MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), more commonly called ecstasy, is the most popular in a category commonly called “club drugs.” Others are Rohypnol (flunitrazepam), GHB, and ketamine. First synthesized in Germany by the Merck Company in 1912, ecstasy is both a mild stimulant and a hallucinogen. The medical community initially embraced this drug for appetite suppression and psychotherapy.
However, research could not document any reliable benefits, and ecstasy fell out of favor by the late 1970s, only to reappear as a recreational drug about a decade later.
In the United States and Europe in the 1980s, a rave scene emerged featuring all-night dancing to various forms of electronic or “sampled” music (e.g., house, techno, and trance) at unconventional locations (warehouses and abandoned buildings). The scene embraced a community ethos of peace, love, and unity, not unlike the hippie subculture of the 1960s. As an empathogenic, ecstasy promoted the PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) ethos. “Ravers” were typically between the ages of 13 and 21 (the so-called Generation X children of the baby boomers), and they sought to break down social barriers through the universal language of music at all-night dance parties. Ecstasy, with its stimulant and affective properties, fit perfectly.
Ecstasy’s Impact on Public Health
Rates of ecstasy use are relatively low compared with those of marijuana, alcohol, and cocaine. In 2004, about 4.6 percent of the U.S. population over 12 years of age had tried ecstasy at least once, but less than 1 percent in the past month. However, ecstasy use is more prevalent than heroin, particularly among those ages 18 to 25. Although no studies have established an addictive potential, evidence exists of such psychosomatic complications as mood disorders, depression, anxiety, short-term memory problems, and physical problems such as nausea, increased heart rate, and overdose.
Social Control and Crime
Extensive adolescent presence at raves and reports of extensive drug use ignited fear in parents and officials that Generation X would fall victim to drug addiction or suffer other consequences. The anti-rave movement started at the community level. Cities passed ordinances designed to regulate rave activity, including juvenile curfews, fire codes, safety ordinances, and liquor licenses for large public gatherings. Also, rave promoters had to provide onsite medical services and security to prevent drug use.
Several federal measures early in this century took action against the rave scene and club drug use. The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 increased penalties for the sale and use of club drugs. In 2003, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, or the Rave Act, focusing on the promoters of raves and other dance events, made it a felony to provide a space for the purpose of illegal drug use.
To date, relatively few arrests and convictions for ecstasy use and sales have occurred, compared with those for drugs such as marijuana, crack, cocaine, and heroin. One reason is that, unlike other drug users, ecstasy users and sellers generally do not engage in much criminal activity other than illegal drug use, although theft, assault, and vandalism have reportedly occurred at raves or dance music events. Also, the drug is sold privately in informal networks that are difficult for police to penetrate, unlike the street-level sales of drugs like crack and heroin.
- Baylen, Chelsea A. and Harold Rosenberg. 2006. “A Review of the Acute Subjective Effects of MDMA/Ecstasy.” Addiction 101(7):933-47.
- Bellis, Mark A., Karen Hughes, Andrew Bennett, and Roderick Thomson. 2003. “The Role of an International Nightlife Resort in the Proliferation of Recreational Drugs.” Addiction 98(12):1713-21.
- Collin, Matthew. 1997. Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London: Serpents Tail.
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