Suddenly people all over the country are talking about "ecstasy" as if it were something other than what an eight-year-old feels at Disney World. Occasionally the trickle from the fringe to the heartland turns into a slipstream, and that seems to have happened with the heart-pulsing, mildly psychedelic drug called ecstasy. To get a sense of just how far and fast "e" has moved into American communities in the past year or so, talk to Mark Bradford, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"I came to college in the fall of '97," says Bradford, 21, "and I didn't even know the word had another meaning." It's not shocking that young Mark moved from suburban St. Louis to find drugs on a big campus. But it's a little surprising where he's encountered ecstasy, a drug first used in the 1970s by a small group of avant-garde psychotherapists--at frat houses. As president of the university's Interfraternity Council, Bradford has found himself in meetings with police to discuss frat boys' growing appetite for a drug today usually associated with teen ravers, gay men and what's left of America's aging hippies. "It's everywhere now," says Bradford, who doesn't touch the stuff.
Law enforcers are coming across gigantic stashes of ecstasy in places where it was rarely seen. E comes as tablets or capsules, and since December, Ohio authorities have seized 25,000 pills in Columbus and 200 more in rural Lorain County. In January some 30 people were arrested in New Orleans for distributing the drug. Two weeks ago in Providence, R.I., a seven-month investigation into ecstasy dealing ended with the arrest of 23. In bigger cities, the trade has exploded. In December the U.S. Customs Service discovered 100 lbs. of ecstasy shipped from France to the FedEx headquarters in Memphis. The agents followed the drug's intended trail to L.A. and found a staggering 1.2 million tablets, worth $30 million.
And in an elaborate sting last summer, customs agents and the Drug Enforcement Administration helped dismantle a far-flung ecstasy empire run by a Canadian based in Amsterdam who allegedly claimed he could sell 100,000 hits of ecstasy in Miami--in 48 hours. The mastermind was using pious-looking Hasidic Jews as couriers. (Israeli organized crime dominates the global trade, according to the U.S. government.)
The busts have had little effect. Nationwide, customs officers have already seized more ecstasy this fiscal year (nearly 3.3 million hits) than in all of last year; in 1997, they seized just 400,000 hits. In a 1998 survey, 8% of high school seniors said they had tried e, up from 5.8% the year before. In New York City, according to another survey, 1 in 4 adolescents has tried ecstasy. So much e is coming into the U.S. that the Customs Service has created a special ecstasy command center and is training 13 more dogs to sniff out the drug.