Ecstasy is a stimulant drug, also known as MDMA, that is usually taken in capsule or tablet form. It was first synthesised in 1912 in Germany, and was originally intended for medicinal use. Its use was limited until it was appropriated by rave and dance communities and culture in the US in the 1980s. From there it spread during the latter part of the decade to nightclubs and raves in the UK and Europe, with widespread use reported by the early 1990s. Ecstasy is widely thought to be one of the first of what would come to be referred to as “designer drugs”, owing to its association with young people, popular culture and electronic dance music.
Whilst “Ecstasy” is the more common name, MDMA is the actual chemical, and is often cut with other potentially harmful materials and chemicals before it reaches the street. This is one of the reasons why ecstasy can be dangerous to use, as there is no way of knowing what exactly an ecstasy pill contains, as well as what proportion of the pill consists of MDMA. Whilst ecstasy is illegal in many countries, it is thought that it was used at least once by between 10 and 25 million people globally in 2008.
Its major effects include improved confidence, increased energy, hyperactivity and feelings of compassion towards oneself and others. Ecstasy is not technically addictive insofar as users will not experience physical cravings for the drug. However, they can still build up a tolerance to its effects, requiring higher quantities to achieve the same high. To that end, there are numerous reported cases of ecstasy addiction, particularly amongst those who are generally susceptible to addictive tendencies.
Ecstasy is associated with a number of negative side effects. Once the initial effects have worn off these side effects can include depression, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness and an inability to concentrate. These can last, or even become more acute, for several days after ingestion of the drug. Ecstasy users are also at significant risk of overdose, particularly when the effects of an ecstasy pill take longer than expected to become apparent, causing users to take larger amounts. At its most serious ecstasy overdoses can potentially cause brain damage and even death.
Ecstasy is the street form of the pure chemical MDMA, which has often been packed with additional potentially harmful chemicals and materials, indeed it is not unheard of for apparent ecstasy pills to contain no MDMA whatsoever. Given that ecstasy is widely considered to be a club drug, a large number of different slang and street names have emerged to refer to it. Some of these include “E”, “pills”, “X”, “Adam”, “love drug” and “beans” some of which are specific to the US, whilst the UK has some street names of its own including “mandy”, “brownies” and “Mitsubishis”.
There is also a wide range of other terms used to refer to ecstasy, varying from country to country and from region to region, sometimes even from nightclub to nightclub.
The major effects of ecstasy include improved self-confidence, increased awareness and alertness, hyperactivity and euphoria. The drug can reduce anxiety and aggression in users, helping them to empathise more with others and imbuing the user with a sense of self-acceptance. Users report that it can improve the perception of experiences had whilst on the drug such as the quality of music heard, and an enhancement of the senses. The effects of ecstasy take about half an hour to become apparent after ingestion, and can last for 3-6 hours.
However, ecstasy is also associated with a range of negative effects, and a bad trip can create an unpleasant experience for a user. Inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, uncontrollable jaw clenching, dry mouth, insomnia and feelings of anxiety are all possible negative reactions when the drug is taking effect. Once the drug wears off, ecstasy users can experience paranoia, dizziness, fatigue, depression and gastrointestinal problems during what is known as the “come-down”, which can potentially last for several days after ingestion of the drug.
Activities undertaken whilst experiencing the high can normally catch up with the user at this point, including soreness from excessive jaw clenching, muscle aches from vigorous dancing and exhaustion.
One of the effects of MDMA is to stop the body from producing urine. This can make people excessively thirsty, and there are recorded fatalities of inexperienced users overcompensating by taking in too much fluid in too short a space of time. Ecstasy users are also at risk of overdose, particularly considering the lead time between consumption and the effects becoming apparent.
Ecstasy, particularly with repeated use, can also potentially cause psychological damage and organ failure, although this can sometimes be attributed to the harmful chemicals mixed in with the MDMA. Cases of fatalities as a result of ingesting ecstasy, even in instances of overdose, are relatively uncommon.
Despite the popularity of ecstasy in the late 20th Century originating largely from the USA, the drug is mostly manufactured nowadays in Europe, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands. A smaller proportion is thought to be manufactured in the UK and Germany, as well as other European countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Spain, Hungary and Poland. Ecstasy is relatively easy to manufacture when compared to other some other drugs such as heroin, and so it is largely produced by criminal gangs with limited expertise, as opposed to amateur or professional chemists.
Many ecstasy “cooks” are self-taught, which goes some way towards explaining why ecstasy so frequently contains damaging materials and chemicals used to pad out the tablets. With the MDMA content reduced, ecstasy is cheaper to produce. Manufacturers of the drug rarely have any consideration for the effects that harmful ingredients in a batch might have on the user.
Considerable amounts of ecstasy are produced in small clandestine labs across Europe, however larger scale industrial facilities are known to exist, many of which are located in Belgium and the Netherlands, from which more than 90% of US ecstasy originates. It is smuggled abroad through parcels or on one’s person.
