Ecstasy - the drug Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ecstasy - the drug

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Ecstasy, as the name suggests, is a stimulant with mild hallucinogenic properties, similar to LSD, which induces an intense feeling of euphoria. As such it is one of the more popular drugs, especially with clubbers. It usually comes in pill form, with perhaps an 'E' stamped into it. This, of course, makes it very easy to forge, as even an aspirin with an E carved into it with a Swiss army knife can, in poor light, pass as ecstasy. Its full name is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Ecstasy is frequently known as MDMA, a shortened version of the full chemical name.

This Entry is in no way intended to be a recommendation of Ecstasy use.


It is important to note, first of all, that there are certain urban myths surrounding ecstasy's discovery. It was patented as a diet pill in 1913, not developed as a truth serum by the US military in 1953. The German drug company, Merck, however, decided not to produce the drug.

The man responsible for ecstasy in its modern form is Alexander Shulgin, who, after gaining a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, went on to get a job with Dow Chemicals. In addition to creating a successful insecticide, Shulgin researched MDMA and its effects extensively. Dow Chemicals were happy with the insecticide but Shulgin's interest in MDMA (he had patented several other drugs that were to become commonly-used recreational drugs) meant that he did not stay in their employment. Dow also had nothing to gain from producing MDMA, as the drug had already been patented. Shulgin is reported as being the first human to have used ecstasy.

Ecstasy has become infamous since the early 1980s, as an alarming number of young people have died after taking it. Whether the drug itself killed them, impurities in the pill or the way it was taken is not conclusively known. It was categorised as a Class A, Schedule 1 drug in the UK in 1977 and made illegal in the USA in 1985.


The minimum dose that must be taken for ecstasy to have any effect is 30mg for the average person. A medium dose is 125 to 150mg. At 200+mg the side effects of Ecstasy become much more noticeable and risk of fatality is significantly increased. It is estimated that the average pill contains from 75 to 100mg of MDMA, but there is no standard so the dangers of overdosing are very real. Though most users take it as a pill, ecstasy can also take a powdered or liquid form.

Tolerance and Addiction

Though ecstasy is not physically addictive, it can become disproportionately important in a person's life, and may become compulsive or habit-forming.

Tolerance to ecstasy may build up if it is taken compulsively (reasons for taking ecstasy compulsively include depression - it acts as a short term antidepressant). However this tolerance decreases if the user stays clean for a few months.

Often MDMA is cut with other substances to reduce costs. These may be drugs from the same chemical family 1 as MDMA - PMA(paramethoxyamphetamine), for example. Heroin, caffeine and ketamine2 have also been known to be mixed with MDMA and sold as ecstasy. Frequently, ecstasy users will get addicted to these substances, not the ecstasy itself. Ecstasy is also normally cut with amphetamines.


Assuming an individual has a normal level of tolerance to ecstasy, they will start to feel the effects between 20 and 90 minutes after taking it. It varies from person to person depending on what is already in the stomach, on the level of physical exertion (the user may be dancing at a rave, for example) and on many other factors that normally affect digestion.

The move from starting to feel the odd drug-induced twinge or grin up to the full effects will take between five and 20 minutes and then the user will plateau for about three hours. Coming back down off the high takes several hours and the hangover can last a whole day.

Short-term Effects

Short-term, fairly immediate effects include a feeling of euphoria and general well-being. As a consequence, the user opens up to people a lot more and is generally willing to talk to strangers. Sensory experience is intensified, which is why ecstasy is so well known as a 'club-drug' - a user will take it to improve their night out. Some hallucinations are experienced at higher doses.

The user's appetite will wane considerably and so will their attention to thirst. Rapid eye movement (nystagmus) will be experienced, but in the state of euphoria this will barely be noticed or at least only felt as a niggling annoyance. Users report that the trip produced by ecstasy is highly controllable. Body temperature regulation is hampered, though. The adulterants in the pill will also produce side-effects and these become more noticeable when the dose is increased.

Jaw tension is likely to be felt - indeed one of the signs of ecstasy use is the possession of a baby's dummy3, to relieve jaw pains. Many of the other negative effects of ecstasy are due to the sensation caused. As a consequence of the feeling of well-being and willingness to connect with others, a user might say things they will regret later and possibly act in a way that may cause them embarrassment. Acne is also more likely to appear in ecstasy users.

