Partiers and addicts eat, snort and “parachute” ecstasy.
They take it for the cheap, lucid highs and they take it to escape their own particular reality.
But no matter how it’s consumed, there is no way of knowing you’re getting pure, unadulterated ecstasy, a chemical known as MDMA, or a crank product cut with an anonymous cocktail of illicit drugs and fillers — or poison.
Either way, ecstasy users are consuming chemicals that distort and even threaten the human body’s normal functions.
The results have been especially deadly for some who took the risk with a tainted version of ecstasy hitting the streets.
While chasing a high that users liken to a lucid and energized sensation of euphoria, eight Calgarians have died after consuming a supply of the drug believed to have been cut with a toxic compound never before seen by police in Canada.
Since July, ecstasy laced with paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA), has been connected to 10 Alberta deaths and five more in British Columbia.
Last month, authorities sounded the alarm after six overdose deaths and dozens of hospitalizations occurred in under a month, overwhelming police and health resources.
A public awareness campaign mounted by Calgary Police and Alberta Health Services was launched to get out the message that no amount of the drug is safe.
But as the death toll mounts, officials still wonder if the message is reaching users.
In pill form, ecstasy still appears very much like the candy-coloured fuel favoured by 1990s ravers. While rave culture has declined, the popularity of the drug persists — and inventive users have come up with more ways to achieve the high they crave.
Inhaled through the nose, it delivers a rapid rush that burns the throat. Users also break open vitamin capsules or prescription medications, replacing the contents with the powder before swallowing.
And “parachuting” involves swallowing the powder wrapped in a single ply of toilet paper dropped into the back of the throat with water, fast-tracking absorption of the drug into the bloodstream.
“You get a mouthful of water, pop or beer and you don’t taste it. You swallow and wait until it hits you and then you know whether you got a strong hit or not,” said one long-term user, who identified himself only as Chris.
“That’s where the inexperience comes in. Someone eats one (pill) and they get impatient. ‘I want to get high, I want to get high, I’m not feeling it.’ And so they take another, and before you know it, you’re screwed.”
Chris, a 13-year ecstasy user from Edmonton who has served time in Calgary for trafficking drugs, said he’ll continue using the drug by taking the same precautions he always has.
The 29-year-old said he has a high tolerance and is able to take upwards of five pills a night and has consumed as many as 10.
He normally tests a new batch by popping just one tablet first to see what happens, he added.
He purchases his drugs from a trusted source that he believes originates in B.C.
“You’re going to get that ‘up feeling,’ but then there’s beyond that ‘up feeling’ that is too much. Where in your mind, you’re going, ‘Oh crap, this is too much’ and I’ve been there before.”
Despite the dangers, Chris said he’ll continue to take the drug for the pleasure of the high that it gives him — a euphoric feeling, more clear-headed than an alcohol buzz, and cheaper.
“I’m not a drinker, I go out and socially drink (but) I’d rather go out, eat a pill of ‘E.’ It’s much cheaper and it’s what I like.”
Calgary users note that a gram of MDMA powder costs around $20, providing a high that sustains them for hours. But for users who become obsessed with the drug, cost is no obstacle.
Former addict Alex questions whether public warnings by officials will have any impact, noting the only thing that helped him give up ecstasy was a wake-up call from someone who’d had a harrowing experience with drugs.
“The only people who reached me were those who had been there. Someone who was an addict who was in recovery, who had felt the pain I’d felt, who knew why I had used drugs, who knew all the tricks that I would use to try and justify my use and get out of getting sober,” said the 19-year-old, who didn’t want his last name published.
It’s been more than three years since Alex last touched ecstasy. He graduated from the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre’s treatment program in the summer of 2008, but memories — both good and bad — of using the drug still remain with him.
Born without wrists or thumbs and shorter arms — a condition known as bilateral radial aplasia — Alex was the subject of bullying as a child. Eventually, he found a sense of belonging when he started swimming competitively at 11, working his way up as an alternate for the Canadian Paralympic team.
“Life was going fairly well, but I could never escape that loneliness, that feeling of being different,” he said.
At 15, he started drinking and realized it helped wash away feelings of depression. Drinking led to smoking pot, and pot led to mushrooms. Seeking a new high, Alex went to a house party and scored his first hit of ecstasy, a red tablet stamped with an image of a woman.
The high was an accumulation of life’s pleasures.
“It’s the feeling you get after you eat a big meal, the feeling you get when you fall in love, hearing your favourite band, everything you love all at once.”
Soon, Alex was taking ecstasy nearly every day. Feeding his addiction became a priority. Everything else fell by the wayside.
When it became increasingly difficult to achieve the same high, he ramped up his dosage levels to “insane amounts” and started mixing ecstasy with alcohol. Blacking out became a regular event.
After getting kicked out of his home, and spending nights couch-surfing and sleeping on the street, his family took him to the recovery centre, where he cleaned up his act.
Fellow recovery centre graduate Matt Jones has also kicked his habit, but remembers watching his life fall apart after getting into ecstasy and other drugs, dropping out of school and getting into trouble with the law.
His mother, then a public health nurse, said she was heartbroken to see her son spiralling out of control.
“I used to go to schools and teach drug prevention,” said his mother, who did not want her name used. “Behind my back, here was my own kid doing drugs. I felt like a hypocrite.
“We were terrified to pick up the phone. You were so scared someone was going to tell you your son was dead.”
Like Alex, Jones abused ecstasy to fill a void in his life. He was new to Calgary and had difficulty making friends and fitting in. But once he started taking drugs, invitations to the “cool parties” started flooding in, the 18-year-old said.
“I created my identity on drugs. I did more drugs than pretty much anyone else in my high school. I felt that’s who I was and people knew me because of that.”
Jones used to be a regular ecstasy user, buying three tablets each time, ingesting the first then crushing and snorting the remaining two. He also mixed ecstasy with other drugs for a more potent effect.
Now two years clean, back in school and mending his relationship with his family, Jones said he will never touch the drug again.
If he were still using, he said, he’d probably stay away from ecstasy to avoid PMMA-laced batches. But for addicts, it can be tough to say no to a craving, even if that means risking your life.
“(When I took ecstasy), I didn’t know what was in it,” he said. “I knew, basically, it was MDMA and every chemical you were going to find under the kitchen sink with the cleaning supplies. I knew that and I didn’t care.”
Responding to recent public safety campaign efforts, Alex said he doesn’t think the solution is focusing on PMMA as a problem.
“Ifyou want to nip the problem in the bud, get kids sober. It might be PMMA right now, but it could be some other weird thing tomorrow.”
Dean Vause, executive director of the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre, agrees. He commends the efforts of police, government and health officials for highlighting the dangers of ecstasy and PMMA.
“But let’s not minimize the marijuana addiction, the crack addiction, the meth addiction,” he said.
While Chris says that he plans to continue using the drug, he admits recent deaths have scared some of his friends.
“People are worried and I think it’s going to stray a lot of people away from it for a while, but it’s not going to go away,” he said. “It’s never going to go away.”