The party drug of the ’80s and ’90s is making a roaring comeback.
In just two years, narcotics agents in Mississippi have seen seizures of ecstasy (also known as MDMA) soar from just 261 pills to more than 35,000 pills last year. Nationally, more than 12 million Americans have tried the illegal stimulant.
Ecstasy (called “Molly,” “E” and the “hug drug”) is often laced with other drugs, sometimes deadly fentanyl. Almost a third of the illegal drug sold on the streets in the U.S. contains no ecstasy at all, according to a study by the Florida House Experience.
“You’re really playing Russian roulette with what you’re taking,” said Tommie Whitten, treatment specialist for Southern Mississippi Addiction Campuses.
In 1912, a chemist at the German pharmaceutical company, Merck, hoping to clot uncontrollable bleeding, created ecstasy.
The drug didn’t work and sat on the shelf until the 1950s, when the government experimented with it and other drugs. After that work was declassified, psychotherapists in the early 1980s tried the drug with patients.
The drug made its way from doctors’ offices to the club scene, and in 1985, the federal government banned the drug.
By the 1990s, the drug became so popular it trailed only marijuana, cocaine and heroin among drug users — only to fade out, in part because of the pills’ dilution.
The new wave has brought more potent versions of ecstasy to the fore.
The purity of ecstasy (also known as MDMA) has increased in recent years, according to a study by the Florida House Experience.
“We had a very substantial uptick in ecstasy seizures in 2017,” said Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy. “We see it at a fairly steady constant, primarily in the college towns.”
Whitten said ecstasy is most frequently a recreational drug that appears on the club scene or in “rave” parties among those 18 to 25.
The drug is marketed to the young in pastel colors and named after superheroes (”Batman” or “Superman”), cars (”Tesla,” “Lamborghini” and “Ferrari”), dolphins, shamrocks and even the Playboy bunny.
Many music artists from Madonna to Snoop Dogg to Eminem have talked about using ecstasy.
“The drug is making a comeback because it creates a euphoria that people like,” said Dr. Patrick Kyle, associate professor of pathology and director of clinical chemistry and toxicology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “It’s one of the top three drugs confiscated when doing drug busts on the streets of Jackson.”
Ecstasy increases the chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin in the body, he said. All are neurotransmitters, meaning they send signals to other nerve cells.
The drug brings with it increased alertness, increased sensations and sometimes hyperactivity.
But hours later, users experience “a pretty hard crash,” Kyle said.
Side effects can include irritability, insomnia, weight loss, hallucinations, seizures, hyperthermia and death, he said. “Long-term use can bring degeneration or toxicity of neurons in the brain as well as some cognitive deficiencies.”
Ecstasy is one of several psychostimulants, which play a role in 11 percent of the nation’s more than 63,000 fatal drug overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 2007 study found that clinical studies established a link between the use of ecstasy and aggressive or violent behavior.
“It’s scary because our teens want to have fun,” Kyle said, “but there’s no quality control with these drugs.”
Ecstasy pills seized
- 2015: 261 pills
- 2016: 1,775 pills
- 2017: 35,714 pills
Source: Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics