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Ecstasy new drug of choice

| Sunday, March 4, 2001


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  • Federal and state drug agents say a dangerous hallucinogenic drug controlled by Russian mobsters has hit college and university campuses and high schools throughout western Pennsylvania.

    Ecstasy - formally known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA for short - is the most popular of 'club drugs' sweeping through rave parties and dance clubs in the region.

    'If there's a college campus, it's there,' said one undercover state drug agent.

    Ecstasy is a hallucinogen that gives a person a sense of euphoria and long-lasting energy. It can cause dehydration, heat stroke, memory loss, high blood pressure and loss of consciousness.

    In some cases, ecstasy kills.

    Michael Schlegel, 18, of Hempfield Township, died last May in Ocean City, Md., after taking ecstasy and oxycontin, a potent painkiller.

    Schlegel fell unconscious at a party and stopped breathing after taking the drugs, according to a report by the Maryland Medical Examiner.

    His mother, Debbie Schlegel, said police did not tell her very much about the circumstances surrounding her son's death, so she hired a private investigator.

    'I couldn't afford to pursue it,' she said. 'Everything he told me I already knew from the police report. There was a guy in the apartment selling drugs and that's where Mikey got it from.'

    Investigators say ecstasy has become so popular that dealers are switching to peddling it instead of cocaine and marijuana because of the huge profits that ecstasy sales generate.

    In November, authorities infiltrated a profitable ecstasy ring in Indiana County operated by students and graduates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

    Federal agents arrested five people on charges that they smuggled $1.4 million worth of ecstasy directly from Europe to Indiana in a trans-Atlantic operation that remains under investigation.

    Agents said the ring was operated by IUP students and graduates who used apartments and a fraternity house as mail drops for the drugs coming into the United States.

    The defendants were unaware they were buying drugs from suppliers in the Russian mob, according to federal sources close to the case. One attorney involved in the case said the defendants did not know who they were dealing with when they arranged the deals. They initially tapped a source in New York City but later dealt directly with European suppliers.

    The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said Pittsburgh is one of the major distribution points for ecstasy. The DEA reports there is widespread ecstasy abuse in every major city and use of the drug is spreading to smaller towns.

    'Ecstasy has taken over the city,' said Andy Petyak, a DEA agent in Pittsburgh. 'It's knocking out cocaine as the drug of choice.'

    Ecstasy also is starting to turn up in the region's high schools, he said.

    'Younger kids are trying it and experimenting with it. High schools are not doing enough drug education to stop it. Administrators are putting their heads in the sand and ignoring it,' Petyak said.

    A national survey by the Partnership for a Drug Free America found that fewer teen-agers are smoking marijuana, but more are trying ecstasy. The survey of 7,290 young people found that trial use of ecstasy was up 10 percent from last year among teen-agers as well as adolescents.

    Petyak said traditional cocaine and marijuana dealers are turning to dealing ecstasy because it's cheap to produce, the profits are high and the penalties aren't as severe as for convictions for selling heroin or cocaine.

    Petyak said it costs about 50 cents to make an ecstasy tablet in a clandestine European drug lab. Dealers can sell pills for amounts ranging from $20 to as much as $50 each.

    Heather McCoy, a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of DanceSafe, a publicly funded group that tests ecstasy at raves and at dance clubs across the country, agrees with Petyak that ecstasy use is widespread.

    'Kids in every school have done ecstasy,' McCoy said. 'I think it's in the workplace. Every level of society has done ecstasy.'

    In the Indiana case, DEA documents filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh allege that Ryan Shank of Alexandria, Eric 'Fangs' Osselborn of Hempfield Township, Eric 'Spas' Hunsburger of Honesdale, Christopher Ruth of Dallas and Joseph DeFelice of Norristown had been shipping kilograms of cocaine from Philadelphia to Indiana for several years before they turned to selling ecstasy. The five suspects were charged with possession with intent to distribute ecstasy.

    A person convicted of selling a kilo of ecstasy could be sentenced from 27 to 60 months in prison, the same punishment as a marijuana distribution conviction, Petyak said.

