Ecstasy 101

 text by Roos van Oosterhout / image by Alexandra Barancova

Ecstasy is a drug that has gained mass popularity over the past 20 years due to its ability to produce feelings of euphoria, comfort or strong connections to others. It has actually been around for over 100 years, but has only been classified as a Class A illegal drug in the Netherlands since the ‘70s.

Also known as MDMA (a shortened version of its chemical name), X, XTC, E, Snowball, or the Love Pill, it was originally developed as a “diet pill” by Merck pharmaceutical company in 1912. Ecstasy was patented in 1914, but the company decided against producing it. It resurfaced in 1953, when the US Army used it in psychological warfare tests, and then again in the 1970s when it was used as a psychotherapeutic tool by medical specialists. By the 1980s, it was being used as a party drug and is predominantly associated with the rave and clubbing scene. It mostly comes in pill form, sometimes with an ‘E’ stamped into it, but can also be sold as powder or capsules.

But how does taking an ecstasy pill lead to feelings of euphoria, as described by its users? MDMA acts on serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain. This means that serotonin is a chemical that helps transfer signals across gaps (scientifically known as synapses) between adjacent neurons. Neurons are cells of the nervous system that allow signals to travel around the body, from one neuron to the next.

Communications between neurons helps the body control processes and respond to different stimuli. Serotonin is known to play an important role in various processes that range from mood control to sleeping and eating patterns. Normally, serotonin is removed after having transferred the signal from one neuron to the next, but MDMA prevents this removal from occurring. Additionally, it causes a flood of serotonin to be released between the gaps. The result of these effects is that signals are repeatedly launched, which can explain why inhibitions might be loosened or why users feel much more carefree than usual.

Like many other drugs, taking ecstasy has side effects that can vary from person to person. One common side effect is a loss in body temperature regulation, which can lead to a rise in temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. This can be fatal due to strain on the heart or lungs caused by dehydration. Research is still being done on the long-term effects of frequent ecstasy use, though initial results show that it is associated with liver damage.

Ecstasy in itself has not been proven to be physically addictive, but tolerance to it can build up if taken compulsively. In that sense, ecstasy can be ‘addictive’; it becomes an escalating habit as users seek to experience a previous high. In order to reduce costs, MDMA in its pure form of white crystalline powder can be cut with other substances, resulting in a pill still sold as ecstasy. These substances can range from MDA, a drug from the same chemical family, to heroin, to caffeine. Users can get addicted to these substances, which then contribute to an ecstasy ‘addiction’.

This notorious unreliability might explain why the Netherlands and other countries like Belgium and Switzerland have set up free drug check services, where citizens can take ecstasy pills (amongst others) to be tested. At testing centres pills are analysed to determine the contents and purity without any legal repercussions. Advocates of these services say that such systems reduce the number of ecstasy-related deaths and the purity of pills is increased. Furthermore, if dealers know that clients can get their pills tested they are less likely to change the contents. Opponents of these services argue that the measures do not reduce the demand for ecstasy pills, let alone the secondary harms associated with drug abuse, like crime or costs to society.

Ecstasy’s increase in popularity, in spite of its harmful side effects, has started various debates about taking it – see our special feature for more!

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