It's the choice of the new, post-liberalisation generation. Always on the lookout for a new high, new ways to cope with the sameness and ennui of modern existence, India's jetsetting young have found salvation in the new party drug, Ecstasy, or E as it is referred to among the hip. Goa, Bombay and now Delhi are where it's happening the most.
That E is for the elite, for at Rs 1,200 a pill, it remains a rich man's trip. No wonder it is called a 'designer drug'. And with derivatives like Pink Champagne, which make for a 'better' trip, the cost can shoot up to Rs 2,000. With the high lasting for four hours, users often consume more than one pill a night. Of course, prices vary since Ecstasy is smuggled into the country and supply can be erratic. In Mumbai, where availability is better than in Delhi, one can even trip up on Rs 1,000 on a good day. As Dr Yusuf Merchant, who heads Drug Abuse Rehabilitation and Information Centre in Mumbai, notes, "Ecstasy is getting increasingly popular among richer students."
The synthetic drug's popularity owes much to the trip it the trip it induces. Says Dr Achal Bhagat, a psychiatrist at Delhi's Apollo Hospitals, who dealt with many E-related cases while working in England: "It has been branded a fun thing. There is a lot of world-of-mouth publicity that it's a good party drug. In the UK, it has almost become what cannabis was for the '60s generation."
Elite India, it would seem, wouldn't mind a piece of the plastic nirvana. Says a Delhi fashion designer: "It is disgustingly common these days. Ecstasy is becoming easily available and it definitely happens in a lot of private parties."
Ecstasy's usp is simple: it gives you loads of energy. Recalls banker Aneesh Singh, 28, who tried the drug out of curiosity: "It took about half-an-hour before it had any effect. I thought I had been duped and had been given an aspirin instead. But once it hit I just could not stop dancing."
That is Ecstasy's tell-tale sign; an E user just can't stand still. Besides, while on a trip, a user becomes unusually happy, exuberant, affectionate and, well, ecstatic. Says Aneesh's cousin, Anil, about his first Ecstasy experience: "Your body just keeps doing its own thing. One girl who was a total stranger kept licking my face. My body kept getting all entangled but I just couldn't sit, I had to keep dancing."
This uncharacteristic energy level and sociability sets Ecstasy apart and helps it score over other drugs. Everyone has a 'good' E trip, which is not influenced by the mood of the user as happens with other drugs, including grass or hash. Says Anita Bajaj, a student: "It is so safe. With acid the trip can be really bad; you can start hallucinating all sorts of things or you may feel completely depressed. Plus, E is not addictive. It's the feeling the trip gives you that is addictive."
This perhaps accounts for Ecstasy's growing popularity. No mean achievement, for trends in the drug business don't change as fast as they do in most consumer products. India sees a new drug gaining popularity probably once every 10 years. Acid (LSD), mandrax and heroin have all ruled for a decade despite concerted campaigns high-lighting their side-effects.
Ecstasy has been around for ages, but became popular only in the '80s in England. Like acid and cocaine before it, Ecstasy's popularity is intertwined with prevalent trends in music. Techno, trance, jungle, ambient and house are all genres of dancefloor music which are helping fuel the demand for Ecstasy.
The connection is simple. The staccato techno beat, for instance, is much too fast for the average person to keep pace with. Enter Ecstasy, which lends an almost demonic energy to the user, fostering the illusion that he could dance non-stop. It makes it easy to be in sync with the beat, which earlier seemed too fast. Hence, Ecstasy's widespread use at parties and nightclubs, the only essentials being loud music and lots of people.
The chemical compound of the drug is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) which The Handbook of Clinical Psychiatry by Kaplan and Sadock describes as "extremely addictive and dangerous". Ecstasy has a "powerful anorectic effect" as it kills appetite. Besides, the drug attaches itself to serotonergic receptors (cells which respond to messages carried b a biochemical called serotonin) in the brain. When some mice were subjected to the drug in an Oxford lab, cells carrying these receptors were destroyed. The upshot of this cell damage is a pronounced lack of body-mind coordination.