    The five men became embroiled in an investigation that began last October after German customs investigators found two packages containing ecstasy destined for Indiana County and alerted the DEA in Cologne, Germany. Authorities in Pittsburgh intercepted the packages and rigged them with silent alarms that would alert waiting agents when they were opened.

    Last November, Pamela Buchoski, an IUP student from Armagh, allegedly received and signed for one package that had been delivered by United Parcel Service to Ruth's Indiana apartment. Outside were DEA agents who had the apartment under surveillance while waiting for the package containing 11,000 ecstasy pills.

    Buchoski allegedly gave the package to Shank. When it was opened, DEA agents burst into the apartment and seized the drugs, according to the criminal complaint.

    The next day, UPS delivered a second package to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house at 240 S. 11th St., which also had been under DEA surveillance.

    All told, seven kilos of ecstasy were seized with a potential value of $1.4 million.

    Shank and several other IUP students had come to the attention of police in Maryland last summer.

    According to a federal search warrant, Shank and seven others, including four IUP students, spent last summer in Ocean City, Md., and had been under investigation by Ocean City Police for selling ecstasy. Police said four of the suspects in the Ocean City investigation were members of Phi Delta Theta at IUP.

    Phi Delta Theta has a reputation for wild parties. The fraternity lost its charter two years ago because of drug and alcohol problems, said Gary Buterbaugh, a computer science professor and the fraternity's former faculty adviser. Buterbaugh said he resigned as faculty adviser because of those problems.

    'They're known for misuse of women and misuse of drugs and alcohol. I couldn't deal with them any more. They were going behind my back. They thought they were God's gift to the world,' Buterbaugh said.

    Buterbaugh believes drug use at IUP is as bad as alcohol abuse. He accused university administrators of adopting a 'see no evil, hear no evil' approach to the problem.

    'Therefore, they don't have to admit there's a problem,' he said.

    Michelle Fryling, a spokeswoman for IUP, said Buterbaugh is wrong.

    'To say we put our heads in the sand is not true,' Fryling said. 'We're certainly concerned about drug and alcohol use and abuse on our campus. To imply otherwise is false.'

    Members of Phi Delta Theta say their reputation is undeserved.

    Fraternity brothers Ron Partel and Duncan Wilkes several weeks ago said Shank, Osselborn and Hunsburger hadn't been involved in the fraternity for some time.

    Nevertheless, the trio's photographs from the 2000 school year remain on a wall of the rundown fraternity house. And drugs were intercepted at the fraternity house in November, according to the criminal complaint.

    'These guys had nothing to do with us,' Partel said. 'I don't even know these kids. We're angry because these guys ruined our reputation. We've been put under a barrage of bad press.'

    Wilkes said the fraternity's reputation as a haven for drug users reached his parents in his Philadelphia hometown.

    'We had our parents calling and threatening to pull us out of school,' Wilkes said.

    POPULARITY GROWING

    Other dance, rave elixirs


    Ecstasy is one in a series of illegal chemicals known as 'club drugs' that are taken by users while dancing at nightclubs or at all-night dance parties known as raves.

    Other club drugs are ketamine, Rohypnol and gamma hydroxy butryate, or GHB.

    Ketamine is an animal tranquilizer that is a strong sedative. GHB is a powerful drug similar to MDMA and is used medically to treat sleep disorders and alcoholism.

    Rohypnol - or 'roofies' - is a tranquilizer about seven times stronger than Valium and Xanax. It's known as the 'date rape' drug because it renders a person unconscious.

    Known chemically as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, ecstasy was patented in Germany in 1912 as an appetite suppressant. In the 1970s and 1980s it was used in psychotherapy to bring patients in touch with their emotions.

    Ecstasy - also referred to as XTC, E, Hug Drug, disco biscuit, X and Adam - has no known medical use.

    Effects of ecstasy can last from six to 26 hours. It causes euphoria and enhanced mental and emotional feelings, but it also can create feelings of anxiety and paranoia.

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, hospital emergency departments are reporting increased overdoses among young people who are taking ecstasy and other club drugs.

    Between 1994 and 1999, there were 2,601 deaths linked to overdoses of club drugs. Twenty-seven of the fatalities were related to ecstasy.

