Club drugs offer dark future for young people

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As people gather this evening to celebrate the passing of one year and the beginning of another, some people, mostly adolescents and young adults, may begin a dark journey that could lead to death. Powerful substances known as "club drugs" or "rave drugs" are gaining popularity among the nation's youth and across the state.
   "We have a club drug problem in Tennessee," said Harry Sommers, special agent in charge for operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tennessee. "We saw it peak a couple of years ago and it is leveling off now. The use of club drugs is still going on."
   Drugs such as MDMA, which is also known as "Ecstasy" or "X" and is similar in chemical composition to methamphetamine, as well as substances such as Ketamine and GHB are becoming more popular among adolescents and young adults due to the affects the drugs have on the human body.
   "A lot of them they refer to as 'love drugs,'" Sommers said. "They serve to lower inhibitions and the users believe it increases their awareness of their surroundings."
   Sommers said what scares him about the proliferation of club drugs is the amount of misinformation that circulates about them and their affects. "One of my concerns about club drugs is that many of these drugs have fallacies spread about them that they are harmless," he said. "These are highly dangerous drugs. Besides whatever pleasure they derive from the use of the drugs, there are many side affects as well."
   Another DEA agent, Joey Reece, who is the resident agent in charge for the Knoxville office of the DEA, finds the group which is targeted by this drug to be frightening. "What really bothers me is the age group -- they are kids," Reece said.
   The most common club drug in the United States is the drug "X." According to Reece, there is a problem with Ecstasy in East Tennessee.
   More than 6.4 million people age 12 and older reported in the year 2000 that they had used Ecstasy at least once in their lives, according to the DEA. A vast majority of the Ecstasy used in the United States is imported from overseas and only a small number of clandestine labs which produce the drug have been discovered, according to Sommers.
   Much of the Ecstasy imported to the U.S. is made in Holland by organized Israeli drug rings, Sommers stated. Once imported the drug travels across the county before making its way to its final destination. The Ecstasy in Tennessee is imported "mostly from California and then to Atlanta and then on up into Tennessee," Reece said.
   The DEA reports that an estimated 2 million tablets of Ecstasy are smuggled into the U.S. each week.
   The fact that these drugs are manufactured overseas and then pass through so many hands before reaching users is another fact that worries law enforcement officers about the use of the drugs. "I am told a lot that when you take Ecstasy you don't know where it comes from or how pure it is so you are really taking a chance with it," Reece said.
   The chemical compound which comprises Ecstasy was first discovered in Germany in 1913 and was originally intended as a weight loss drug but due to the dangerous side effects was never marketed, according to information from the DEA. The drug was rediscovered in the 1960s, and, during the 1970s, some psychiatrists became interested in the drug to help their patients speak more openly during therapy sessions due to the way the drug lowers inhibitions. According to the DEA, the subjective affects of the drug include a heightened sense of awareness as well as a feeling of increased emotional closeness or empathy.
   However, research in the 1970s began to show that prolonged use of Ecstasy had adverse affects on the brain with functions such as memory loss and cognitive impairment and with levels of a brain chemical called Serotonin.
   According to the DEA, research on the chronic use of the drug has shown links to depression and long-term neurochemical and brain cell damage. There have also been reports of people dying from the adverse affects the drug has on the body such as severe dehydration, hyperthermia and increased blood pressure and heart rate.
   Ketamine and GHB (chemically known as Gamma Hydroxybutyric Acid) are also among substances which fall into the "club drug" category, and these two drugs present even darker dangers than Ecstasy due to the fact that they are often used in a predatory nature to commit sexual assault.
   Ketamine, also known as "Special K," "K" or "Jet", is a pharmaceutical product which is legally produced in the U.S. and is used in veterinary clinics as an animal tranquilizer. According to the DEA, the only source of the drug in the U.S. is through diversion of the legal substance. DEA reports state that a significant number of veterinary clinics are being robbed primarily for their stock of Ketamine. Another major source for the drug in the U.S. is product diversion from pharmacies in Mexico.
   Ketamine, like Ecstasy, produces a euphoric high for the user as well as an increased sense of awareness. "Higher doses produce an effect referred to as 'K-Hole,' an 'out of body' or 'near death' experience," states information the DEA provides about the drug. "Use of the drug can cause delirium, amnesia, depression, and long-term memory and cognitive difficulties. Due to its dissociative effect, it is reportedly used as a date-rape drug."
   GHB, which has garnered major media attention as well as the title "the date-rape drug", is also a popular choice among young people choosing to experiment with club drugs. However, unlike Ecstasy or Ketamine, GHB is not imported, but rather is produced in small home laboratories in much the same way as methamphetamine is.
   According to information from the DEA, the drug is odorless and colorless and nearly impossible to detect with taste if it has been added to a drink. "GHB has been used in the commission of sexual assaults because it renders the victim incapable of resisting, and may cause memory problems that could complicate case prosecution," information from the DEA about the drug states.
   The physical affects of GHB are frightening as well. "In lower doses, GHB causes drowsiness, dizziness, nausea and visual disturbances. At higher dosages, unconsciousness, seizures, severe respiratory depression and coma can occur." Overdoses of the drug usually result in hospitalization. In the year 2000, the DEA documented more than 70 deaths linked to GHB.
   Sommers said he is most concerned about the long lasting effects of club drugs on the people who use them. "These young people are not making mature decisions about things that could affect them for the rest of their life," he said, comparing the club drugs of today with LSD which was widely used in the 1960s.