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The Hug Drug
By PH2(AW) Jim Watson
'All Hands' Navy Magazine

WASHINGTON (NWS) — Hey man, welcome back. What's my name? Man, I thought you knew me by now. Just call me X, E, XTC, Adam, Doves - whatever you're most comfortable with. What's that? No, I don't think you're an addict. That is, unless we are talking about your lust for fun. What took you so long this time? Oh, money problems. I understand, it takes so much more of me to get to this level now, huh?

picture of local law enforcement
Since ecstasy is so prominent in the rave culture, the local law enforcement is at large outside any rave, looking for drug distributors and users. Photo by: PH2(AW) Jim Watson

Yeah, the lights, they're pretty cool, huh? Look at those glow sticks move. No, I wouldn't hurt you or anyone else. I'm the one that makes you feel good when everything else in your life sucks. Work, family, whatever - they all disappear when I'm here. I can make the world what you want it to be.

Oh, yeah! I see her, too. Go ahead, give her a hug. It's OK, I'll make you strong, confident, willing to come out of your shell. There's no reason to be shy when I'm around. Feels good doesn't it? What? What am I doing? Oh, just hug her and pay me no mind. I'm a little hungry and you don't need these neurons anyway. What's a neuron? I told you, it really doesn't matter. You have plenty for you and me. Here, I'll release this. That way you can forget your troubles.

A little more serotonin and you'll be in heaven. Now doesn't that feel good? What's that? Your heart's beating too fast? Nah, it's not me. That's just because you're excited about getting a hug. Would I lie to you?

Hey! You still there? Hellooo?! Get up! Enjoy the rave. Nights like these are few and far between! Why aren't you talking to me anymore? That's OK, there is really nothing left to destroy in here. In a way, MY JOB IS DONE!

For those on ecstasy - the ravers, club kids, even Sailors and Marines - the only voice they really hear is the drug. "Nothing could have made me stop using and selling ecstasy, except if I would have known [how the drug would effect me] and where I would end up," said Steven Davis, a Marine now spending the next 10 years behind bars after being convicted for drug trafficking.

He said, "The first time you walk into [a rave club] it's completely different than any place you've ever been. It's a shock at first. The lights, the music, it's all based around the hallucinogenic drug."

picture of ravers waiting in line
With its prominent DJs and techno-music headlining the party, ravers can wait in line for several hours to enter the club. Photo by: PH2(AW) Jim Watson

Standing in line for hours outside the club, sitting in traffic just to get to the party; none of it matters. Ultimately, the end justifies the means. Attendees get their two pills - or sometimes more, since the body eventually develops a tolerance level to the drug - and they ultimately end up spending most of their money on the fantasy and euphoria it provides.

According to medical experts, the excitement ecstasy users feel and the hallucinations they see, help to displace the need for food and water. Dancing into the wee hours of the morning, users push their bodies to terrifyingly high levels of dehydration. They sing, they laugh, they share, and they think they care about each other. "I'm letting others see my inner beauty, without shame, without anxiety. I'm so happy," they say to all who will listen.

Rave clubs usually close around sunrise, and by then, the partygoers are ready to sleep - hard. "I have seen people come down off ecstasy and sleep like the dead," said an undercover Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent who's name cannot be disclosed. "There was nothing you could do, or say, that was going to wake them up. That's just how hard this drug can be on the body, and what it takes out of you in the end."

picture of NCIS special agents
Rick Warmack, assistant special agent in charge, looks over a safety briefing, while other NCIS agents ready themselves for an ecstasy drug sting in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Without using force, the team successfully arrested numerous Marines for drug trafficking and ecstasy use. Photo by: PH2(AW) Jim Watson

The undercover NCIS agent got the in-depth rave experience while part of a three-month ecstasy drug sting outside Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command (MAGTFTC), Twentynine Palms, Calif., that resulted in numerous arrests for both buying and selling ecstasy by service members.

