A knockoff of the popular “club drug” Ecstasy is being blamed for the deaths of six young people in Florida and at least three in suburban Chicago since May, law enforcement officials said.
The clusters of deaths in Illinois and Florida, along with sporadic reports of fatalities across the nation involving Ecstasy, underscores the dangerous nature of a drug that has been thought by many to be relatively harmless.
In Florida, the fake Ecstasy, called PMA or paramethoxyamphetamine, and PMMA, or paramethoxymethamphetamine, is killing young people by raising their body temperatures to as high as 108 degrees.
The pills being sold in central Florida are believed to be more lethal than Ecstasy, which is made of MDMA or methylenedioxymethamphetamine.The pills are similar and medical experts say it is virtually impossible to tell them apart unless they are tested in a laboratory.
“It is like Russian roulette,” said Bruce Goldberger, a forensic toxicologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “If you get these PMA pills and take them, there is a chance you will die.”
The counterfeit pills, which are cheaper to make, were being sold in central Florida, in the Orlando area, authorities said. Florida state police were trying to determine where the drugs were made.
Florida state law enforcement officials said Friday at least six people have died in Florida since July from taking the drugs.
Drug More Popular Than Ever
Use of Ecstasy in the United States is growing more quickly than any other abused drug. Congress held hearings this summer, and legislation was introduced in both houses to increase penalties for its trafficking and possession.
Ecstasy is known as a “club drug” because of its popularity among attendees of all-night music clubs that stage parties known as “raves.” The drug is extremely popular in rave clubs in Miami and also has a stronghold in Atlanta and across the state of New Jersey. A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that about 3.4 million Americans at least 12 years old have tried the drug at least once.
In suburban Chicago last week, authorities announced they were looking into three fatalities last spring of young people who took what they thought was Ecstasy but was actually PMA. Unlike the Florida pills, the PMA tablets in Illinois each had a distinct stamp of three diamonds in a triangle shape.
State officials in Maryland announced Thursday a campaign aimed at debunking myths about the Ecstasy’s safety. In three years, 10 people have died in Maryland in cases where Ecstasy was cited as a contributing factor.
“Some people think Ecstasy is safe. It is not,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. “Ecstasy does not free your mind. It burns your brain.”
Florida officials began investigating the deaths there after looking into the death in August of a 19-year-old Lake County woman. Five hours after her death, her body temperature was recorded at 104 degrees.
Five other deaths are now believed to be linked to the lethal imitation drug. In four of the cases, the victims’ bodies contained a mix of drugs, including the PMA or PMMA, authorities said.
‘Unscrupulous Dealers’ Market Fake
Ecstasy is taken by users for its psychoactive or mind-altering properties, but health officials warn the drug can have lasting physical and psychological effects, including depression. Recent research findings show that the drug may also be linked to long-term brain damage, affecting critical thought and memory, according to NIDA.
In the fatal cases involving PMA, the victims overheat, become confused, hallucinate and finally collapse, Goldberger said. Once a person starts to overheat like that, he said, it is almost too late to save them unless they get immediate medical attention.
A large percentage of pills sold as Ecstasy do not contain the drug at all or are laced with other drugs, including methamphetamines or PCP or cocaine, said Emanuel Sferios, the national director of DanceSafe, an Oakland, Calif. nonprofit that provides health and safety information to club drug users.
Sferios said “unscrupulous dealers” are manufacturing and selling PMA and other types of fake Ecstasy because it is easier and cheaper to make than the real thing.
“Ecstasy is in high demand and people are making money by selling fake Ecstasy,” Sferios said. “The truth is that PMA is out there and it is a much more dangerous drug.” DanceSafe recommends screening the pills through home lab kits. Health officials say the test kits are not reliable.