More ecstasy labs are however being discovered in the US, in which the raw MDMA is smuggled into the country, and pressed into tablets before being sold on the street.
Little in the way of specialist equipment is required for the manufacture of ecstasy, and instructions for the process are widely available in books and on the Internet, making it within reach of nearly anyone with criminal intent or otherwise. Even so, ecstasy production in the US still pales in comparison to that in Europe.
It is generally more economically viable to import the drug into the US than to run the considerable risk of attempting to manufacture it. This is because whilst the equipment required for production is relatively easy to obtain, the ingredients are not. American law enforcement with regard to drugs, particularly ecstasy, is far more assiduous when compared to the Netherlands, where the government does not see ecstasy as nearly as much of a threat.
The inherent danger in any batch of clandestinely manufactured ecstasy, be it in Europe or the US, is the lack of scientific process. Ecstasy labs have been discovered in basements, attics, mobile homes and storage units, as well as in plenty of other places, and consequently even if harmful ingredients and materials are not added to the drug nefariously, poor quality conditions might mean that they get into the drug by accident rather than intent.
Ecstasy is not a chemically addictive drug, insofar as it will not generate physical cravings. However, habitual use can be problematic both behaviourally and in increasing the risk of related health problems.
The most visible signs that someone is under the influence of ecstasy include increased confidence, euphoria, decreased sensitivity to pain, persistent jaw clenching and raised energy levels, as well as strong feelings of empathy and compassion for others. This is accompanied by a more placid, reflective outlook, in which aggression and hostility are decreased with a sense of self-acceptance and inner peace.
Ecstasy is most frequently found at nightclubs and raves, and it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the symptoms of ecstasy use from those of alcohol consumption, which can also produce some of these symptoms. Like alcohol, ecstasy can also lower inhibitions in the user, enabling them to talk about subjects that they otherwise wouldn’t, and expend increased levels of energy on dancing and other activities.
The immediate effects of ecstasy wear off after 3 to 6 hours, at which point some of the adverse effects of the drug may become apparent. These can include anxiety, depression, an inability to concentrate, dizziness, loss of appetite and exhaustion combined with an inability to sleep. Users may also find activities undertaken whilst on the drug might catch up with them, resulting in aching of muscles and limbs, as well as soreness of the mouth from persistent jaw clenching.
Addiction to ecstasy is very uncommon. However, frequent excursions to events where the drug is likely to be prevalent (particularly at night), when accompanied by these symptoms could be a potential indication of ecstasy abuse.
Ecstasy is not technically an addictive drug, although repeated use can result in dependency. This is mainly through habitual behaviour rather than reacting to chemical cravings, and so ecstasy addiction should be largely treated as a psychological problem rather than a physiological one. A self-treating cold turkey approach can be sufficient in achieving cessation of an ecstasy habit successfully, although it may be advisable to solicit advice from a doctor or medical professional before attempting.
A residential treatment programme in a hospital or rehab clinic is likely to be unnecessary in all but the most extreme cases of addiction.
Whilst medical treatment is generally not essential for milder cases of addiction, ecstasy can cause a range of health problems. To that end, it might be beneficial to consult a doctor for assistance in diagnosing and recovering from the damage that MDMA may have done. Chronic users of ecstasy can suffer from anxiety and depression, and studies have shown that the drug can do both short term and long term damage to the brain. A doctor can potentially help to treat these problems, although continued use of ecstasy is likely to only exacerbate them.
Given the effects of ecstasy, such as increased heart rate, hyperactivity and gastro-intestinal problems, it is possible that persistent use of the drug may have contributed to the onset of other medical problems which, left unchecked, could have more serious ramifications in the future.
Therapeutic treatment may also be helpful. Many ecstasy addicts attribute their dependency in part to trying to reach the same high that they experienced on a previous occasion, resulting in increased doses taken more frequently. This can of course potentially result in overdoses, particularly if a user mistakenly believes that an ecstasy pill is having no effect.
Understanding the psychology of this habit can be helpful in attempting to break it. In addition, behavioural addictions are sometimes determined by routine. If such a routine involves engaging in activities where the drug is likely to be prevalent, it might be advisable to avoid such activities when attempting to recover from addiction.
Some users of ecstasy think that use of the drug has a positive effect on their personality and social skills, and so eventually may come to rely upon it to deal with social situations in which they may otherwise feel anxiety. It is important to deal with underlying causes like this in attempting to aid recovery, as it can be easy for relapses to occur if a user feels that they still need to use the drug in order to cope. Anti-social use of the drug, such as using it when alone, can potentially be cause for concern, although it is likely to be symptomatic of other psychological problems. In such cases, medical advice should be sought.
Whilst ecstasy has a relatively short half-life with the effects wearing off within hours of consumption, after-effects may last for weeks. When combined with other conditions such as depression, recovery from ecstasy abuse can be more complex, and require a holistic approach involving the treatment of the physical symptoms, behavioural tendencies and underlying causes.