Controlling Drugs

In a few years ecstasy has gone from obscurity to an illegal drug bought and sold by kids. Has the government done more harm than good?
It was every parent's nightmare. In a middle-class town in Prince William County, a killer gunned down 21-year-old Daniel Petrole Jr., a player for top travel soccer teams, a popular graduate of Centreville High School and the son of a one time Secret Service agent. Danny Petrole was killed by an associate in a drug ring that sold millions of dollars' worth of marijuana and MDMA -- or Ecstasy.

There have been many stories about drug killings in urban areas, where often victims are poor and usually African-American -- murders that rate a paragraph or two in the Washington Post's inside pages. But these kids weren't like that.

The members of the drug ring were from affulent Virginia suburbs, former Little Leaguers who built their empire peddling drugs to suburban high-school students. They hung out in the VIP room of the DC nightclub Bohemian Caverns, vacationed in Hawaii, and spent thousands on weekend parties. The murder was over a $65,000 drug debt. After the March 2001 killing, police announced investigations into the group's Ecstasy suppliers. Little has been uncovered.

Although virtually all surveys show that cocaine, heroin, and crack are as widely used by whites as by minorities, Ecstasy is portrayed as the hot drug among suburban teens. Politicians have responded to parents' fears by enacting harsh laws with the goal of jailing traffickers.

In May 2000, senators Joseph Biden, Bob Graham, and Chuck Grassley introduced the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 "to combat Ecstasy trafficking, distribution, and abuse in the United States." Such measures are popular with many voters.

It's a routine that gets replayed all to often -- the announcement of a crisis, a policy to stifle it, followed months later by reports that the crisis has grown worse and tougher measures are in order.

Where does it end? Former US drug czar William Bennett once said he would support beheading drug dealers. Questioning current drug laws is like throwing a blood-soaked rag into a shark tank. For members of Congress, uttering a phrase suggesting any weakening of drug laws is a ticket to political oblivion.

Increasingly, though, police, judges, and conservative politicians and citizens have begun to weigh in, sometimes comparing drug-enforcement laws to the nation's experiment with alcohol prohibition.

"The myth that people have is that punitive laws will keep kids from being exposed to these drugs," says Joseph D. McNamara, a veteran of the New York City Police Department and now a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "They do the opposite."

David Boaz, of the libertarian Cato Institute in DC, agrees: "I don't think there's any question as to whether it increases the marketing to kids." In an illegal market, drug suppliers will go wherever they can find buyers -- often to middle and high schools.

Boaz, McNamara, and other critics usually cite our experience with drugs that have been around a long time -- heroin, cocaine, marijuana. Despite decades of well-publicized arrests and drug seizures, these substances are as available as ever.

Almost nine out of ten high-school seniors say marijuana is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get, according to Monitoring the Future, a government-funded research organization. About half of high-school students will use illicit drugs before graduating.

Economist Milton Friedman argues that current drug policies actually increase addiction and crime by relegating the manufacture and distribution of drugs to hardened criminals, in the same way Prohibition led to the likes of Al Capone.

In many ways, Ecstasy offers a window into how our drug laws affect the market for illegal substances. The world of Ecstasy is a microcosm from which to look at the basic questions debated by drug-law advocates and critics: How have laws governing one drug changed its manufacture, use, and distribution?

Although abuse of ecstasy is relatively recent, the drug was discovered almost a century ago. It would have been forgotten if it hadn't been rediscovered in the 1970s by Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin, a California chemist regarded as a pharmacological folk hero. To drug-enforcement officials, he's a nightmare.

Since leaving a career with Dow Chemical, Shulgin has been immersed in a decades-long project to explore the psychoactive effects of chemicals, especially hallucinogens. He brews up concoctions, "tastes" them, often with friends, and publishes his work, including recipes. The late LSD booster Timothy Leary dubbed Shulgin and his wife, Ann, "the two most important scientists of the 20th century." Shulgin has been credited with discovering several common street drugs, including STP.

In the 1970s, a friend suggested Shulgin taste Merck's long-abandoned compound MDMA. Shulgin tried it and claimed it had "magical" qualities. Shulgin gave a sample to a friend, part of a cadre of New Age psychotherapists who used substances such as mescaline and LSD in their practices.

