Chat Transcript: Ecstasy

Ecstasy is the hottest illegal drug on the market. And along with its popularity come copycat drugs, which can be lethal. Enter DanceSafe, a self-described harm-reduction organization whose goal is to promote health and safety within the rave and nightclub community. The nonprofit group sends volunteers to rave parties to test pills that users may think to be Ecstasy, but in fact may be something even more dangerous. But no matter what the results are, testers always hand back the pills to the individual. Law enforcement agencies and parents are critical of DanceSafe, saying that volunteers are not licensed technicians and that illegal drugs should be confiscated—not handed back to users. Emanuel Sferios, national director of DanceSafe and Steve Casteel, chief intelligence officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration joined us in a chat. Below is a transcript.

Moderator at 3:58pm ET

Welcome Emanuel Sferios.

Emanuel Sferios at 4:00pm ET

Hi, I'm Emanuel Sferios, I'm the founder and executive director of DanceSafe. We're a national nonprofit harm-reduction organization, promoting health and safety in the rave and nightclub community. One of the health issues among youth, not just in the rave community but youth everywhere, is drug use. We utilize a peer-based prevention program along with a harm-reduction strategy, which provides non-abstentionist, lifesaving information to those who make the choice to experiment with drugs.

reyna from at 4:01pm ET

What positive feedback have you received from this program? Have anyparents supported you? What about police?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:01pm ET

We have received enormously positive feedback from every media article about us. We have spoken in high schools, we have parents who have thanked us; and in every city in which we operate, we have had the full cooperation from police, who themselves are safety-minded.

We have spoken to police at our booths, while we were testing pills, who have granted the users amnesty-- meaning that they have agreed not to arrest users who seek out our services, because they recognize that fake Ecstasy tablets, like those containing PMA,are far more dangerous, and our program is a public health service that saves lives.

Moderator at 4:03pm ET

What has been the response from clubgoers to your organization?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:03pm ET

We receive approximately 200 thousand hits a day to our website. About ten thousand unique visitors a day. Since we started, approximately a year and a half ago, we have received over ten thousand e-mails, and approximately eight or nine of those have been polite e-mails saying that they think our program is misguided. And the rest have been thankful of what we do, many of whom have said they can't believe that a private organization like us has to resort to fund-raising to do what the government themselves ought to be doing.

alex sawyer from at 4:04pm ET

In what cities do you have active programs?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:05pm ET

Currently we have officially incorporated chapters in the San Francisco Bay area; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Pittsburgh; Sacramento; Boston, Massachusetts; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Central Florida; and there's three new ones that I've been on vacation for the last couple of weeks and I'm not sure exactly where they are. But they're all posted on our website. And there are about 15 more groups forming that we hope to incorporate by the end of the year, after we train them and they demonstrate professionalism and responsibility.

Heather from at 4:05pm ET

Does DanceSafe have a website?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:06pm ET

Yes, we do. It's And on the website, we have also posted our official response to the "20/20" episode, which clears up some of the misunderstandings that people might have after watching the show.

JuicyJuice at 4:06pm ET

What was your reaction to the segment on 20/20 last night?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:09pm ET

I thought that the segment was rather sensationalistic, although the footage of us was fair and represented us fairly accurately. Although I was a little upset that the producers chose to ignore so many aspects of our programs, like our peer counseling programs, like the fact that we have support from most law enforcement, that we absolutely do not see ourselves in an adversarial relationship with police or the DEA. We felt it was a little sensationalistic, and in one sense irresponsible, and that is that they said that there have been dozens of Ecstasy overdoses around the world, which is not true. We think this is irresponsible because the deaths that have resulted around the world after individuals have consumed Ecstasy, have been related to heat stroke, not the amount of Ecstasy the person took. By calling them overdoses, this gives the impression to young people that they will be safe if they only take one pill, when in fact people have died after taking only one pill of Ecstasy. It's very important that we understand exactly why young people are dying at raves, and that the causes are more related to overcrowded hot venues, hours of aerobic dancing without drinking enough water. People have died at raves from heat stroke who haven't consumed Ecstasy at all.

