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July 25, 2000

Ecstasy: Underestimating the Threat

Amy Ross
Sister of Ecstasy Victim

Mr. Chairman, Senator Biden, and other members of the Caucus, my name is Amy Ross, and I am 26 years old. I graduated from the University of Virginia four years ago and am a financial analyst for a consulting firm. In April of last year, my younger sister, Melissa, died a few hours after trying ecstasy at a nightclub in Atlanta. She was 19. According to her friends, this was the first time that Melissa had ever tried the drug, she only took one pill, and she took no other drugs over the course of the night. I believe these statements to be true. Tests done at the hospital revealed no alcohol in her blood. One pill, one time, was all it took to end her life.

Melissa was a sophomore at Emory University with a GPA of 3.4, intending to major in computer science. She loved art and culture, and was planning on studying art history in Rome over the summer. She had a beautiful singing voice, and participated in various performing groups around campus. She was also passionate about social causes, particularly those centered around helping people less privileged than she, and had joined a co-ed (community) service fraternity a few months before her death. Although she never had the chance to complete the official “pledge-period,” the group made her an honorary full-fledged member posthumously.

On the night of April 10, 1999, Melissa went out with a number of her friends to the “Fusion Nightclub” in Atlanta. One of the friends had in his possession a number of ecstasy pills. He put them in is hand, held his hand out, and a total of seven of the friends took one each. None of the others suffered any ill effects from the drug that night that I know of.

Melissa did not actually get sick until after she got back to her dormitory. She called 911 for herself around 5 AM because she couldn’t stop vomiting, and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She was in a semi-conscious state by the time she got to the emergency room. Tests showed that she suffered heart damage, possibly as a result of a heart attack, which caused her lungs to fill with fluid. This triggered a series of events that, according to the coroner’s report, deprived her brain of oxygen for an extended period of time. As a healthy 19-year old, Melissa had no prior history of heart trouble. Doctors concluded that her heart damage and the subsequent events were a function of her ecstasy use. Due to the drug-related nature of her death, there was a police investigation.

After Melissa’s death, it became apparent to me that many of my friends were unaware of the dangers of ecstasy. One friend said that he had always thought of ecstasy as a “safe” drug. Others expressed similar beliefs. Most knew at least one person that had tried the drug, and a few even confided that they had tried ecstasy themselves, thinking that it was no more dangerous than alcohol. These friends did not fit the “typical” profile of a drug addict; they were well educated, had stable jobs, were not users of any other illegal drugs, and did not engage in other types reckless or illegal behaviors. My friends believed that ecstasy was harmless, a belief that Melissa unfortunately shared with them.

This belief was also prevalent among members of the media attending a press conference on “club drugs” held by NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) last year. Over and over, reporters asked the panel of leading doctors and activists whether or not the drug was dangerous, and why Melissa had been its victim. In response to these questions, one of the panel members replied that some people are more genetically susceptible to ecstasy than are others, but that unfortunately it is impossible to “know your genes.” When another reporter asked how to spread the message among college students that the drug was dangerous, an activist emphatically replied “tell them,” and reiterated that most people consider the drug to be safe.

Apparently these warnings were not enough to sway everyone present. At the conclusion of the press conference, a reporter asked me why my sister had been “different,” or why she had had a lethal reaction to the drug, while others typically do not. The belief that ecstasy was harmless was so ingrained in this reporter’s mind that to him, Melissa’s death suggested not that ecstasy was dangerous, but that there was something “different” about Melissa. Even after sitting in a room for over an hour, listening to leading doctors assert time and time again that ecstasy could be dangerous to absolutely anyone, this reporter still hadn’t gotten the idea. I do not currently participate in any drug awareness outreach programs because I feel that I am not yet ready to do so. I would like to get involved with such groups after more time has passed, however, in order to continue to spread the message.

It is true that ecstasy will not kill most people. Beyond that, doctors and scientists are currently studying the drug to determine its potential effects. Although research does suggest that even limited use of the drug may have long-term, adverse effects on the brain, all of ecstasy’s potential effects are not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that regardless of how dangerous ecstasy may or may not prove to be, it is more dangerous that most people think.