Shulgin's friend was impressed. MDMA, he believed, could help patients deal with problems that otherwise would be too traumatic to discuss. "The Secret Chief," as he was identified in a book about his exploits, abandoned plans to retire and became a psychotropic Johnny Appleseed, traveling around the country introducing other psychotherapists to MDMA. Many early adherents considered themselves "psychedelic guides" leading patients to enlightenment. Many took MDMA with their patients.

Therapeutic MDMA use occurred primarily in a handful of cities with large alternative communities. Such use never caught on in Washington, according to Richard Mikesell, former president of the District of Columbia Psychological Association. In 1985, when he was president, MDMA was largely manufactured by medical chemists, many of them graduate students at universities around Boston; they became known as the Boston Group. MDMA was usually distributed as a powder, and efforts were made to limit its use, out of fear that publicity would prompt the government to crack down.

"There was this kind of silent conspiracy," says Bruce Eisner, author of "Ecstasy: The MDMA Story." "The boomer generation wanted to keep it quiet." In the 1980s, New Age communities began holding MDMA parties. Yogi Bhagwan Rajneesh declared that Ecstasy could aid spiritual development.

The epicenter of recreational Ecstasy use was Dallas. A professional couple, identified in news accounts as the Smiths, was said to have spread its use. They began holding parties in their condo, where they distributed a paper declaring that MDMA "creates in the taker experience of God, ultimate Reality, the ground of Being, Absolute Truth, at-one-ment."

The Smiths "were sort of into the Ram Dass 'be here now' scene," recalls Brian Comerford, 32, at the time a Dallas teenager who went to parties at their condo. "There was a collection of people there who were theater performers, artists, intellectuals, then also a lot of young people who were aspiring to be in that crowd."

In Washington, recreational use was less common. "Roger," a congressional staffer who still works on Capitol Hill, first read about Ecstasy in 1981. But Roger, who was in his forties, didn't try the drug -- then called Essence -- until late 1984, when he met a group of New Age types at a conference in Manhattan. He loved it: "I could feel my heart chakra spinning."

Roger returned to DC, occasionally gathering friends at his home for "little ceremonies" where people took Ecstasy. His parties were contemplative and spiritual. To get MDMA, he had to ask New York friends because nobody knew any local suppliers.

In Dallas, a man who once had studied for the priesthood recognized that Ecstasy could be a gold mine. Michael Clegg began to manufacture mass quantities, stamping Ecstasy out in pill presses. Clegg's network of distributors became known as the Texas Group.

Clegg was evangelistic. He believed the world would be a better place if everyone used Ecstasy. He pushed it, but with his eye on the bottom line. The Texas Group evolved into a pharmacological Amway, a pyramid scheme that allowed distributors to get a cut of sales from distributors they recruited. "People were getting rich off it," author Eisner says.

Ecstasy now was promoted as a party drug rather than for therapy or introspection. Distributors printed "flight manuals" describing where and how to take it.

In 1984, MDMA enthusiasm was approaching its pre-prohibition zenith, especially in Texas. That year, a group of investors renovated a Dallas brewery and dubbed it the Starck Club. Rock and sports stars, musicians, stockbrokers, artists, and gay people flocked there. Ecstasy was doled out at the door or sold atthe bar.

Business students at Dallas's conservative Southern Methodist University promoted Ecstasy as a safe alternative to booze.

"We just applied basic principles that we learned last year in our SMU marketing course, and things took off," one SMU "entrepreneur" told Life magazine.

Before long, Ecstasy was available at Dallas bars and convenience stores and from toll-free numbers. You could charge it to American Express. The drug's popularity caught the attention of then-US Senator Lloyd Bentsen Jr. of Texas. He asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to "schedule" the drug, essentially banning it.

The DEA's scheduling procedure, adopted under President Nixon in the 1970s, places drugs in five categories, depending on abuse potential, medicinal value, and harmfulness. Schedule V includes drugs, such as Robitussin with codeine, that can be obtained only from a pharmacist with a prescription. As drugs climb the scheduling ladder, there are more restrictions. Schedule I drugs include marijuana, LSD, and heroin. They're deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical use. No Schedule I drug can be legally possessed or used for any purpose aside from government-sanctioned research.

