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Lawmakers Push for an End to 'Ecstasy'


WebMD Health News

July 25, 2000 (Washington) -- Melissa Ross, an Emory University student, was 19 when she tried the drug ecstasy for the first time. Along with six other friends, Ross took one pill in April prior to an evening of dancing at a popular Atlanta nightclub. By the next day, Ross, a promising sophomore with plans to major in computer science, had died of a heart attack.

"One pill, one time, was all it took to end her life," says Amy Ross, the 26-year-old sister of Melissa Ross.

Thanks to anecdotal cases such as Melissa Ross' and a growing body of research suggesting that ecstasy is a potentially deadly narcotic, lawmakers now are pushing for stiffer penalties to limit the use and spread of this drug. "We are hoping to get legislation enacted at this Congress," says Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

In May, Graham and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced legislation that would increase the penalties for the importation, exportation, manufacture, and distribution of ecstasy so that they mirror the penalties associated with the trafficking of methamphetamine, or "speed." Under current federal sentencing guidelines, one gram of ecstasy is equivalent to 35 grams of marijuana, while one gram of speed is equivalent to two kilograms of marijuana.

To push this legislation through Congress, these lawmakers and others held a hearing Tuesday aimed at highlighting the nation's growing ecstasy problem. Testifying at the hearing were health care professionals and drug enforcement agents.

Although ecstasy dates back to the early 1900s, when it was developed and patented by the drugmaker Merck, U.S. health care officials say that more recent evidence is demonstrating that ecstasy is anything but a harmless drug.

"[Ecstasy] can produce increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. And because its stimulant properties enable users to dance for extended periods, it can also lead to dehydration ... and heart or kidney failure," says Alan Leshner, PhD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But its reputation as a relatively safe drug combined with its relatively low production costs, high profit margins, and virtually unlimited opportunities for smuggling into the U.S., is helping the use of ecstasy to spread faster than any drug since crack cocaine, say drug enforcement agents.

"Recent seizure statistics clearly illustrate this prolific growth," says Richard Fiano, chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Agency. Approximately 1.2 million tablets were seized in 1998 compared to over 12 million tablets in 1999, which translates into a tenfold increase.

A man-made drug, ecstasy is also one of the harder drugs for custom agents to combat, notes Raymond Kelly, commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service. "Like smugglers of other drugs, ecstasy carriers fit no simple description. Well-to-do tourists, travelling mainly from Europe, have been caught with ecstasy strapped tightly to their bodies. Smuggling groups also use juveniles, families, and college students studying abroad," he says. "The drug's compact size makes smuggling options almost infinite."

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