Andy B from at 4:09pm ET

Do you believe that DanceSafe saves lives? And in particular, could DanceSafe have helped saved the lives of the two young people featured on the program?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:10pm ET

Absolutely yes. When we spoke to Janice Aeschlemann, the mother of Sarah Aeschlemann, who is one of the individuals featured on the show who died after taking PMA, she told us that she was very supportive of what we do, and that she knows that if her daughter had access to our testing kits, that she would have been smart enough to have got her pill tested.

Porch from at 4:11pm ET

What are the negative physical effects associated with PMA? If you take PMA, is there a way to tell? What are some things to do in case PMA has been ingested?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:13pm ET

One thing to know is that PMA is not a new version of Ecstasy. It is not a desired recreational drug. It is only being released on the Ecstasy market because it is cheaper and easier to manufacture, and it will produce a stimulant effect. So that the scam will last longer than if the person only sold a completely inert pill. The problem is that PMA increases heart rate and blood pressure astronomically, compared to real Ecstasy. And while most likely if a user accidentally ingests only one PMA tablet, they should be fine, if they ingest three or four of them, that is a life-threatening overdose. Ecstasy, however, is very difficult to overdose on. One would have to take 20, 30, perhaps 40 pills to die simply from the acute toxicity of Ecstasy. If a person takes too much real Ecstasy, there are other risks: they won't feel very well, they are more likely to sustain neurotoxic damage and depression, but it is generally not life-threatening. This is because MDMA has a threshold point at which heart rate and blood pressure will not increase any more. PMA however increases blood pressure and heart rate with higher doses, and is therefore much more dangerous.

To answer the rest of her question, one can screen against PMA tablets with an Ecstasy testing kit. These are available from a number of organizations around the world, including ours from our website. PMA produces no color reaction using our testing kits. If, and this is the most important piece of harm-reduction advice, you take a tablet and you don't feel a normal Ecstasy response, you may have consumed anything, including PMA. At that point, one should not consume any other pills that evening.

Moderator at 4:15pm ET

How do you answer critics who claim you are promoting drug use because you hand back the drugs to users?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:17pm ET

The misunderstanding is that we hand the pill back to the user before we test the scraping that we obtain from the pill. This way we are never in possession of what we know to be a controlled substance. If we were to confiscate people's pills, then we would not be a public health service, we would be police. And that is the job of police, not us. It would be like needle exchange programs taking users' dirty needles and refusing to give them clean needles. As soon as they did that once, no one would utilize their services. This is why police have made amnesty agreements with needle exchange programs as well as with pill-testing programs. But again, our volunteers hand the pill back before the tiny scraping of powder is tested. So we are never holding a confirmed illegal drug.

elwood from at 4:18pm ET

Is public funding available, at this time, to help DanceSafe?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:19pm ET

Yes, most definitely. We are helping a number of our chapters write grants to various public foundations to obtain funding, and our Bay Area chapter has received funding for our literature from the San Francisco Department of Public Health. It may not have been understood from the "20/20" show, but we are primarily a drug abuse prevention program that distributes literature. Pill-testing is only a small part of what we do.

Moderator at 4:19pm ET

Tell us about the alliance between DanceSafe and the Silicon Valley community.

Emanuel Sferios at 4:21pm ET

I wouldn't actually call it an alliance, but some of our funders are dot-com millionaires from Silicon Valley. Ecstasy is used by many middle-class professionals precisely because it can be used relatively safely, and does not destroy people's lives in the same way that speed and heroin and other, more addictive drugs do. It therefore appeals to people who are looking for a fun social experience that they can enjoy on the weekends and go back to work the next day. There are therefore many people within the tech industry who use and enjoy Ecstasy and/or have friends who do. And many of them, whether they use Ecstasy or not, are a part of the rave culture. They have ran into us at events, and introduced themselves to us, and offered to support us, and we are very grateful for their support.

OrokuSaki from at 4:22pm ET

How are you liable if the test is inaccurate?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:24pm ET

The test is not inaccurate. The test is limited, but within those limits it is extremely reliable. The test can positively detect the presence of real Ecstasy in a tablet. It does not detect purity, however; there could be something else in the tablet. We always inform users of this fact. We utilize internationally developed pill-testing protocols that are used in many countries in Europe. The reason that the test is useful (even though it doesn't detect purity) is because the vast majority of adulterated or fake tablets do not contain any real Ecstasy. This is because the people who are releasing the fake and more dangerous tablets are trying to avoid the risks and the expense associated with manufacturing real Ecstasy.