In July 1984, the DEA published its intention to place MDMA in Schedule I. A contingent of psychotherapists protested, contending that they had used MDMA in their practices. A four-year legal battle ensued.

As the controversy went on, Ecstasy got lots of airplay. The Phil Donahue Show featured women with breast cancer talking about how MDMA helped them cope. In June 1985, the Washington Post weighed in with a 3,000-word story in the Style section: ECSTASY: THE LURE AND THE PERIL.

"They sound like born-agains who have glimpsed a better world, evangelicals of the latest psychoactive reality," Jane Leavy wrote. She quoted a rabbi saying Ecstasy was "like the Sabbath at the end of a long week." The federal government continued to publish reports about the drug's potentially toxic effects. The warnings drew more attention to the compound. "It increased use immensely," says Sasha Shulgin. "There's no greater promoter of a drug than making it illegal and telling why it's bad. All these teens say, 'Hey, they wouldn't be getting after this thing unless it's valuable.' "

Ecstasy's publicity generated demand. As the DEA's scheduling process continued to get airplay, pill manufacturer Clegg launched what amounted to a going-out-of-business sale.

"In the month before MDMA became illegal, they made 2 million tablets," says Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psych-edelic Studies. The DEA invoked emergency powers to ban MDMA to "avoid imminent hazard to the public safety." The emergency ban went into effect on July 1, 1985. It would remain in effect during litigation, which continued for three years.

On Capitol Hill, Roger read about the ban. "On the last day of its legality," he recalls, "I had a party at my house for everybody who wanted to have this experience."

By outward measures, the ban was a success. Only therapists willing to risk their licenses continued to use MDMA. Chemists at universities shuttered their operations. The selling of Ecstasy by SMU business students ended. Bars and convenience stores stopped advertising it. Young professionals who had a lot to lose quit -- or became discreet. Ecstasy use had, by all appearances, been stopped.

But had it?

Brian Comerford, the Dallas high-school student who had attended parties with the Smiths, says Ecstasy started to show up where he'd never seen it -- in his school.

"It's almost like as soon as everyone was aware that 'Oh, this is something that the government is trying to suppress,' everyone was interested in it and everyone had their own version of it," he says.

Heather Watts, who attended nearby Lake Highlands High School in the late '80s, says Ecstasy was everywhere: "You didn't have to go out and try to find it."

Did the fact that it was banned have any impact?

"Absolutely," she says. The attitude was, "Why would you buy something that's legal? That's no fun."

Virtually all media accounts say Ecstasy didn't start showing up in high schools and middle schools until the rave scene hit in the early 1990s. Comerford and Watts say Ecstasy showed up in their high schools years before.

Soon after the DEA issued its emergency ban, Texas authorities launched crackdowns where Ecstasy use had been most obvious. In July 1985, police impounded a twin-engine charter plane at the Del Rio airport containing "the first Ecstasy lab seized in the United States since the new law making the drug illegal went into effect." The disassembled lab was being shipped to Belize, evidence that manufacturing operations were moving abroad. Texas police began arresting Ecstasy dealers. They raided the Starck Club. With "legitimate" Ecstasy distribution shut down, underground distributors popped up like Prohibition bootleggers.

"People flock to these dealers, snapping up everything they can get," a narcotics investigator told the Dallas Morning News in 1989. "These are well-off college students and high-school kids buying $100 worth a night." Few of the pills sold as ecstasy in schools actually contained MDMA. Because Ecstasy is expensive to manufacture, dealers often substituted cheaper, more dangerous compounds like PCP.

"You were getting all these different shapes of pills," Comerford says. "You were getting really big wafers, or these horse capsules, or this brown stuff, and everybody saying, 'Yeah, this is Ecstasy.' All of a sudden you were puking your guts out."

Such product substitution is similar to what happened when bootleggers began peddling bad liquor: The youngest users are at the greatest risk. "The younger the age group, the more likely it isn't Ecstasy, because they just can't afford the real thing," Beck says. "They're the ones preyed upon by dealers who want to make a quick buck."

