It takes two minutes to find a student on a Long Island high-school
campus who knows all about ecstasy.
Ten minutes and a promise of anonymity can lead to a teenage user who
can flip open a cell phone and get the illegal pills as easily as ordering
"If you can get pot, you can get E, one Cold Spring Harbor
"Weed and X go well together, like milk and cookies, said a
student at SUNY-Stony Brook.
In random interviews over several weeks, young Long Islanders and New
Yorkers agreed that the brain-altering, feel-good stimulant known as
"ecstasy, "E or "X is no longer confined to
nightclubs, where it became a hit more than a decade ago. It has slithered
out of the thumping music, clandestine rave-club scene and into the
"It's not just limited to the club scene or these dance
marathons, said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. "The kids
are using it at house parties and weekend parties.
Ecstasy, a neurotoxin whose chemical name is MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine),
comes primarily from the Netherlands, where it is mass-produced, and from
Belgium, in part because its component chemicals are not as tightly
controlled in those countries. According to U.S., European and Israeli
law-enforcement officials, it often is trafficked to the United States
through a circuit dominated by Israeli criminals, often using couriers
who, until recently, fell outside of police suspicion: Hasidic Jews.
With its easy manufacture, relatively benign reputation and huge markup
(it costs about 25 to 50 cents to make one pill, which can sell for $15 to
$40, with an average price of $20), the ecstasy business has proved
irresistible to many not otherwise involved in drugs. Confiscations of
"X pills by U.S. Customs last year were 12 times higher than they
were just two years ago.
"There are a thousand Jimmy Pampinellas here on Long Island,
said a Long Island source, referring to Giacomo (Jimmy) Pampinella of
Franklin Square, a major ecstasy dealer recently sentenced to 70 months in
prison. "The fact of the matter is that this drug is a way of life
"It's Long Island. It's here, you're bored. Most people do
whatever's around, said a class of 2000 graduate of Valley Stream
"E is a small pill often stamped with a manufacturer's logo. It
lowers inhibitions. It produces euphoria and heightened sensual awareness,
with few immediate side effects other than potentially dangerous
dehydration evidenced by overheating and a terrific thirst. In the 1970s,
some psychiatrists used it to get patients to loosen up, but it was
outlawed in 1985 after it started appearing in nightclubs.
Many kids, rarely hearing reports of death or serious overdoses from
MDMA alone, think the drug is harmless.
"People think it's not as addictive as crack or heroin, so they do
it, said a 22-year-old former ecstasy dealer from Hauppauge.
"It has every drug in it ... but I never heard of anything bad
happening to anyone, said a female Walt Whitman High student, 16, who
tried ecstasy about five times.
Regardless of the perception, a drug being sold as ecstasy killed at
least six people in Florida this summer. A 19-year-old woman who died
there in August had a temperature of 104 degrees five hours after she
And the use of ecstasy or ecstasy mixed with other drugs is thought to
have led to at least two deaths in New York City and Long Island,
including that of James Lyons, 18, of Sound Beach, in 1999.
"It's a neurotoxin, brain poison, said Terry Horton, a doctor
and vice president of Phoenix House, a rehabilitiation center in
Ronkonkoma. "They take it because they hear about it from their
friends. But what does a 14-year-old know?
Scientists aren't as cavalier as youth about the possible long-term
impact of ecstasy, warning of memory loss and other negative effects on
Law-enforcement and drug-treatment specialists say "E is a
gateway drug to harder drugs. And everyone agrees that pills sold as
ecstasy often contain other drugs as well, so the buyers have no idea what
they are taking.
"Basically, I could say that ecstasy led me to a lot of other
drugs, said a 22-year-old woman from Sheepshead Bay who started using
ecstasy when she was 14 and moved on to heroin. "When you use ecstasy
a lot, it starts getting played out. The kick started lasting half an
hour, 20 minutes, so that I would have to take more. At a party, I would
take five or six pills two hours apart.
A survey released in November by the Partnership for a Drug-Free
America noted that marijuana use dropped for the third consecutive year,
while ecstasy use has doubled since 1995. One in 10 teens reported that
they had experimented with the drug, the survey found. The annual survey
questioned 7,290 seventh- through 12th-graders nationwide.
Teenagers' experimental use of ecstasy is now on par with that of
cocaine, crack and LSD, outpacing experimental heroin use, the study
"I've known 12-year-olds to ask me about it,' said Jenna Pollock,
17, who was an honors student from East Islip who used to deal ecstasy
after school. "The last two or three years, I can't believe the
amount of people doing it at school. Everybody basically knows you're
carrying around this big jug of water and you're grinding your teeth.
U.S. Customs confiscated at least 9.3 million ecstasy pills in the last
year, far more than ever before.
Despite those seizures, the supply is at record levels: About 2 million
pills are trafficked through New York airports every week, about 750,000
of which are sold in the metropolitan area, the DEA estimates.
The young consumers of those pills know that ecstasy can make a user
feel euphoric. Adolescents say they like it because it erases inhibitions.
They forget their zits, weight, self-consciousness or what others think of
them. It makes a person want to touch and be touched (hence the nickname
"the hug drug). Reminisce. Apologize. Have sex. The kids also know
that rappers such as Eminem, Lil Kim, DMX and the late Notorious B.I.G.
have praised it.
Local youth can rattle off the price ranges, brand names of ecstasy and
tell which supersensory effects a pill gives by the colors and emblems
stamped on them. And they know where to get it.
"It's everywhere. It's really easy. All you got to do is know a
phone number, said the 14-year-old girl from a middle-class area of
Staten Island. Her father is a chef in a Russian restaurant. She entered
rehab at age 12.