Unheard of just three years ago, military arrests for Methylenedioxymeth- amphetamine (MDMA), or ecstasy as it is commonly called, are commonplace now. Drug testing by all the services has shown ecstasy use to be 12 times what it was two years ago. And although less than 1 percent of all service members have tested positive for the illegal drug, recent research by NCIS has shown ecstasy use is on the rise. Another problem of use is that it often leads to drug trafficking, as users are lured by both the easy money and a cheaper way to support their own addiction.

"The main thing I thought after [my first night at a rave] was I just spent $75 on three pills, and knew I would do it again," said Davis. "Automatically I thought, 'Where do I get these cheaper?' You have got 5,000 people in the club, and 4,000 of them are on the drug. In my mind, the money outweighed the risk and the damage I was going to do."

Within the club, Davis says the idea of the drug being safe is well promoted. No one seems to think they are in danger. "They can't come up with anything wrong with the drug, so why not take it," said Davis. "That's everybody's idea in that scene. It is taking over crack, it's taking over cocaine, marijuana. It's taking over everything. [Ecstasy] is the drug of choice for, I would say, 90 percent of the people who use drugs."

Like other generations, this drug has defined today's youth culture. The '60s had LSD and marijuana, and the '70s had speed. The '80s took on cocaine and the '90s proved to be the years of crack cocaine. Today, according to NCIS officials, the club drug is making its mark - in society and on the users. Unfortunately, users are often oblivious to its true effects, focusing instead on the short-lived sensations they receive while high.

picture of urine bottles at toxicology labs
When urine bottles arrive at the toxicology labs, a technician barcodes each bottle for tracking purposes. A sample from each bottle is then poured into matched bar coded test tubes to undergo an initial screening test. Photo by: PH2(AW) Jim Watson

MDMA enters the body primarily orally in the powder condensed pill form. From there it goes straight to the brain on a roller coaster ride of intense speed, producing effects to stimulate neurons in the brain to release serotonin. Ecstasy also blocks the mechanisms by which nerve cells can remove serotonin from their surroundings, which dramatically increases its levels within the brain. "So I took [ecstasy] for the first time ... and I took three ... and I was shocked by what it made me feel like," said Davis.

Increased levels of serotonin, combined with the lights and techno beat of the rave club, makes users feel euphoric. What they don't realize is that their heart is now working overtime, their jaw has tightened, and their body temperature has risen to a dangerously high level. Seizures and muscle rigidity are side effects of ecstasy, as is a condition called Serotonin Syndrome, which is characterized by uncontrollable increases in body temperature and blood pressure - conditions that can lead to a heart attack.

"We have a documented case of an ecstasy user whose body temperature was 104 degrees three full hours after being pronounced dead," said NCIS Supervisory Special Agent Edward Kunigonis.

User's bodies go into sensory overload, which is why a great deal of the rave scene features paraphernalia such as brightly colored bracelets, necklaces and glow sticks for visual stimulation, as well as filter or gas masks coated with menthol vapor rub for sensory stimulation and the use of baby pacifiers to inhibit teeth clenching. None of these, however, reduce the greatest risks - dehydration and hypothermia.

"I would see them spend $100 for tickets into a rave, $200 for ecstasy, and then spend their last few dollars on glow sticks, rather than water," said the undercover NCIS agent. "Of course many would try to make up the cash they just spent by selling drugs; ecstasy, acid, ketamine. It kills you to see intelligent, hard-working kids like these, and they're in trouble. Most of the time I would play nursemaid and buy a bottle of water here or there. Or the water would just get ripped from my hand by a thirsty raver, and passed around until it was gone."

Many would say the problem lies in the rave scene; that they make it easy to get the drug, and promote the drug itself as safe. Since the clubs do not offer alcohol, you don't have to be 21 to get in, making the club scene very popular to junior service members. Of course, this makes them susceptible to ecstasy pushers. Since many of the clubs feel MDMA is safe, the owners say they are drug free, offering testing on the pills to make sure they are not laced with any other drug.