With the advent of raves, Ecstasy got more visibility. Raves evolved from spontaneous gatherings of techno-music enthusiasts in England and Spain into worldwide all-night dance and drug fests. Ecstasy was the drug of choice.

In 1994, an organization called Buzzlife Productions launched a series of weekly raves at Nation, a warehouse-style nightclub in Southeast DC. Five years later, Fox5 broadcast a series on the Nation gatherings. Reporter Elisabeth Leamy took a hidden camera and recorded thousands of kids -- many from the suburbs -- writhing, groping, sucking pacifiers, and taking Ecstasy. Stories about raves resulted in a crackdown. By then, the drug's manufacture and distribution were following established economic theories about illegal markets.

In the early days, the Ecstasy trade was largely nonviolent, run by the likes of Clegg -- blissed-out neo-hippies. By the mid-1990s virtually all MDMA production had moved abroad, often to labs in the Netherlands. Israeli and Russian organized-crime syndicates began to take over much of the smuggling, according to federal prosecutors. At the beginning, they recruited Hasidic Jews from New York, paying them $1,500 and airline tickets to Europe to smuggle Ecstasy to the United States from Brussels, Paris, and Montreal.

MDMA also lured old-school organized-crime figures. Among them was Sammy (The Bull) Gravano, a confessed Mafia hit man, who launched an Ecstasy network while in the federal witness-protection program.

In 1985, a UCLA psychopharmacologist, a witness for the DEA, estimated that recreational Ecstasy use amounted to 30,000 tablets a month. Fourteen years later, the ring controlled by Gravano's supplier -- one small segment of the global enterprise -- shipped 200,000 pills a month to Long Island's Hamptons. If the former Mafia hit man thought Ecstasy dealing was less violent than the Cosa Nostra, he was wrong. Gravano's supplier -- Israel-born Ilan Zarger -- testified that he was planning to "whack" Gravano over a price dispute.

In 1997, customs agents seized 350,000 Ecstasy tablets. In 1999, they seized more than 3 million; in 2000, 8 million.

"What accounts for this explosion?" former US Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly asked before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in July 2000. "For one thing, greed. Criminal gangs are lining up to reap the irresistible profit margins offered by Ecstasy sales."

The dealers, Kelly elaborated in a conference with law-enforcement officials, "are hardened, violent, and willing to go to any means to get their product through. We expect that drug lords in Colombia and Mexico will soon try to carve out part of the market for themselves."

Former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, now dean of Howard University's law school, remembers his frustration dealing with Baltimore's drug dealers. Arrests were as effective as scooping buckets of water from the ocean. "You could keep wiping folks out," Schmoke says, "but as long as there was a market out there, somebody was going to fill it." Schmoke stunned a 1988 US Conference of Mayors by announcing his support of drug-policy reform.

In DC and its suburbs, Ecstasy is most popular in upper-income high schools and private universities, according to Mark Stone, a DC detective who often testifies as an expert in drug cases.

"The majority of Ecstasy users are suburban," Stone says. "It's in the upper-middle class."

Twenty-year-old Jenny Rosloff, who attended Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School, agrees. Students at Walter Johnson include sons and daughters of scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Those using Ecstasy, Rosloff says, tend to be "well-off students who enjoy spending a lot of money in clubs." Rosloff is now a University of Maryland junior and a chapter president for Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Recently, Ecstasy use has begun to filter into the inner city, sold by drug gangs also peddling PCP, marijuana, and cocaine. Three years ago, DC Ecstasy busts were rare; now detectives make several a week.

"The affinity for this substance by users is going to cause traffickers to fight for turf," Stone says, "like they did with crack cocaine."

In less than two decades, Ecstasy has gone from a drug used for therapy to a club drug to one that children can buy in school.

Last year, the government announced a marginal decline in Ecstasy use -- a first -- but there was also a marked decline in the use of alcohol and tobacco. The September 11 attacks may have spurred these declines because "young Americans may be taking their lives and communities more seriously by saying no to drugs," drug czar John Walters said in a press release.

But Stone hasn't seen evidence of these declines on the street.

