By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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"Jim McDonough has blood on his hands," Sferios says matter-of-factly, referring to Florida's drug czar, a figure widely considered much more conservative than national drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. (McCaffrey recently announced his resignation effective January 6, 2001. Should George W. Bush be awarded the presidency, current Beltway speculation puts McDonough -- handpicked for his current position by Gov. Jeb Bush -- as his likely choice to succeed McCaffrey, a notion that chills many drug-policy reformers.)
"Our testing kits would have saved the lives of all those six people who died in Central Florida of PMA," Sferios asserts. "When you've got a drug that's in such high demand as Ecstasy, and it's so easy to put anything into a pill and sell it as Ecstasy, you make the conditions ripe for adulterants. The only reason PMA is being produced and sold as Ecstasy is as a scam in order to make money and avoid the risk and expense of manufacturing real Ecstasy. I don't blame those deaths on Ecstasy. I don't even blame PMA. I blame those deaths on Jim McDonough.
"I'm not trying to provide users with caveats to abuse drugs," Sferios adds, "but anecdotal evidence is better than alarmism. And we've had people using [Ecstasy] for 30 years now, and there's no evidence of cognitive damage."
The era Sferios refers to is Ecstasy's first flush of popularity in the United States, a period that peaked in the early Eighties. At that time, however, MDMA was referred to as Adam, and the notion of dancing all night while under its influence never occurred to anyone. Talking, not boogying, was the activity of choice.
Originally synthesized in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company and briefly used in U.S. military experiments in 1953, MDMA lay largely untouched until 1977, when it was "rediscovered" by California physician Sasha Shulgin. He in turn introduced it to psychiatrist Leo Zoff, who became so smitten with the drug's therapeutic effects on his patients that he acted as a veritable MDMA Johnny Appleseed. Zoff quietly began traveling the nation, acquainting hundreds of fellow physicians with the then-legal drug. The idea was to keep MDMA firmly within the medical community and thus avoid the Sixties example set by Timothy Leary, whose public enthusiasm for LSD triggered a government crackdown on that hallucinogenic drug.
Leary himself, also an early MDMA advocate, agreed with this low-key approach, telling an interviewer in 1985: "Let's face it, we're talking about an elitist experience.... No one wants a Sixties situation where sleazy characters hang around college dorms peddling pills they falsely call Ecstasy to lazy thrill-seekers."
Of course by 1985 that was a pretty good description of the situation at hand, as Ecstasy had quickly traveled out of doctors' offices and into nightclubs around the nation. On July 1 of that year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) outlawed it.
Fifteen years later the question still remains: Is Ecstasy harmful? The answer isn't entirely clear, thanks to inconclusive and often conflicting studies, not to mention a seemingly willful disinformation campaign on the part of government officials. Most of these tests have concentrated on Ecstasy's release in the brain of serotonin (the body's primary mood regulator and the reason Ecstasy users report feelings of happiness, empathy, and contentment), as well as its possible long-term depletion of serotonin.
One well-publicized 1999 study, conducted by Johns Hopkins neurotoxicologist George Ricaurte, prompted the nation's top DEA officials to hold up the results as clear evidence that Ecstasy causes brain damage. Yet Ricaurte himself drew different conclusions from his work, telling Time magazine that "the vast majority of people who have experimented with MDMA appear normal, and there's no obvious indication that something is amiss."
Dr. John Morgan, a professor at the City University of New York Medical School, went a step further. After reviewing the same material touted by the DEA as evidence of danger, he told Time: "None of the subjects Ricaurte studied had any evidence of brain or psychological dysfunction. His findings should not be dismissed, but they may mean that we have a whole lot of plasticity -- that we can do without serotonin and be okay."
In other words the long-term consequences of casual Ecstasy use may simply be a lot of grown-up ravers with Prozac prescriptions, hardly the apocalyptic future promised by drug warriors. Meanwhile MDMA's original advocates have resumed their work. In both Spain and Israel, studies are under way to examine use of the drug in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
Back at the Wyndham Hotel, the discussion had turned to practical matters: How do you help ravers who are so high they're disoriented? One DanceSafe member cheerfully offered, "One of the things that was helpful during the height of my acid days was to pull out my Chap Stick, something with writing on it. “Oh yeah, there isa real world out there.'"
A round of knowing laughter spreads over the room. It's probably a good thing for DanceSafe the CBS crew was asked to leave. That little bon mot about lip balm is exactly the type of video clip television producers and drug warriors salivate over. Yet as anyone who possesses a familiarity with acid can tell you, it's also true, which raises the uncomfortable central issue of the war on drugs. Just who would you prefer on the scene with an overdosing child: A police detective such as Orlando's rave "expert" Mike Stevens, who opined to 60 Minutes II that "Ecstasy is no different from crack or heroin?" Or someone who actually is familiar with Ecstasy's effects?