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."
Another problem is that these shipments originate from small European labs -- often in the Netherlands -- unlike other narcotics that need to be grown on large areas of land, says Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state. "Traffickers have been quick to exploit the increasing integration under the European Union," he says. "A borderless European Union, which is key to European unity and economic development, unfortunately also facilitates cross-border crime, including trafficking in ecstasy."
The Netherlands' central role is demonstrated by the fact that some 35 man-made drug production sites were discovered there in 1998, drug enforcement agents say. Law enforcement agents also report that Israeli organized crime groups play a big role in bringing the drug into the U.S., as demonstrated by recent large seizures and arrests of Israeli traffickers in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the U.S.
But despite this growing trafficking problem and body of evidence showing that ecstasy is a dangerous drug, the use of ecstasy is likely to continue and grow among schoolchildren, and a number of congressional members are likely to resist stiffer penalties.
While no other drug showed a significant increase in use over the past year, ecstasy use increased from over 3% in 1998 to more than 4% in 1999 among tenth graders and from under 4% to just below 6% among 12th graders, according to NIH figures. "I think it is now moving from the all-night dance party scene to becoming part of college and university cultures across the country," says Steve Martin, MSc, a research scientist at the University of Delaware's Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies.
Still, "I think there is a substantial difference between methamphetamine and ecstasy," says Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who opposes stiffer penalties for ecstasy users and dealers. Unlike speed, ecstasy is not an addictive drug, she says. "My concern is that federal laws express the seriousness of the drug use."
At this point, scientific evidence indicates that ecstasy is not addictive, agrees Donald Vereen, MD, MPH, deputy director at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. However, ecstasy's potentially deadly affects are compounded by the concurrent use of other drugs, and it has been used as a date-rape drug, he points out. Therefore, applying penalties that are at least equal to heroin "seems to make sense at this point," he says.