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Ad campaign targets notions of 'love drug'

A national advertising campaign that debuts Monday will try to scrape the shiny, happy gloss from the Ecstasy drug craze. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's first-ever focus on Ecstasy, as seen through a series of public service advertisements on TV and in newspapers, represents a watershed moment in the national response to the club drug. Experts say Ecstasy is taking root in youth culture and an aggressive, concerted campaign is needed to unsell the drug to a growing number of captivated youth.

The ads will confront the notions of Ecstasy as a harmless "love drug" whose benefits far outweigh the risks.

One ad targeted at parents portrays a grieving father, Jim Heird, whose daughter, Danielle, 21, of Las Vegas, died the third time she used Ecstasy.

"I would've given anything for some warning signs. I would have moved. I would have locked her up. I don't care," Heird says in the commercial. "A parent's not supposed to survive their children. It's not the scheme of things."

In another ad, a coroner reads Danielle Heird's autopsy report while a photo collage of a happy, healthy Danielle crosses the screen.

One of a second set of commercials, which is aimed at teenagers, depicts a dance rave in which a girl on Ecstasy lies crumpled on the floor while her friends continue dancing around her. Another ad depicts a house party where kids high on Ecstasy make out and massage one another. When one boy becomes ill and crawls into a bathroom, a friend merely shuts the bathroom door. The tag lines at the end of each ad read, "Ecstasy: Where's the love?"

The drug, 3-4 methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, or MDMA, was initially used in psychotherapy. It emerged as a recreational drug on college campuses in the mid-1980s, says Glen Hanson, acting director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. It spread through the rave party scene in the early 1990s.

"It's not just a little fad. It's a very disturbing trend," says Mitchell Rosenthal, president of the Phoenix House Foundation, the nation's largest drug-treatment provider.

In a new survey of teen drug use, the partnership found that teens view the drug as only slightly more dangerous than alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and inhalants. Drug experts worry Ecstasy will spread like cocaine did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, spawning a generation of addicts faster than health officials could issue warnings.

"By then, we were so deep in the well, it took a long time to climb back out," says Stephen Pasierb, president of the partnership. It wasn't until college basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose that teens began to see the scary side of cocaine use, Pasierb says.

Now, as with cocaine, teens seem unaware or unimpressed by the growing body of scientific evidence that Ecstasy is dangerous.

Scientists have studied extensively Ecstasy's effect on laboratory animals. Human clinical studies are underway, says George Ricaurte, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The animal studies indicate that using Ecstasy in doses equivalent to amounts that people usually take can damage the brain's serotonin cells. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in appetite, sleep, mood regulation, memory and sexual function.

Ricaurte says the data in animals are "extraordinarily strong" that brain damage occurs. He says it is highly likely the same effects will be borne out in humans.

"One of the most insidious aspects of this particular drug is it could be damaging cells without any warning that the damage is taking place," Ricaurte says. "Any drug that has the wherewithal to damage a nerve cell in the brain has to be regarded with extreme care and caution. Nerve cells in the brain don't grow back."

Questions remain about how high a dose causes damage and whether some people are more prone to damage than others.

"I don't think there's any question that MDMA has the ability to damage certain brain cells," Hanson says. "It really boils down to a benefit-risk analysis. Are you willing to expose yourself to the possibility of brain damage or even death for recreation? All these things seem like a fairly high price to pay so you can have a good time on a Friday night."

Danielle Heird, a restaurant hostess at a Las Vegas casino who died July 20, 2000, may have been one of those people who is extremely sensitive to Ecstasy. Gary Telgenhoff, the deputy medical examiner in Clark County, Nev., who performed the autopsy on Heird, says she took a small amount.

At a club with friends, Heird took Ecstasy and complained of feeling ill and having trouble walking, her father says. Her friends took her to her boyfriend's apartment so she could lie down, he says.

"They went back out to continue partying," Jim Heird says. She died before they came back.


Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY. February 11, 2002

Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.