“Under the Influence” is a new Daily Lobo series about drug use in Albuquerque.
It’s a natural thing for humans to desire intimacy with one another.
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How people reach that feeling of closeness is changing, especially in younger people who are reaching out to drugs such as methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as ecstasy or MDMA.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse published a survey in 2007 that reported 12.4 million people in the United States over the age of 12 as saying they had used MDMA at least once in their lives.
This article will cover the issue of MDMA from three different perspectives – the user, the psychologist and the law.
Tom,* 19, said he took MDMA for the first time about a year ago. He said he takes ecstasy because it makes him feel connected with himself, music and people around him.
“This drug was designed for marriage counseling so, yeah, you open up more,” he said. “Especially if you’re around close friends you’ll create bonds in the moment and it’s really up to you whether or not you can keep those bonds.”
When he “rolls,” he said he takes more than five pills, and he prefers to take pure MDMA, which is sometimes known as “molly.”
Tom said the experience he has with his friends while on MDMA is something that is hard to find in everyday interactions, but the side effects do take a toll on the user.
“You get on these binges where you don’t eat when you’re on most of these drugs,” he said. “You’re malnourished and your body just isn’t in good shape for myriad reasons.”
He said he enjoys the rave culture and music played at raves, which is one of the main attractions to the scene for him.
“Dancing is kind of a release for me, and with this kind of music you don’t have to have a partner and that’s important to me,” Tom said. “You’ve just got to be aware of the effects and you have to be responsible about it — you shouldn’t be driving.”
The connection with other people at raves is what makes the drug so popular with young kids who probably feel lost and disconnected.
“You can approach anyone and not feel awkward and meet new people,” he said. “No one is making you feel like an outcast because everyone there is an outcast.”
Erik Jackson, who taught the Drug and Behavior class at UNM, said the effects MDMA have on the brain are damaging.
“Not only does it prevent the reuptake of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, it actually causes the reuptake transporters to work backwards,” Jackson said in an e-mail. “For this reason, it is classified as both a ‘reuptake inhibitor’ and a ‘releasing agent.’ It causes more serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine to be released into the synapse.”
The general effects of MDMA on the user are feelings of euphoria and closeness, increased sensitivity to visual and tactile sensations, and decreased anxiety, fear and depression, Jackson said.
“The long-term effects of MDMA include sleep problems, anxiety, depression and degeneration of serotonin neurons in attention, learning and memory areas,” Jackson said. “It’s the last item that causes the most concern.”
Jackson said tests done on squirrel monkeys showed the serotonin neurons were not able to return to the levels they produced before MDMA exposure — even after seven years.
Jackson said much of the MDMA in the country is not pure MDMA and is cut with other drugs such as methamphetamine, caffeine, ketamine and heroin.
“The pills are not being made in a well-regulated, controlled environment like pharmaceuticals,” Jackson said. “As a user, you don’t know what you’re actually getting. Some of the anecdotal effects attributed to ecstasy may be caused by other substances in the mix.”
Jackson said other side effects associated with MDMA usage include jaw clenching and increased blood pressure.
“Meanwhile, MDMA also causes hyperthermia (an increase in body temperature), tachycardia (increased heart rate), increased perspiration, dehydration, gastrointestinal disturbances (diarrhea or constipation), insomnia, impaired attention and short-term memory loss.”
MDMA builds a tolerance in the brain and in order to achieve the same intense euphoric effects users take more pills each time, Jackson said.
“Many MDMA users do meet the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria for ‘dependence’ and it does have recognized withdrawal symptoms (typically lasting between three to seven days),” Jackson said. “However, there is not a clear definition of what constitutes chronic versus occasional use.” Jackson said most MDMA users take it on a weekly or biweekly basis.
“They do so despite the potential for harm and the danger of legal troubles – thus meeting the criteria for ‘dependence,’” he said.
In the 1970s MDMA was used in psychotherapy and marriage counseling, but due to its ill effects on the brain, research is slow coming, Jackson said.
With or without the research, teenagers and beyond are experimenting with the drug, and the age for experimentation is getting younger and younger.
MDMA is something that Lt. Nate Lerner of the Albuquerque-Bernalillo Sheriff’s Department’s gang unit has first-hand experience with. In the fall of 2008 he was part of the raid on Club 7 previously at 515 Central Ave. The club was shutdown for fire code violations and owner, Aleksandr Mkhitarian was taken to court in fall 2008 by New Mexico state and lost due to the code violations.
During the raid law enforcement found ecstasy at the club, but no arrests were made at the time.
The criminal case is still pending.
“The Club 7 event has nothing to do with gangs,” Lerner said. “A lot of the gang unit’s job is to gather intelligence. Part of our intelligence gathering is going on different Web sites and using our cover pages (to) just talk to this female that was posing as a West Side Loco. And we started asking where we could get it (ecstasy) and we started exchanging e-mails (with her).”
Lerner said she told the unit where her ecstasy supply came from and they were shocked to learn that the girl was 15 years old.
“We thought she was 18 because she was talking a big game. … So we found out who her supplier was and we went up the food chain,” Lerner said.
Lerner said after they contacted and interviewed numerous users and dealers they realized that they all had one thing in common — Club 7.
“We actually walked in there in uniform and checked it out one day (during the daytime),” he said. “Nobody was there and they showed us around and we’re like ‘This place looks like a legit place.’”
Lerner said the first rave the unit broke up was in Bernalillo County while there was a fire going on in Valencia County.
They’re (people at the rave) in the middle of the woods smoking cigarettes and using electricity. They had no clue (about the fire),” he said. “So these kids are up in the mountains and then getting in their cars and driving home and some of these kids are high on ecstasy.”
Lerner said the unit was surprised to learn people as young as 13 were going to raves and “rolling” on ecstasy.
“Some of the 13-year-olds aren’t on ecstasy,” he said. “They just go to dance but it’s the people who go to these raves — some of them pose a problem to the people who actually enjoy the raves.”
He said when his unit went to raves it was easy to spot the people who were dealing the drugs versus the people who were doing the drugs.
“There were five gangsters sitting on a fence — sober as can be,” he said.
* “Tom” is not the user’s real name. His name was changed for his privacy and to keep his anonymity.
In a 2007 survey from the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey with high school students, 5.8% of females and 10.7% of males admitted to using MDMA at least once or more in the past 30 days.
In a UNM sample of about 850 students in fall 2008 2.5% of students said they had used ecstasy or MDMA at least once in the past 30 days.
By Hunter Riley
January 21, 2010
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