Targeting young people increasingly swept into the newest drug craze - and baby-boom parents unfamiliar with their kids' party scene - Maryland officials opened an attack yesterday on the feel-good pill called Ecstasy.
The drug, named for its power to manipulate brain chemistry to enhance good feelings and whip up energy, has been booming in Maryland and the nation, the officials said, and they presented a four-pronged strategy to reduce its use.
"What's most troubling about Ecstasy is that users believe it's a safe drug," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who unveiled the plan at a news conference. "That's a mistake that could have deadly consequences. Ecstasy doesn't free your mind, it burns your brain."
The plan to combat the use of Ecstasy - its clinical name is methylenedioxymethamphetamine - calls for:
An education campaign, including the nation's first public-service television commercial on the drug. It will be aired throughout Maryland.
Increased enforcement, including using fire regulations to reduce the number of raves - parties that feature techno music and are centers of Ecstasy activity. Dance clubs, where the drug is also popular, will be targeted as well.
Continued use of the state's "Drug Early Warning System," or DEWS, which seeks swift identification of drug trends through data culled from a number of sources.
A campaign to train medical personnel about symptoms Ecstasy users show so the doctors and nurses may better detect its use and properly treat patients who arrive at emergency rooms. Many patients suffering from Ecstasy's effects are often misdiagnosed, officials said, and thus mistreated.
The severity of problems the drug causes are not entirely clear. But there is consensus in the scientific community that Ecstasy can cause serious problems both in the short and long terms, both physically and psychologically.
Dr. Lee Vanocour, chairman of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said some hospitals have reported treating users who have had body temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees.
"That's almost literally cooking their vital internal organs," she said at the news conference, held at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Long-term experiments with monkeys have shown brain damage was present seven years after they were administered Ecstasy, and other studies have shown human users demonstrate impairment in visual and verbal memory more than two weeks after using the drug.
Users take Ecstasy because it gives them hours-long bursts of energy and - by releasing the mood-altering neurotransmitter serotonin - tends to put them in a euphoric state.
But emergency rooms have experienced an increase in the number of patients suffering the short-term agonies of the drug, Vanocour said. In addition to dramatically increasing body temperature, it also causes blood pressure to shoot up.
And because of the energy boost it provides, some users dance until they are dehydrated, leading to heat exhaustion and failures of the kidneys and cardiovascular system.
In Maryland, there have been 10 deaths since 1998 of people who had Ecstasy in their system, according to the Office of the State Medical Examiner. None of the deaths was directly attributed to the drug. Nationally, no such statistics exist, but the increase in the drug's presence has been documented by the U.S. Customs Service, which seized about 400,000 Ecstasy pills in 1997 and about 4 million this year.
The enforcement campaign will depend largely on targeting raves. Some of the dance parties are held underground, their locations spread primarily by word of mouth. Increasingly, though, promoters secure permits for the parties and hold them in such diverse forums as warehouses, fields or public parks.
Maryland State Police Col. David B. Mitchell said the department will work with fire marshals to identify the parties and close them down or prevent them from opening if drug use is suspected.
"In many of these cases, people are just jammed together, the water's turned off so kids have to buy the bottled stuff," he said. "We can use the fire codes to go after them."
He said if the more-established dance clubs are showing signs of drug use, they will be targeted as well.
Officials acknowledged Ecstasy is not the most dangerous drug on the illegal market but said evidence of a sharp increase in its use is cause enough for the campaign. In 1998, only two Maryland counties had verified Ecstasy use. That number is now 18, according to a DEWS study. Maryland State Police report the number of cases involving Ecstasy in Baltimore County increased from two in 1998 to 72 last year.
Townsend said that in addition to enforcement, much of the problem can be addressed through education. While the drug is not limited to raves, it is widely used and distributed at the parties, and parents not familiar with Ecstasy often think nothing of letting their children attend.
Standing before the newest and most innocent-looking of drug paraphernalia, the lieutenant governor held up candy pacifiers, candy necklaces, bottled water and nasal inhalers to offer a warning to parents and young people.
"If you see this kind of paraphernalia around your children or your friends, know there's a problem," she said.
Candy pacifiers are often seen at raves and among people who use Ecstasy because the drug can cause an involuntary clenching of the jaw.
Pills of the drug, usually about the size of an aspirin, are often hidden in candy necklaces and candy packages.
The water is omnipresent because of the fears of dehydration, and the nasal inhalers provide an extra high.
A 30-second television commercials warning about the drug will begin airing next month.