Bhagat also warns that prolonged use of the drug often leads to a host of psychiatric illnesses like paranoia, restlessness, a feeling of persecution and at times even suicidal tendencies. Ecstasy abuse can also result in staggered thought and memory disturbances.
But all that is after sustained abuse. The immediate problem which plagues Ecstasy users is intense fatigue and dehydration caused by extreme physical exertion. Says socialite at large Priya Desai, an Ecstasy user: "You feel so thirsty. That's why you should not mix it with alcohol because that also dehydrates you a lot. If you see anybody having lots of water, you can be sure he has had E. Besides, you wake up with a really dry throat the next day."
This dehydration can be fatal, as happened in the much publicised case of Leah Betts in England-defenders of the drug resorted t the claim that she died of drinking too much water. Medical opinion has it that E affects the part of the bran which controls fluid intake, throwing awry the body's natural water input-output balance. Betts, who was celebrating her 18
th birthday with friends over alcohol and E, is said to have consumed an excessive amount of fluids to counteract the dehydrating effects of drug-induced hyperactivity.
HOWEVER, the most dangerous aspect of Ecstasy use is the highly successful "it is safe" propaganda, giving the drug a measure of acceptability. User Ramesh Khanna's justification is: "It doesn't smell, unlike alcohol. It is nice and it can easily be transported." Equally daunting for drug agencies is the fact that Ecstasy's chemical formula is so simple that it can be manufactured at home. The Internet even offers a recipe book.
In fact, England, where E gained maximum popularity and has resulted in a series deaths, has witnessed heated debates and clutch of anti-drug campaigns aimed at Ecstasy consumers. Even the Internet has discussions on the drug. The views range from rabid defence to detailed medical downers. According to one devil's advocate on the Net, "Ecstasy can be used without any harmful effect." He goes on to argue that there are "many respectable activities" which are more dangerous. Also available on the Net is Herbal Ecstasy, which its promoter Sean Shayan claims is absolutely 'safe'. Extracted from plants, it is said to give the same high as E. But its availability in India is limited, with most users preferring E to its herbal variation.
So, who are the Ecstasy users in India? Right now, it's anyone who loves those klieglights non-stop. At a recent party, dealers are reported to have sold two months of supply, with buyers ranging from well-placed professionals to college kids. Says Rajesh Nath, a college student: "It has a lot to do with peer pressure. You generally try it because it's cool."
This, coupled with the fact that Ecstasy's abuse has much to do with the low threshold of boredom and the desire for newer and more dangerous thrills that tend to characterise the new generation.
And as the popularity of the drug has increased in India, so have the myths. The most quoted is its supposed ability to increase the libido, so much so that it is often referred to as a "love pill". As Aneesh described his E-experience, "it made me feel very horny".
Another user Nikhil Prasad says, "Man, it enhances the act of love-making, though the effect is psychological rather than any enhancement of stamina." Doctors, however, are emphatic that Ecstasy has no effect whatsoever on the libido. At best, it lowers inhibitions and makes introverts more sociable and daring.
As for drug enforcement, given the fact that Ecstasy use is restricted to the rich, it has so far escaped the Narcotics Control Bureau's attention. Says an insider at the Bureau: "Not a single seizure has been reported. Goa intelligence had sent a report but no action has been taken so far. We have no concrete information to act upon." And since Ecstasy sales depend on a strictly world-of-mouth network (profits for peddlers can easily exceed 100 per cent), it is extremely difficult for drug enforcement agencies to plan a crackdown.
And with Ecstasy production still non-existent in India, the network is still at the mercy of smugglers. Says Anuj Suri, a chartered accountant who first did E in Goa five years ago and is now a regular user: "It's the goras who smuggle it in and then there are carriers from Mumbai. Now you can get it in Paharganj in Delhi as well." Adds Mumbai-based Neeta Pandey: "You wont's find Ecstasy on the streets. And you have to be sure of your source because some dealers add 'speed' to it. That combination can be very dicey."
That, in short, is the E file-deadly, dangerous and definitely addictive stuff. But try telling that to someone in the throes of pure Ecstasy. Therein lies the challenge.
(Some names have been changed.)