Ecstasy Rising: A Special Report

No other drug has ever spread as fast as Ecstasy.

In the 1990s, Ecstasy seemed to come out of nowhere to join marijuana, cocaine and heroin as one of the four most widely used illegal drugs in the country. If current trends continue, 1.8 million Americans will try Ecstasy for the first time in 2004; only marijuana will attract more new users.

According to Mark Kleiman, a drug policy analyst at the University of California, Los Angeles, this is a rare phenomenon. "Having a new, major drug arrive on the scene is something that happens every half-century or so," he told ABCNEWS. "This is a major event in drug history."

So how did this happen? How did an obscure compound with the chemical name MDMA, and the street name Ecstasy, earn a place among the pantheon of major, illicit drugs?

"After I used Ecstasy, I just felt like a whole new person, like it changed my life completely," said one user who preferred not to be named.

"The drug makes you feel empathy, empathy for other people, empathy for situations," said another user who also didn't want his name used. "You just look at everything in the most positive light."

Good for You?

Overwhelming, positive word-of-mouth is often cited as the cause of Ecstasy's explosive growth.

"There is an evangelical fervor with Ecstasy," says Robert MacCoun, a drug policy analyst at the University of California, Berkeley. "People who experience it tell their friends to try it."

This has never happened before, said Kleiman: "I have never heard anybody say to me methamphetamine improved my life. I know people who like to use cocaine, but I have never heard anybody try to claim that cocaine is good for me. But with MDMA, lots of people think that the drug has improved their life." It was accounts such as this — that Ecstasy led to personal growth — that prompted psychotherapists to give the drug to their patients in the late 1970s, when it was still legal. But its strictly therapeutic use did not last long.

In the early 1980s, Ecstasy became a wildly popular recreational drug in Dallas. After being made illegal in 1985, Ecstasy was temporarily pushed underground, but it soon resurfaced as the fuel of all-night dance parties called raves.

‘Government: Risks Are Real’

By the late 1990s, positive word of mouth had pushed Ecstasy far beyond the confines of the rave scene. Then the government decided to respond.

"My observation is that this drug has been particularly glorified in many different venues," says Alan Leshner, a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA. "In the course of that glorification, advocates for the drug have downplayed the risks associated to it. The risks are real."

As the head of NIDA, Leshner launched the U.S. government's campaign against Ecstasy. The headline of this campaign is that Ecstasy causes massive brain damage.

Whether this is true remains very controversial.

The use of Ecstasy has declined among teenagers in the last two years. Is this an indication that Ecstasy is on the way out? Kleiman says no. "The propaganda effort has had its impact, but it competes rather poorly, though, with word of mouth."

And for this reason, Ecstasy will likely continue to spread and remain the drug of choice for a generation.

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