Law enforcement officials report large increase in Marines charged with possessing Ecstasy, a trendy new drug[MIGRATE]

By LCpl. Nathan J. Ferbert | May 11, 2000

The use of Ecstasy -- a potentially dangerous "designer drug" making the rounds at dance clubs and "raves" -- is increasing at a rapid rate here, according to numbers provided by base law enforcement officials. Since Jan. 1, 20 Marines have been charged with using the drug -- a trend that could triple last year's 21 prosecutions here, said Maj. Steven B. Ockerman, officer-in-charge, E Team, Legal Service Support Section. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service here and local law enforcement agencies are working together to eradicate the problem and raise awareness about the drug's physical dangers and legal pitfalls. Since 1994, the NCIS has seen a shift in drug use here from methamphetamine to ecstasy. More than 60 investigations for suspected distribution of the drug are under way. Conviction for distribution brings a sentence of up to 15 years' confinement, said Daniel D. Simas, resident agent in charge of the NCIS here. As the number of cases has surged, so has the average volume of drugs and money recovered per case, officials said. Camp Pendleton is not alone in its escalating war against the drug; in fact, Ecstasy is demanding increasing attention from law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to an anonymous NCIS narcotics agent. "The fact that our number of cases are up mirrors what other law enforcement agencies are facing across the nation," the agent said. Locally, NCIS cases include sale of the drug; confiscated quantities range from 20 to 100 pills, sold for about $20 per pill. Agents have also uncovered what they call a "loosely held" distribution organization, with one person in charge and several levels of sellers who return the money to the kingpin. The NCIS agent said Marines often mistake Ecstasy for a ?safe? drug. "People are ignorant about the effects of Ecstasy, but if they do it, they're going to get caught. When we catch one person for distribution, we almost always find out who the other people involved are - their friends," he said. Commander Eric C. McDonald, 1st Marine Division surgeon, said the misconception that Ecstasy is a risk-free drug must be corrected. "Marines take Ecstasy to alter their perception at raves, but that impairs their judgment, which is life-threatening if they think they can drive," he said. Ecstasy also has been linked to seizures and irregular heartbeats, McDonald added. At least 20 deaths nationwide have been attributed to MDMA (the abbreviation for 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) since 1991, mostly because of heat stroke and/or cardiac arrest. Recent studies show that MDMA can cause long-term, probably permanent brain damage, including depression, anxiety and memory loss due to neurochemical changes. Ecstasy is the most popular street name for MDMA. "Marines don't think of (ecstasy) like they would heroine, but it can be just as dangerous," McDonald proclaimed. While Marines may be unaware of the physical dangers of Ecstasy, NCIS warned that when Marines are convicted, their records are entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information, which every law enforcement agency can access. In California, convicts must register as drug offenders. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, persons caught distributing drugs -- no matter the quantity -- will be incarcerated, the agent said. A major problem with stopping Ecstasy and other drug crimes on base is that Marines don't want to "rat" on fellow Marines, Simas said. "Marines can help others stay safe by coming forward with anonymous complaints," he said. "Marines tend to give very little information, which makes it very difficult for us to do anything. If they suspect a guy is under the influence of a drug, they should call a (military policeman). It all goes back to what Marines learn in boot camp - honor, courage, commitment." One agent reminded Marines that they're culpable if they fail to report a crime. "If a Marine witnesses another Marine with drugs and they don't bring it to someone's attention, it's also a punishable offense," he said. Ecstasy facts Ecstasy is the most popular drug associated with the rave scene, which is also a hotbed for LSD and ketamine. Ecstasy is most popular street name for MDMA (the abbreviation for 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), a semi-synthetic drug first developed in 1913 by a German company as a weight-loss aide that was never marketed, according to a report by Stacie Dotson, senior analyst, Criminal Intelligence Department. Ecstasy became known as the "club drug" in the mid-1980s when it appeared in dance clubs. Ecstasy's surging popularity since 1993 prompted its listing as a Schedule I controlled substance, which makes it illegal to manufacture, possess, sell or use. While MDMA is generally white and crystalline in appearance, it's commonly distributed as pressed tablets. Tablets can have several colors and "brand" logos, such as a four-leaf clover, heart, smiley face and yin-yang symbol. Other street names associated with MDMA are XTC, E, X, M, Adam, Kleenex, the love drug, MDM, rolling and running. Information from the Navy's drug testing program shows an increase in positive urinalysis results for MDMA from zero in fiscal year 1994 to nearly 400 in FY 1999, when the Department of the Navy's urinalysis program began using the Zymark Rapid Trace testing method. There is no known substance that will prevent detection of MDMA, according to Dotson's report. On a national scale, information from hospital emergency rooms and medical examiners shows a 500 percent increase in the emergency room visits related to MDMA between 1993 and 1997. The DEA reports that seizures of MDMA rose from 196 tablets in 1993 to approximately 450,000 tablets in 1999. Ecstasy is chemically phenethylamine, a substance that has both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects. Users report that it causes profoundly positive feelings, such as closeness and empathy, while promoting relaxation. Its stimulant effects include increased energy and decreased need for sleep and food, according to Dotson's report. Although users widely believe MDMA is a "safe" drug, its adverse effects include physical exhaustion, nausea, hallucinations, chills, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, hypertension, fainting, seizures, panic attacks, tremors, teeth clenching and grinding, muscle cramps and blurred vision. After effects of prolonged use include fatigue, anxiety, paranoia and depression.