Fake tablets are therefore a direct result of prohibition. This does not mean we advocate total legalization. But if there were some form of decriminalization and strict control over the distribution of Ecstasy, then the illicit market and the criminals who are selling more dangerous drugs would no longer have a market. Also, if there were strict controls in a decriminalized market, Ecstasy would be much more difficult for children to obtain.

Moderator at 4:25pm ET

Does your group have any statistical information to prove the validity of your work?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:26pm ET

We have hundreds of e-mails from individuals thanking us for the information that we have provided, and telling us that they are going to stop or significantly reduce the amount of Ecstasy that they have used, because they didn't realize how risky it was until coming to our website. We have also received hundreds of e-mails from people thanking us, telling us that because they found a picture of the DXM or PMA pills on our website, that they were able to avoid ingesting them.

Moderator at 4:27pm ET

Emanuel do you have any final thoughts?

Emanuel Sferios at 4:31pm ET

I would like to say that the harm-reduction approach that we use, which means providing nonjudgmental, truthful, fact-based drug information, is widely recognized around the world, and is extremely successful. That the "Just Say No" approach works well. We are not against that. We just recognize that it only works well for very young children, and very risk-averse people. However, many people, particularly young people, are novelty seekers, they are inquisitive by nature, and youthful drug experimentation is a simple fact.   Scare tactics and oversimplified statements like "drugs kill" are ineffective in reducing harm. Furthermore, once young people learn that they are being lied to, they will then disbelieve everything else those authorities have to say. So the scare tactics actually increase the harm and jeopardize young people's lives.

We think that the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the DEA, and many other "anti-drug" organizations should contend with this fact. They should rethink their drug education policies, and separate the grade school approach from the adolescent and adult approach.

Moderator at 4:31pm ET

Thank you Emanuel Sferios. And now please welcome Steve Casteel from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Moderator at 4:32pm ET

Mr. Casteel, what do you think of DanceSafe and its mission?

Steve Casteel at 4:34pm ET

Well, unlike what the piece said last night, speaking for DEA, we're not totally against a lot of the things that DanceSafe stands for. I respect the need for accurate information to be provided, I respect the need for treatment, I respect all those as issues that are important in trying to accomplish what everybody wants to. And you must understand that I come at this subject from several different directions. It is true that I have spent thirty years of my life in law enforcement trying to address the drug issue, but I also am a parent of two twenty-year-old college students, and I also am a citizen of the United States, so I wear three hats when I look at this issue.

TakeTheRedPill from at 4:34pm ET

Mr Casteel, what are your criticisms of the DanceSafe organization?

Steve Casteel at 4:35pm ET

My criticism lies in the area of a false sense of comfort that you give people, that you are making it somehow safer to take Ecstasy. That is my main concern. The field test that we use for this testing of the drug is something I'm familiar with. We use it in law enforcement for field testing of drugs that we seize.Often we find it gives us a false reading and is not that reliable. So I have a problem with putting any child's life, making a life decision like that, based on that type of test.

During the interview with Mr. Quinones, I showed him at our laboratory a series of drugs, some of them controlled, some of them not controlled, and using the field tests came up with the same positive reaction for all of those drugs. So this test is not as specific as DanceSafe would have it.

Heather at 4:36pm ET

Mr. Casteel, Have you ever been to a rave?

Steve Casteel at 4:37pm ET

Actually, I have. It was interesting, as Ecstasy began to be a major issue for law enforcement, I made attempts to get out and to get a feeling for what was going on in this drug. I was surprised by the number of people who have approached me when they knew I was interested in educating myself on it. I went to a rave in New Orleans. I even, when I was getting my haircut recently, the stylist told me that she had tried Ecstasy on occasions, in fact had gotten sick from it and discontinued its use. I was contacted since the story last night by a doctor in the area here whose son committed suicide due to depression connected with this drug. And I even had a plumber come into my house a month or so ago, and his assistant was a college student who had dropped out of college because he needed to get away from that scene.

Moderator at 4:39pm ET

How rampant is Ecstasy use in this country right now?

