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High Anxiety

By Echo Garrett
Posted On Sep 06, 2016
High Anxiety

Club drugs may make the party keep spinning, but is the fallout in drug overdose and mystery ingredients worth the euphoria? 

On a Saturday night before Amanda Jeffries*, 29, and her partner, a DJ in the New York City club scene, head out to meet a group of friends at their favorite electronic music club in Brooklyn, she takes a capsule of MDMA (street name Molly or Ecstasy). “I may be out dancing with my friends from 10pm until 6am, and pure MDMA gives me energy,” says Jeffries, who has used the club drug for the past four years. “It makes you feel really good. You are talkative and kind, but you don’t black out or get sloppy like when you drink alcohol. The effects last for about four to six hours.”

She’s not alone. Drug abuse in the United States is an alarming epidemic, costing nearly $200 billion a year in health care, loss of work productivity, and cost of dealing with the criminal fall-out, according to Drugabuse.gov, with with highest illegal drug use reported among 18 to 20 year olds, who in the 2013 survey all claimed using illicit drugs at least once in the prior month.

But when twentysomethings like Jeffries view illegal, recreational drug abuse as nothing more than popping a tab on an energy drink, is America on the brink of a new health crisis? Many physicians, counselors, and law enforcement officials think so.

The Devil You Know

Jeffries, a journalist who covers the music scene, believes that if she’s cautious about where she gets her MDMA, a psychoactive drug, she’s playing it safe. “I only get it from a person I trust because as long as it’s in a pure form, it’s very, very hard to overdose,” she says, noting that MDMA (about $20 a hit) is by far the preferred drug among her friends. “I am of the opinion that alcohol is a more dangerous drug than MDMA.” She’s also dabbled with Ketamine (street name K-hole), but didn’t like the way it made her feel. But the numbers poke holes in Jeffries sense of security: According to Statisticbrain.com, 31,758 people die of drug overdose in the United States annually.

The evolution of club drugs—synthetic drugs concocted in chemistry labs—dates back to the popularity of Ecstasy in the 1990s and early 2000s, says Lt. Ozzy Tianga, an expert on synthetic drugs with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in South Florida. “Ecstasy, known as the sex drug because it increases libido and heightens euphoria, became widely accepted by the youth culture,” says Lt. Tianga, who is part of a community task force formed in early 2015 to fight the proliferation of synthetic drugs in South Florida, where, like many American regions, it has become an issue of great concern. “The problem has grown to the point where several agencies joined together to educate people on the many dangers of these drugs.”

Indeed, Lt. Tianga is not alone. Deni Carise, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer for Recovery Centers of America, Philadelphia, and an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania, first realized the dangers of drug combined with alcohol use while working as a model and spending her evenings at New York’s infamous Studio 54 in the 1970s. “There is an insatiable demand for these mood-altering chemical concoctions,” she says. “They are predominantly made up of things that are not yet illegal, and it usually takes the government a while to catch up. You are likely buying something concocted by amateur chemists, and you don’t know what’s in them.”

Carise notes that the biggest trend she’s seeing is in the increased use of synthetic marijuana and club drugs like BHO (butane hash oil) being smoked through e-cigarettes. “It’s like freebasing cocaine rather than snorting it,” she says. “You get high much faster, because it floods the lungs, and you can’t turn around and overdose.”

Lt. Tianga warns that BHO is made of the pure active ingredient in cannabis. “It’s like marijuana on steroids,” he says. “In the 1960s, a marijuana cigarette might be 10 percent THC, but now you are getting potency up to 90 percent, so the hallucinogenic effect is magnified.”

Although cocaine, which is plant-based, remains popular, what’s hot among club drug users changes as frequently as fashion trends—which is an inherent part of their danger. Many synthetic drugs are legally produced in 160,000 research chemistry labs in China and are widely available on the internet. “As soon as the components in a popular synthetic drug are outlawed by the Chinese government, they change the formula and the molecular structure of the drug, so it’s a constant battle,” says Lt. Tianga.

For example, once the U.S. officials got the Chinese government to ban the most commonly used ingredients in MDMA in 2013, chemists tweaked the formula and developed a drug called FLAKKA, which is much more potent than MDMA and has more of an amphetamine effect. It’s comprised of 116 different chemicals.

“FLAKKA floods the brain with dopamine that can lead to a kind of delirium,” says Detective Keven Dupree, Public Information Officer with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. “You get a very happy person, but we also see increased blood pressure, dangerously high body temperature of 106 degrees, and paranoia. If you used it by vaporizing it, you get very high, very fast, and it’s easy to overdose.”

“A lot of people thought they were getting Molly, because you can’t tell the difference just looking at it. We started seeing far more overdoses, and formed the task force to raise community awareness of the synthetic drug problem,” says Lt. Tianga, who traveled with a delegation of law enforcement officials to ask the Chinese government to outlaw FLAKKA in November 2015. “Now we are waiting to see what the next generation [of drugs] that will mimic the effects people crave will be.”

Says Carise, “If you are out with your friends, and you notice someone in your group becoming semi-responsive or being more aggressive than normal, seek emergency help right away.” Or, perhaps a better, more effective plan is to kick it old school like Nancy Reagan: Just say no to illegal drugs in the first place.

 

*Not her real name.