"You feel, like, all good about yourself. You illusionize, you
feel like you're on top of the world, she said. I just started wasting
all my money on it. I just didn't care about anything anymore. All I
wanted to do was just get more.
She and her friends would pool their money for ecstasy, somtimes paying
for two or three tablets a day each.
The Suffolk narcotics division had only nine ecstasy cases in 1997
compared to 61 last year, said Insp. Mark White, commander of the
narcotics division. Nassau's narcotics division had 54 ecstasy-related
cases in 1999 compared to about four dozen in the first eight months of
2000. The city is seeing significant increases as law-enforcement agencies
focus on local airports, which they suspect are traffickers' favorite
entry points in the United States.
"We've seen in the last six months to a year an increase in
ecstasy use among adolescents in the more affluent communities, said
Avery Mehlman, narcotics-bureau chief for Brooklyn District Attorney
Charles Hynes. "It's definitely part of the whole club-culture scene.
From my experience talking to kids in the region, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old
kids are experimenting with ecstasy. The immediate source is peers, but
the importation is coming from very highly organized criminal
Jenna Pollock was never caught selling the pills. Now recovering from
alcoholism, she wound up in several rehabilitation programs after the
courts stepped in to see why she missed so much school last year.
She and Sean, a North Babylon High graduate who asked that his real
name not be used, recently reminisced on the deck at the Phoenix House
rehabilitation center in Ronkonkoma about an ecstasy pill called "the
pigeon that made several of their friends sick during the summer of
1999. "People were just puking and puking. It was probably too much
heroin, too much MDMA, Sean said with a shrug.
"Ecstasy has so much stuff in it, it opens your eyes to other
things. Some kids will say, I did that and it had coke in it, so why
don't I just do coke,' Jenna said. "Kids need to know from other
kids what can happen. They need to hear things out raw. Like they can
Rolling, as the ecstasy high is called, to all-night tingling
sensations could end up being a short-cut to the emergency room. Extreme
cases of ecstasy-induced dehydration can lead to seizures or convulsions,
Nationwide, emergency-room visits linked to ecstasy use rocketed from
253 in 1994 to 2,850 in 1999, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.
There were nine ecstasy related deaths in 1999, up from one in 1994, the
Mark Howard, counselor at Phoenix House, believes the ecstasy craze is
no different from any past drug phases.
Teenagers have taken acid, sniffed glue, sniffed "Special K (a
cat tranquilizer known as ketamine) inhaled laughing gas and sucked on
aerosol cans to have fun or escape the weirdness of adolescence. They take
whatever drugs they can get their hands on, and today, it happens to be
ecstasy, Howard said.
"Kids do drugs. Period. That's what people don't see, Howard
said, adding that many kids who go to rehab have used ecstasy but very
rarely are they admitted for ecstasy use alone. Those who end up in rehab
are "garbage heads, or those who have used a smorgasbord of drugs.
Five years ago, relatively few kids at the center had used ecstasy;
now, a majority have likely used it, he said.
But not all of the area's communities are heavily into ecstasy.
On Wednesday afternoons from about noon until 2 p.m., the Stony Brook
Student Union is packed for what is called "Campus Life. It's a
time designated for activities when vendors peddle cheap jewelry and
posters, peer health educators pass out condoms and fraternities and
sororities gather en masse.
During a recent session, four black students, all men ranging in age
from 19 to 24, were eating chicken and pasta when a student dropped a
flier for a spring break ski trip on their lunch table.
One of the guys nodded his head at the flier. "It'll be there,
he said, referring to ecstasy. "About two years ago, it was at the
out-of-reach level for black people, but it's slowly increasing. At
something like that [ski trip] of spring break, you'll hear about it.
While an increasing number of black and Hispanic youth are trying the
drug, ecstasy use in those communities lags far behind use in white
communities, according to experts and students from communities such as
Hempstead and Central Islip.
Phoenix House officials say the difference in kids' drug choice is
mostly economic. The sentiment among minority youth who come from poorer
comminuties is, Why buy a $20 pill that will last four hours and is
made of a mystery mix of drugs when a person could get two $10
"dime bags of marijuana? Money is a factor, but youth say drug
choice is also cultural.
"Black kids will do a lot of crazy things, but they won't put
their life on the line messing with something like ecstasy, said
sophomore Joy Botting of Hempstead High. "With weed, they grow it,
they bake it, they smoke it. You never hear ... people say, Oh, they
died from weed.'
Rich, 19, a private-school graduate who goes to Nassau Community
College, said he doesn't take ecstasy with his Hispanic friends.
"They say, You did what? You're white, aren't you?'
The medical dangers associated with MDMA do not apply to every ecstasy
pill, because a hit of ecstasy is basically a mystery pill until its
examined, police say. Any given pill could contain MDMA, other drugs,
baking soda or a lethal combination of "filler ingredients meant
to give it a desired color, texture or sensation. And there's no way to
tell whether or not a pill was pressed in a laboratory setting or in some
The chemical makeup of the pills presents a problem for police, said
Det. Lt. Hall Coleman of the Suffolk Police narcotics division.
"Often, the pills fall outside the legal chemical definition of
MDMA; that means it's not illegal, Coleman said.
In New York, the sale of more than 125 milligrams or possession of more
than 625 milligrams is a felony punishable by a prison sentence of as much
as 8 years to life. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term
of as much as 30 years for anyone caught trafficking large quantities.
Police involved in buy-and-bust stings have netted ecstasy pills that
contained cough medicine and caffeine. So far, they haven't found the LSD,
heroin or cocaine that teens believe are in some pills, Suffolk crime lab
Police, however, are not lulled into thinking they know the scope of
the problem. "We could be getting everybody who's selling or
one-hundredth, said Det. Lt. John Wolff of Nassau police.
"There's no way to know.