"If this is such a legitimate party and they claim there is no drug use, then why is there a medical staff ready to treat overdoses? Why is that necessary?" said Kunigonis.

While raves are common in almost every area of the nation now, some more than others are indicative of the life style, packing in tens-of-thousands of eager drug users to dance with death and forget their problems, and sometimes, even their friends.

picture of NCIS special agents
Overheated and on the verge of dehydration, ravers dance on through the night. The glow sticks in their hands create a mystical scene that the users see as tracers and blurs, caused by the side effects of ecstasy. Photo by: PH2(AW) Jim Watson

"I was in a crowd of 40,000 people - an entire football stadium full of ravers and bleachers, with four different tents with different electronics. People were still waiting in line, a couple of miles back on the highway hours later just to get in after it had started," said the undercover NCIS agent. "After I left, one of the Marines present at the rave got arrested for dealing, and then needed to get bailed out. The Marines he came with kept on partying till the rave was over, and then decided they should do something about their friend."

By the time the undercover NCIS agent got back to the scene, the ravers had been up for 24 hours, buying and using drugs, trying to get a ride to make it back for formation the next day. Their friend ended up spending three days in jail and then was discharged from the Marines Corps.

"The only thing he cared about was the rave scene," the undercover NCIS agent said. "The fact that he was kicked out of the Marine Corps and had to do three months in jail was nothing. He was more worried about being away from the rave scene for three months than anything else."

Service members who use ecstasy face more than just jail time and a dishonorable discharge - they risk losing their life because of the widespread belief that ecstasy is harmless. Besides death from dehydration or heart failure, users are more likely to die from accidents caused by mental impairment.

"Basically [a USS Carl Vinson Sailor] stepped out of a car that was doing 40 miles-an-hour, and sustained fatal injuries as a result," said Kunigonis. "There have also been other accidents where, in many cases, the driver appeared to be completely unaware there was a curve ahead - driving straight off the road."

Actions like these are why many people have reported feeling they started something they cannot control and have become fearful that they couldn't control their actions.

"The majority of the rave crowd think it is the greatest thing out there," said the undercover NCIS agent. "They want someone - anyone - to try it, and to share in their experience. Living under the impression that it will be out of their system before they can get drug tested and caught."

The Armed Force's toxicology labs are taking care of that; finding more and more drug users through improved technology. Today, MDMA is found through the initial testing for five other drugs, amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, opiates and phencyclidine (PCP) or LSD. Once a service member is found to have amphetamines in their system, the test is redone, breaking down the chemical structure to identify and quantify the actual drugs present that came up positive on the initial screen. Although the military is not searching directly for MDMA, finding its counterpart in the amphetamine group always leads them to it.

"We get a definitive positive or negative on every sample received," said Army Capt. Ellen Kurt, deputy commander of Forensic Toxicology Drug Testing Laboratory (FTDTL) Fort Meade, Md., when asked whether or not they can afford to test every sample received. "People may believe we just test one or two in a box, but you can be assured if you are called to take the test, one of the labs is going to run it for drugs."

The Fort Meade laboratory is one of six military drug laboratories involved in the drug testing of samples from active duty, Reserves, National Guard and recruits.

With the Navy and Marine Corps zero tolerance policy, a positive test result can lead to one of two places: processing out of the service or jail. If caught dealing drugs while in the service, members need to know that the consequences are far stiffer for them than a civilian.

"The ultimate end is this," said Davis standing outside the jail in his orange convict jumpsuit and handcuffs. "You wake up everyday and you're looking out bars ... I can't leave ... I can't go home ... I can't see me family. If you start this lifestyle, it ends up here. Whether its one year, two years, 10 or 18 - it ends up here."

It's time that cannot be replaced. And no magic pill or feeling is going to help you here. The only trip you will be making is to your cell ... or to your grave.red ribbon icon

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