    In 1999, more than 70 percent of emergency room treatments for overdoses of club drugs involved ecstasy, GHB or ketamine, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. DAWN reported that 61 percent of those treated were white.

    About 47 percent of those treated abused both alcohol and ecstasy, according to DAWN. Young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 account for 'disproportionate shares' of ecstasy overdoses - 67 percent.


    Ecstasy's popularity is growing in the region and state, according to law enforcement officials and medical experts who treat people suffering from the effects of ecstasy use.

    Smuggling of the drug is increasing, the U.S. Customs reports. Last year, customs agents seized more than 9.3 million ecstasy tablets, a 164 percent increase over the previous year.

    Customs also reports that the number of ecstasy users grew from 3.4 million to more than 5 million in the same period.

    Locally, Petyak said the DEA cannot release any seizure figures because they involve ongoing investigations.

    A state drug agent, who asked not to be identified, said narcotics agents have several major investigations under way in Allegheny County that have connections in Westmoreland County.

    Last year, a state grand jury indicted 23 people in York County for distributing $1.5 million worth of ecstasy there. York County - which boasts several dance clubs - attracts dancers from Baltimore, New Jersey and Washington.

    Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's Department of Health, said his office doesn't track ecstasy treatment to gauge its usage in the way it does with cocaine, heroin, marijuana and alcohol.

    'It's too new a drug. It's not in our database tracking system,' McGarvey said.

    Just three years ago, Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Beaver County, attended conferences around the country where substance abuse experts would talk about problems with ecstasy addiction. Back then, he was puzzled.

    'We just weren't seeing it at all in western Pennsylvania or if we did it was a very rare occurrence. We were aware of it, but it was really a West Coast designer-drug thing and not here,' said Capretto, a psychiatrist.

    Times have changed.

    'Now, ecstasy use is common. I'd say most of the young people who come in here have tried it ... in combination with other drugs. Twenty percent tell us it's their drug of choice,' Capretto said.

    Gateway, one of western Pennsylvania's most well-known addiction treatment centers, has treated high school honor students who began taking ecstasy at neighborhood parties because it was the cool thing to do.

    'It's their generation of drug. It is something their parents never saw and that's part of what makes it attractive,' he said.

    Users are almost exclusively teen-agers and adults in their early 20s.

    'We hardly see anyone over 30 years old here (with ecstasy addiction) and we've treated people as young as 14 years old. Young people we're treating here are probably taking it with some other kind of drug and have run into some problems with police, at school or home,' Capretto said.

    Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, said he has seen few reports concerning ecstasy abuse from campuses within the state university system.

    'I haven't seen more than one reference to ecstasy,' Marshall said. 'Anecdotally, from what I've heard, I haven't seen anything significant on the colleges and universities that we oversee. I can't say that with 100 percent certainty.'

    PROBLEM AT PSU

    Drug of many names


    Pittsburgh-area college students call them Twin Turbos, or TTs for short.

    In other parts of Pennsylvania, they're referred to as Thumbs Up, Pure White Voodoo, Sunshine or Brites & Giggles.

    They're all ecstasy, a hallucinogenic drug that is quickly replacing cocaine as the drug of choice, says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

    The criminal gangs that manufacture hundreds of brands of ecstasy in clandestine labs in Germany and the Netherlands give names to their drugs as though they were in competition with legitimate consumer products. Ecstasy suppliers 'brand' their pills with a logo.

    Ecstasy users can access a Web site (www.bluelight.nu) to check on the purity of their pills, discuss experiences and buy kits to test a pill before ingesting it. Brands are rated by users on a scale of one to 10. Anything above a seven rating is considered excellent, according to the site.

    Comments posted on the site indicate that the popular brands of ecstasy in the Pittsburgh area are Green Shamrocks, which are green and shaped like clover, and Double Stacked White Buddhas, which carry an image of Buddha.

    In central Pennsylvania, a popular brand of ecstasy is Brites & Giggles. In New Castle, the preferred brand is known as Double Stacked KKKs while in Stroudsburg it's Shamrocks. Omega White is a favorite in State College in Centre County.

