Love?
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's new TV spots are aimed at teaching teens and parents about the dangers of Ecstasy.
Some of the spots feature parents who are talking about losing a child because of an Ecstasy-related death or struggling to get their child into treatment. Other spots are aimed at teens, depicting teens who ignore their peers' bad reactions to Ecstasy at parties. They end with the tag line "Ecstasy. So Where's the Love?"
Experts say that parents can look for the following signs of drug use:
Being involved in a peer group that has trouble with the law
School performance suffers greatly, extracurricular activities fall off
Moodiness These signs are specific to Ecstasy:
Possession of pacifiers, used to stop jaw clenching, as well as lollipops, candy necklaces, mentholated vapor rub
Sore jaw, from clenching teeth, part of the drug's after-effects Confusion
Severe anxiety Headaches, dizziness Panic attacks
Vomiting or nausea, from hangover, or after-effects.
Teens who are on Ecstasy may show the following signs while actually on the drug: trance-like state, blurred vision, chills or sweating, confusion, faintness, paranoia or severe anxiety, transfixed by sights and sounds, unconscious clenching of the jaw, grinding teeth, very affectionate. They may also wear child-like costumes, such as angel wings, and glow sticks or glowing jewelry, or carry teddy bears and pacifiers. Another sign: bringing multiple water bottles to parties or raves, or leaving empties in their bedrooms or cars.