Steve Casteel at 4:40pm ET

We have gone from very small seizures five and six years ago, from a law enforcement perspective, to millions of pills seized this year. It is probably the number one growing drug threat to our population. And that is based on both the fact that a criminal organization can actually make more money or profit on this drug than it can on heroin or cocaine, and that the public perception among the youth is that this drug is safe.


A reader asks how the DEA can expend its efforts on Ecstasy when, in this person's opinion, alcohol and tobacco do more harm and are more dangerous than Ecstasy.

Steve Casteel

It is a controlled substance. It is my mandate by law to enforce laws that affect controlled substances. I think anyone that works in the drug abuse arena recognizes the dangers of alcohol and tobacco. But unfortunately at this point in time, society has deemed to make them legal.

PV from at 4:41pm ET

Mr.Casteel, What percentage level of pills seized are copycats?

Steve Casteel at 4:43pm ET

It depends on your definition of "copycat." It's interesting when you look at these pills, because they are produced by a variety of sources. Their quality and their ingredients vary tremendously. I think that currently at this time in law enforcement we have seen about 500 different types of pills. These pills may contain Ecstasy but in varying strengths, and will contain many other adulterants in varying strengths. We have even found organizations which will produce a very strong pill in the beginning, to try to get the population to want to buy that type, and then reduce the strength by about fifty percent, to try to drive up the price a bit.

tibito from at 4:43pm ET

Mr. Casteel, Mr.Sferios compared his program to needle exchange programs. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Steve Casteel at 4:45pm ET

Law enforcement has always had mixed opinions on needle programs. So I really don't have a position one way or the other. Again, I would say, that perhaps the majority of what DanceSafe does, law enforcement is in favor of. We still recognize the importance of prevention and treatment. We also recognize that there has to be a consistent and accurate message. The groups that are involved with this type of drug are the young adults of our society. I truly believe if you give them accurate information, the majority of them will make the proper decision.

But I do have a concern about sending mixed messages. And I do believe to some extent the testing of drugs at raves sends a mixed message.

While people will tell you that Ecstasy itself kills no one, and that the deaths are caused by other factors, that's tantamount to saying that if you get drunk and drive a car, and have an accident, the alcohol wasn't the cause, the car was the cause of the accident. Everything has a cause and effect.

Joe from at 4:46pm ET

What actions are the DEA taking to protect or educate young people on the dangers of Ecstasy? Is there a better solution?

Steve Casteel at 4:52pm ET

Again, going back to what I would call the four approaches to life, when it comes to drugs, we recognize that if you get a clear and concise message to our children, in other words prevention, if you can keep a person off of drugs to the age of 18, they are very unlikely to abuse drug after that point. We also recognize that you need a treatment program, that the criminal justice system is not there to treat people, it is there to take major drug violators, violent elements out of society. So you need a drug diversion court, you need treatment upon demand, and we recognize that.

We also recognize, however, that law enforcement does have a role. Drugs like Ecstasy, which are often called designer drugs, because they were initially designed to get around certain laws in this country, are now being designed for one reason: not to make you feel good, not to make you better enjoy raves. They are designed to make money for people that sell them.

And I would add a last issue there, besides prevention, reatment, and law enforcement: I would call that personal responsibility. The best indications or studies I have seen on prevention of drug abuse are related to how much parental interaction a child has. So if people were better parents, that might be the most effective thing we could do, with regard to Ecstasy and with regard to our youth.

Moderator at 4:54pm ET

Alex asks:Mr. Casteel, are we winning the war on drugs?

Steve Casteel at 4:56pm ET

I'm often asked that question based on my years of experience in this field. You can get all kinds of statistics both pro and con. I can tell you that drug abuse, casual drug use, is fifty percent of what it was a few years ago. I can tell you that drug abuse among all categories but one is down. I can tell you that crime, which is a derivative of drug use, has diminished for the last eight years, and is down another eight percent this year.

However, this problem took several generations to create, and will take a consistent approach for generations to fix. The United States has what I call the McDonald's Syndrome. When there is a problem, we drive up to the window, place one order that fixes it, and drive off thirty seconds later, expecting it to be completed. As I said before, if this is to be successful, we must attack it on the prevention side, we must attack it from the treatment side, we must attack it from the law enforcement side, and I as a father and every other parent out there play a critical role.

Moderator at 4:58pm ET

Read some of our recent chats available in our Chat Archive. Thank you for joining us.