20/20 Downtown: Ecstasy Copycats

ByRebecca Raphael

Oct. 2, 2000 -- 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.”

While Sferios says that the best way to reduce harm is to abstain from using drugs altogther, he believes his harm-reduction approach of providing nonjudgmental information on the risk of drugs and risk-reduction techniques are the best way to reach a large segment of the population whom he calls “novelty seekers.” For these youngsters, he says, “drug experimentation is a fact of life.”

High-Tech High Touch

And Sferios has his supporters. Bob Wallace, 51, who was the ninth person ever hired by Microsoft and is now semiretired, met Emanuel at a party and has since contributed $70,000 to DanceSafe.

“One thing I like a lot about DanceSafe is that they don’t say ‘You should or should not do a drug.’” Instead, DanceSafe is “spreading knowledge very effectively” and “reducing the harm that can happen.”

In fact, most of DanceSafe’s funding comes from Internet professionals. “In the Internet work community, it’s very intense, long hours, very structured, very difficult,” Wallace says. “So you can imagine that when these people have a little free time, they want something that helps them open up and feel compassion and love.”

So MDMA, which is said to do just that, has made its way from all-night raves to Silicon Valley. “It’s called high-tech high-touch,” Wallace says. “The more technical you get in your job, the more touchy-feely you need in your life.”

Wallace, who has also contributed nearly $300,000 to research mind-altering drugs, says that the unique qualities of MDMA, such as increasing feelings of empathy, make it a drug worth studying. “We need to understand how our mind works,” he says. Because of DanceSafe, he adds, “people who would normally not have any idea of brain chemistry are starting to learn what’s good for the brain and what’s bad for it.”

Steve Simitzes, 25, who recently left the Internet industry to work in music production, is also a donor. People who are interested in “forging deeper into their psyches,” he says, which can include professionals who work developing new technology, are drawn to Ecstasy.

A “raver” for 10 years, Simitzes supports DanceSafe’s mission. “If people are going to use drugs, they’re going to use drugs. Let’s make sure they are doing it safely,” he says.

But to Casteel of the DEA, “That is a misguided philosophy at best, a dangerous one at worst. It’s like putting on a seatbelt so you can go 1,000 miles per hour. It just doesn’t work.”

David Perozzi produced the 20/20 Downtown segment, with John Quiñones reporting.

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