Ecstasy (Drugs: The Straight Facts)

Brock E. Schroeder

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In 1912 the German pharmaceutical company Merck first synthesized and patented a compound called 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA for short. At the time, many new chemicals were synthesized in the hopes that they might be useful in future research. MDMA, as an amphetamine-derivative, had potential as a diet drug. However, like many other compounds, research on MDMA was soon abandoned by Merck. Many pharmaceutical companies at that time applied for and received patents on everything they synthesized, just in case the compound was ever found to be useful or in case they ever decided to do more research on the compound. Many of these chemical products, like MDMA, did not show enough promise to be investigated further, and thus research was abandoned.

More than 50 years later, an American scientist named Alexander Shulgin resynthesized the compound and began experimenting with it. Shulgin believed that MDMA would be useful medically, perhaps in treating people for psychological disorders. (As will be discussed in Chapter 4, many current researchers do not believe that MDMA has useful medicinal benefits, especially when weighed against the harm that it is thought to cause.) Shortly after, in the early 1980s, MDMA (soon to be known worldwide as “Ecstasy”) was just beginning to be used as a recreational drug. Ecstasy was actually named by an enterprising drug dealer, who was seeking to capitalize on this new drug. MDMA was first called “empathy” which describes its effects more appropriately as feelings of closeness, but “ecstasy” was a much more marketable name. Thus Ecstasy was born. In schools, at parties, and at a new type of function called a “rave,” Ecstasy use began appearing and increasing in popularity. In the past 20 years, that simple compound, MDMA, has grown into one of the most commonly abused drugs by teenagers in America and around the world.

MDMA’s chemical structure has properties that are similar to both amphetamines and hallucinogens. These chemical similarities are directly responsible for the psychoactive, mind-altering effects of the drug. Amphetamines are psychostimulants, which means they cause a “rush” or “high,” increased energy, and wakefulness. In structure (and in name), MDMA is actually most similar to methamphetamine, or “speed.” MDMA also has similarities with psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and mescaline.While it does not usually cause overt hallucinations like LSD, the psychedelic properties of Ecstasy do cause altered perceptions and feelings of peacefulness, empathy, and acceptance.

Most often MDMA is taken in the form of a tablet which is easily produced in illegal laboratories. Like many illegal drugs, one of the dangers of taking Ecstasy is that a user is never really sure what he or she is getting. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine the purity of a pill. From a chemical perspective, Ecstasy is relatively easy and cheap to produce. While a single tablet may only cost pennies to produce, it is sold for between $20 and $50 per pill—a hefty profit. Because of its profitability, the Ecstasy trade has become a huge industry, reaching across the entire globe. The global market is very complex. For example, a single pill might make its way from an illegal laboratory in the Netherlands to a crime syndicate in Israel, where it then may be smuggled in a plastic bag (which someone swallows and later “recovers”) through customs. That pill may find its way through several dealers and middlemen before ending up at the local rave.
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