    When the DEA arrested five current and former students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, agents confiscated seven kilos of ecstasy tablets with the brand name Twin Turbos. Etched on the face of the tablet were the initials TT.

    Another Web site that promotes safety in the rave and nightclub community - www.DanceSafe.org - is maintained by a non-profit organization funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Volunteers test drugs for free at raves and dance clubs.

    Users also can mail a pill to DanceSafe for testing. Results are posted on the Internet.

    The Pittsburgh chapter of DanceSafe - Flower Harm Reduction - has tested hundreds of pills, said Heather McCoy, a trainer for DanceSafe in Pittsburgh.

    Many pills, McCoy said, will contain a small amount of MDMA and dextromethorphan, a leading ingredient in cough syrup, that mimics some effects of ecstasy but can produce fever, seizures and vomiting.

    'We're not saying MDMA is safe,' McCoy said. 'Our biggest message is anybody has the right to make choices. We want them to make good choices.'

    Ecstasy is turning up in the Pittsburgh area at raves and dance clubs, said Andy Petyak, a DEA agent in Pittsburgh. The drug allows users to dance for long periods and leaves them without a drug hangover the next morning.

    Ecstasy short-circuits the brain by inhibiting the release of seratonin, which regulates a person's mood.

    The drug can cause serious, and even fatal, health problems. Dancers can become dehydrated. The drug can cause blood pressure to rise and users are at risk for heart attack.


    At Penn State University in State College last year, six students were found unconscious and one nearly died after ingesting a form of liquid ecstasy known as GHB.

    A Penn State survey of student drug and alcohol use last year found that ecstasy ranked as the third most popular drug on campus, falling just behind alcohol and marijuana.

    An overwhelming majority of students surveyed, 95 percent, said they had tried ecstasy. Another 3 percent said they use it once a year; 1 percent said they use it six times annually.

    Linda LaSalle, a community health educator at Penn State, said there is ecstasy use at the university but 'my feeling is it's not widespread use.'

    Christina Rambeau, a spokeswoman for Penn State, said the university tries to educate students about all types of drug abuse, not just ecstasy and other club drugs such as ketamine, an animal tranquilizer; GHB, used to treat sleep disorders and alcoholism, and Rohypnol, a sedative.

    'We've had many seminars and programs to alert students to the danger of ecstasy,' Rambeau said. 'It's very high on our agenda to do as much as possible (to educate students).'

    Barbara Hills directs the St. Vincent College Prevention Project. Her staff works with students from kindergarten through 12th grade. She said it's hard to gauge the severity of the problem in Westmoreland County because students don't admit what drugs they're using.

    'They definitely talk about them. We know rave and club drugs are in Westmoreland County,' Hills said.

    Don Orlando, a spokesman for St. Vincent College near Latrobe, said there the school has never had a discipline case involving a student possessing ecstasy.

    'Our level of supervision exceeds that of other schools,' Orlando said. 'That doesn't mean if we became aware of something that we wouldn't pursue it.'

    At IUP, Fryling said arrests and the number of students disciplined through the university's judicial system for drug offenses are not 'large by any standard' but said it's difficult to gauge how many use club drugs.

    'Some of our students come to us already with drug and alcohol issues, especially drugs like ecstasy,' she said. 'It's difficult for us to talk to our students about avoidance when they've already experimented and are desensitized to these drugs.'

    Ken Service, a spokesman for the University of Pittsburgh's main campus in Oakland, said university police do not have any statistical evidence that indicates an increase in ecstasy use at Pitt even though Oakland is home to several dance clubs.

    'But we expect problems,' Service said. 'It's something that's on any campus in the area.'

    Steve Mazerolf, editor of the Penn, the student newspaper at IUP, said students hold rave parties in the basements of their apartment houses. News of parties spreads by word of mouth around campus.

    'If one person has a pill, probably 500 do,' Mazerolf said. 'If you live in dorms, you can get anything if you know someone who knows someone.

    'Anybody who's wrapped up in the party scene has used ecstasy. The fact that so many have it makes a person feel safer about (using) it.'

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