'E' explosion catches US off guard

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The Independent US

Authorities in America are preparing to wage all-out war against smugglers of Ecstasy amid growing evidence of a surge in the circulation of the mood-enhancing drug across the US in big cities and small suburban towns alike.

Authorities in America are preparing to wage all-out war against smugglers of Ecstasy amid growing evidence of a surge in the circulation of the mood-enhancing drug across the US in big cities and small suburban towns alike.

Long popular in Europe, the drug began to take hold in the US only a few years ago and was initially limited mostly to the rave scene in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Officials now say the drug has become a commodity in high schools and shopping malls in virtually every state.

The extent of the explosion was spelled out at a three-day conference on Ecstasy in Washington last week. Customs and drugs enforcement officials said that in the past seven months, 8 million pills were seized from traffickers and dealers, more than 20 times the number confiscated for the whole year in 1998.

"The use of Ecstasy has skyrocketed," confirmed Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director. He announced plans to spend $5m (£3m) on an advertising campaign to warn young people against the potential long-term effects that the drug, also called E, can have on the brains of regular users.

Efforts are meanwhile being made to draw up draconian new laws, both at the federal level and in state legislatures, to harden significantly the penalties for those peddling the small pills. The Senate has draft legislation before it named the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act.

A synthetic drug, Ecstasy - or, to use its chemical name, 3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine - was not even declared illicit in the US until 1985. By flooding the brain with naturally occurring serotonin, it elicits feelings of immense well-being and sociability. Not associated with either violent or moody behaviour, it is also called the "hug-drug".

There is an accumulating body of scientific research, however, confirming that use of E can damage the brain. Immediate side-effects can include over-heating and a rise in blood pressure. But it is widely seen by its users as essentially benign and physically non-addictive.

The invasion of the drug has drugs and customs agents switching their attention from Latin America to western Europe. An estimated 80 per cent of the Ecstasy pills entering the US are manufactured in the Netherlands, while the smuggling operations have mostly been traced to Israelis.

"It has changed our institutional mindset," Raymond Kelly, the Commissioner of the Customs Service said at the conference. "We were kind of southern-focused, and now we've had to extend our focus to Europe."

Several recent busts have dramatised the drug's new popularity in America and the toughening attitude of the police and politicians. Ten days ago police in Los Angeles seized more than 2 million tablets worth $40m.

In New Jersey, where a new law was enacted in early July making possession and intent to distribute a first-degree crime, police arrested two university students found with a stash of 49,000 Ecstasy pills in a storage garage in the small town of Neptune.

What began as a criminal investigation has now also become a tragedy. Within hours of being taken to a police cell, one of the pair, Kenneth Gregorio, 23, hanged himself using a drawstring from his trousers.

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