Public Health Officials Warn Against 'Club Drugs'

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Dec. 2, 1999 (Washington) -- Emory University sophomore Melissa Ross was looking for a fun evening at an Atlanta nightspot last April, but a pill that was supposed to enhance the experience had a tragically opposite effect. A few hours after taking her first ever dose of Ecstasy, one of the increasingly popular substances known as club drugs, Ross was dead.

When William Gentry, who'd been Melissa's student advisor and friend, was told she had lapsed into a coma, he refused to believe the promising computer science major he had taken under his wing was gone. "I just wish that night she didn't take that pill of Ecstasy at that nightclub. We all miss her, and we all wish she were here physically. I miss my 'little sister' Melissa Ross," Gentry said at a news conference Wednesday.

The event, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), was an effort to sound an alarm about what public health officials see as the growing menace of drugs like Ecstasy (also called 'X'), GHB, Rohypnol, ketamine, and others that have come to dominate the scene in so-called rave music clubs. It's not clear how many are taking these drugs, but one survey of high school seniors shows 6% had tried Ecstasy. Methamphetamine and LSD are also considered club drugs.

"We may be seeing a public health epidemic on the horizon, and we need to get in the path of this plague and stop it short in its path," said Alan Leshner, PhD, NIDA director. Leshner announced that his agency will increase research into club drugs and their effects by 40%, to $54 million. In addition, NIDA along with a coalition of four groups is launching a multimedia campaign to alert the public "about the risks posed by these illicit substances."

The take-home message is that these drugs are neither benign nor fun. Leshner pointed out brain scans showing that repeated Ecstasy use can disrupt serotonin, a key brain chemical regulating mental functions like mood and memory. GHB and Rohypnol can cause memory loss and have been linked to numerous cases of date rape. Another popular club drug, ketamine, is a veterinary anesthetic. Since some of these drugs are tasteless, colorless, and odorless, they can be used to spike a drink without detection.

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"[These drugs can cause] dramatic changes in behavior -- a loss of judgment, loss of memory, loss of cognitive capacity, and other kinds of consequences that can adversely affect the acute functioning of an individual," said Bennett Leventhal, MD, of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

College student Kevin Sabet of the University of California, Berkeley, is leading an effort to communicate to his peers the very real dangers of club drugs. "We have seen the latest wave of destruction with club drugs ... including the recent phenomenon of 'X rooms.' ... When they enter the door they will be engaging in club drugs," he said.

In addition to a web site spotlighting club drug risks (www.clubdrugs.org), NIDA will be distributing hundreds of thousands of postcards in Washington and New York showing the difference between a "plain brain" and a "brain after Ecstasy." But the messages aren't only targeted at children and their parents.

Psychiatrist Leventhal says doctors have to be on the alert when they question young patients about drug use. "You have to probe specifically and ask, 'Are you using club drugs?' Kids will know exactly what you're talking about," he tells WebMD.

The drugs are illegal, and although they're not necessarily addictive, users can become dependent on them. While youths may think of them as enhancing the intensity of the rave experience, at least one drug, Ecstasy, can trigger a potentially fatal heat reaction called hyperthermia. "If you have high body temperature in a very tightly packed room, this is very, very hot -- that is what increases hyperthermia," says Leshner.

Although some people may be genetically sensitive to the club drugs, it's impossible to know who may be particularly susceptible. That's what's so shocking about the death of Melissa Ross and others like her around the country.

"The message is there was nothing different about her. The message is that you just never know who's going to be more vulnerable to it than other people. Unfortunately, she was one of the unlucky ones," Melissa's sister, Amy Ross, tells WebMD.

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