Cobb County, Ga., May 11, 2000. It's a Thursday morning, and 18-year-old "Karen" and five friends decide to go for it. They skip first period and sneak into the woods near their upscale high school. One of them takes out six rolls--six ecstasy pills--and they each swallow one. Then back to school, flying on a drug they once used only on weekends. Now they smile stupid gelatinous smiles at one another, even as high school passes them by. That night they will all go out and drop more ecstasy, rolling into the early hours of another school day. It's rare that anyone would take ecstasy so often--it's not physically addictive--but teenagers everywhere have begun experimenting with it. "The cliques are pretty big in my school," Karen says, "and every clique does it."
Grand Rapids, Mich., May 1997. Sue and Shane Stevens have sent the three kids away for the weekend. They have locked the doors and hidden the car so no one will bug them. Tonight they hope to talk about Shane's cancer, a topic they have mostly avoided for years. It has eaten away at their marriage just as it corrodes his kidney. A friend has recommended that they take ecstasy, except he calls it MDMA and says therapists used it 20 years ago to get people to discuss difficult topics. And, in fact, after tonight, Sue and Shane will open up, and Sue will come to believe MDMA is prolonging her marriage--and perhaps Shane's life.
So we know that ecstasy is versatile. Actually, that's one of the first things we knew about it. Alexander Shulgin, 74, the biochemist who in 1978 published the first scientific article about the drug's effect on humans, noticed this panacea quality back then. The drug "could be all things to all people," he recalled later, a cure for one student's speech impediment and for one's bad LSD trip, and a way for Shulgin to have fun at cocktail parties without martinis.
The ready availability of ecstasy, from Cobb County to Grand Rapids, is a newer phenomenon. Ecstasy--or "e"--enjoyed a brief spurt of mainstream use in the '80s, before the government outlawed it in 1985. Until recently, it remained common only on the margins of society--in clubland, in gay America, in lower Manhattan. But in the past year or so, ecstasy has returned to the heartland. Established drug dealers and mobsters have taken over the trade, and they are meeting the astonishing demand in places like Flagstaff, Ariz., where "Katrina," a student at Northern Arizona University who first took it last summer, can now buy it easily; or San Marcos, Texas, a town of 39,000 where authorities found 500 pills last month; or Richmond, Va., where a police investigation led to the arrest this year of a man thought to have sold tens of thousands of hits of e. On May 12, authorities seized half a million pills at San Francisco's airport--the biggest e bust ever. Each pill costs pennies to make but sells for between $20 and $40, so someone missed a big payday.