Longer-term Effects

Further negative effects caused by taking Ecstasy are due both to the chemical and to the adulterants added. There is a hangover from using it, and users have been known to suffer liver damage. Death as a direct result of taking the drug may seem rare4; however users who are conscious that they might get dehydrated while using have been known to drink so much water that they have drowned themselves internally. Many users also have difficulty sleeping afterwards. Users are urged to take a breath of fresh air every now and again, to calm down and retain some level of hydration.

In the long-term, it is currently a matter of debate whether frequent ecstasy use produces symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's Disease and liver damage.

Some Accounts of Ecstasy Effects

... Guided by my three closest friends that night, I popped the Dove5 I was given and finally realised exactly who, and what, I am. At the party which we then went to, I soared! I met literally dozens of like-minded people, many of whom have now become very close friends and I talked and danced into the following morning, amazed that anything could feel so incredibly true. Until that night, I never knew that I could ever feel THAT good, that content, that in love with the world.
One user experiencing and enjoying ecstasy
My body felt cushioned and I had a happy feeling not unlike a nice beer buzz and, at the same time, like nothing I had ever experienced before. Since I would really like for this to be a very accurate account of my experience I will say that as the drug really began to take its effect I was suddenly nauseous.
A so-so ecstasy trip
'When I got there I was sweating profusely and I was getting muscle spasms. There were two paramedics inside and the older of them asked me what was the matter. 'Overdose', I replied ... For the next couple of days afterwards I was an emotional wreck, paranoid as hell, shaking, involuntary muscle spasms, and my tonsilitis came back. Not much fun.
A bad ecstasy trip, as a result of an overdose

Production and Prevalence

Ecstasy is difficult to synthesise and requires a skilled chemist with time on their hands. It is largely manufactured in Western Europe, due to the wide availability of raw materials and because it is easily transportable out of there.

It was estimated that in the year 2000 approximately three percent of the US population had tried ecstasy. It was most popular with university students. 2.2 percent of the UK population aged 16 to 59 were classed as regular users in 2002.

How to Tell if Someone is Using Ecstasy

  • More than usual tiredness after a rave/night of clubbing - ecstasy can take a while to recover from. In addition ecstasy causes a depletion of serotonin the day after use, which can cause irrational irritability.

  • Extreme secrecy - the user may be paranoid that they will be caught.

  • A lack of money, or your own money disappearing.

  • Owning a pacifier. Ecstasy can cause jaw cramps and many users use dummies to alleviate them6.

  • Hospital masks lined with menthol ointment. Ecstasy takers use them to get a vapour rush.

  • Frequently, Children's vitamin containers are used to conceal ecstasy pills - so look out for strangely-placed containers.

Ecstasy Slang

  • Adam, Clarity, Disco Biscuit, E, Hug Drug, Love Drug, X, XTC, Apples and Diamonds - all names for Ecstasy.

  • Dropping - to swallow a pill of ecstasy.

  • To double drop - To simultaneously swallow two ecstasy pills.

  • Peepers - ecstasy users.

  • Piggybacking - Sequential use of more than one ecstasy tablet, or taking ecstasy after another drug.

  • An e-tard - an ecstasy user (a prejorative term, akin to 'retard').

An Ending Note

Possession of ecstasy is illegal and its use can have severe consequences as several high-profile cases in recent years have shown. In the UK a conviction for possession of this class 'A' drug can lead to up to seven years in jail and a fine - a conviction for supplying attracts a life sentence plus a heavy fine. In the USA, ecstasy is listed as a banned Schedule One drug. Possession of 800+ pills leads to a 61 month sentence and £8,000+ fine up to a 10 year sentence. Any ecstasy-related crime can incur a five-year sentence.

It should be noted that this Guide Entry is in no way a recommendation of ecstasy use.

Useful Sites

  • Addaction The UK's drug and alcohol treatment and advice centre.

  • Drugscope The UK independent centre of expertise on drugs.

  • The UK Government's drugs information webiste 'Talk to Frank'.

Please Note: h2g2 is not a definitive medical resource. If you have any health concerns you must always seek advice from your local GP. You can also visit NHS Direct or BBC Health Conditions.

1Phenethylamines.2A dissociative anaesthetic used in veterinary medicine.3Known as a pacifier in the USA.4Figures published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology show that there were 72 ecstasy-related deaths in the UK in 2002, compared with 12 in 1996.5 pill of ecstasy.6Carrying a baby pacifier was part of the rave culture and so has largely now gone out of fashion.

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