It would be hard to argue that drug laws created Ecstasy abuse, but there's a growing sentiment that today's laws don't accomplish their objectives. "I think that among the public there's pretty strong recognition that what we're doing isn't working," says the Cato Institute's Boaz. Today there are police chiefs, former judges, prosecutors, and mayors who believe change is needed. In 1996, William F. Buckley Jr. dedicated an issue of the conservative National Review to a symposium entitled "The War on Drugs Is Lost."

In politics, debates over drug policy tend to become polarized, with "pro-reform" advocates painted as people who would like to see heroin and crack dispensed in vending machines. When Gary Johnson, then New Mexico governor, blasted US drug policies as a "mind-boggling failure" in 1999, former drug czar Barry McCaffrey dubbed him Puff Daddy Johnson. Fellow Republicans called him "an idiot" and "an embarrassment."

Few drug-reform advocates endorse outright legalization. "I like to use the terms 'controlled' or 'regulated,'" says Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy. "I don't see the prohibited drugs as controlled at all. The people who control the illegal drugs are the cartels, the drug dealers, the kid selling it in the high school -- who is probably the biggest drug user of all."

Many conservatives such as Buckley propose something along the lines of a medical model for various drugs. Dealing to anyone underage would remain a felony, with severe punishment.

Such reform is unlikely to emerge from inside the Beltway. In national campaigns, politicians stick with drug-reform policy that sounds good. Talking about reform can be ammunition for an opponent. Recommending tougher sentences, more prisons, or more money for interdiction is political inoculation.

Reform efforts are increasingly focused on states -- often in the face of strenuous opposition from federal officials. Several states have decriminalized marijuana so that users of a small amount receive a lighter punishment than a felony charge. There's no evidence that marijuana use has increased in those states.

Rhode Island recently modified a longstanding policy, touted by federal drug enforcers, that was designed to regulate the sale of hypodermic syringes. In the face of the AIDS epidemic, the state recently permitted pharmacists to sell syringes over the counter to intravenous-drug users. There was an unintended result: Heroin addicts began to seek treatment, in part because they were in contact with medical professionals.

As far as Boaz is concerned, the best "reform" the federal government could make would be to get out of the way: "If you repealed the federal laws tomorrow, no state would legalize drugs. But 50 debates would break out in this laboratory of democracy."

In the case of Ecstasy, those opposing the government's ban were ridiculed, painted as "radical" reformers. Yet none of them suggested that MDMA should be legalized. They wanted MDMA approved, under existing laws, for therapeutic use or research, available only by prescription.

After contentious hearings, Administrative Law Judge Francis Young agreed with the doctors. The DEA rejected the judge's findings, lost its appeals in federal court, then unilaterally announced the drug's permanent ban in 1988, all this time generating more publicity and, many believe, making problems worse.

"I'd rather the government make these drugs sound boring, make it sound like the most uncool thing to do," Kurt Schmoke says. "That to me would be more effective than making it seem like forbidden fruit."

Without protracted legal wrangling, the Washington Post would have had a tough time justifying its 3,000-word, pre-ban story. Phil Donahue's show about cancer patients deprived of MDMA never would have hit the airwaves. There would have been far fewer day-before-the-ban Ecstasy parties, which introduced new people to the drug.

"We've been fighting drugs since the Harrison [Narcotic] Act in 1914," Schmoke says. "If we had been fighting any other war this long with these results, we would demand a different strategy."

If the federal government hadn't waged its four-year battle, where would we be? MDMA would be available by prescription, manufactured by medical chemists, under stringent regulations, making it harder for illegal manufacturers to get a foothold. Less money would flow to bootleggers like Sammy Gravano or gangs like the one that set up Danny Petrole's murder. Underground sales might have continued, fueled by diverted prescriptions, but bootleg Ecstasy -- containing dangerous compounds like PCP -- would be less common.

If psychiatrists had won the right to use MDMA as a prescription drug, would my 14-year-old daughter be in greater danger?

Drug-law supporters often ask reformers to prove the unprovable, that the results of reform would be better. I'd pose a different question: Could the results be any worse?

Norfolk writer Greg Raver-Lampman is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. His memoir, "Magic and Loss," was translated into 17 languages.

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