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During the past year, a drug known popularly as “Ecstasy” has achieved a worldwide prominence unmatched by almost any other narcotic, according to recent cover story in Time Magazine.
The Twin Cities metro area was no stranger to that trend, says Carol L. Falkowski, director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City. She’s considered the most knowledgeable authority on drug-abuse trends in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
MDMA, the name for the chemical compound that has come to be known as Ecstasy, made major inroads this year among metro-area young people and contributed to five deaths, Falkowski said in her December report to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a federal agency.
Ecstasy is a stimulant that gives young adults the energy to dance all night at so-called rave parties, said the Hazelden executive, who is a member of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Mahtomedi. The narcotic also enhances the touching and tactile senses, leading to its reputation as the “hug drug,” she said.
Forty percent of high school seniors reported in a recent national survey that Ecstasy, though it has been illegal in the United States since 1985, is easy to get. And it has taken hold especially in suburban areas, where its cost of $5-$40 per pill is not prohibitive for more affluent teens.
The fact that the drug comes in small pastel-colored pills contributes to a feeling among young people that it is harmless, Falkowski believes. But she indicated she sharply disagrees with that notion.
So does the Rev. Dan Bruch, pastor of Trinity Lutheran (LCMS) in Hudson, Wisconsin, who had to preach at the funeral of 17-year-old Sam Buell, a member of his congregation who died last September from an overdose of Ecstasy. So too, obviously, does Jim Buell, the father of Sam, whose frustration over the mysterious circumstances surrounding his son’s death has kept him on a medical leave of absence from his job for four months.
The first thing to remember about Sam Buell, who was in his senior year at Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, is that he was not a “druggie,” Bruch said. “In his gentleness and reliability and dedication to self-improvement, he carved out a very special place in many people’s hearts,” the pastor said of Sam in his funeral sermon September 20.
The youth, several friends and their dates had attended a Friday night Hill-Murray football game, gone to a dance afterwards, and then stopped at a restaurant in Woodbury on their way home to Hudson. Three friends then returned with Sam to the Buell home, as planned, to stay overnight.
In the middle of the night, however, Sam became violently ill, vomiting and having convulsions. The friends did not come upstairs to awaken Sam’s parents until some three hours later. In explanations afterwards some of them said the reason for this was that they thought he had eaten some spoiled food at the restaurant and was only having a reaction to that.
When Jim Buell finally got to his son’s side, Sam was in a coma and having difficulty breathing. Paramedics were summoned and they took him to a hospital in Hudson. Unable to determine the cause of Sam’s condition, officials there rushed him to Regions Medical Center in St. Paul, where tests finally discovered — too late — the presence of Ecstasy in his system. Sam was pronounced dead early Sunday morning.
The friends’ insistence that there had been no use of drugs at the Buell home prevented any timely action by medical personnel in Hudson or St. Paul that might have saved Sam’s life, his father says. The youths’ denial of any drug abuse has continued to this day and kept police from bringing the case to a close.
The question remains, said Pastor Bruch and Jim Buell, whether Sam took the drug knowingly or not. Both find it almost impossible to believe that a boy who had no history of drug abuse, who was a good student and a fitness buff, and who was planning to drive to Milwaukee the following morning for a physical exam to qualify for the Army Reserves, would knowingly do anything that would negatively affect the condition of his body.
Joining the Army Reserves was a key part of Sam’s planning for the future. Duty as a Reservist was to help pay for his college education at Washing-ton State University.
But Jim Buell also knows that as long as none of Sam’s friends steps forward and tells exactly what happened that September night in his basement, it would be libelous to suggest that one of them slipped the pills into something his son ate or drank.
Falkowski said the case illustrates that the use of Ecstasy is very widespread, extending beyond just dances and rave parties.
The short-term dangers of this stimulant drug include increased wakefulness and — when taken in large doses — nausea, blurred vision, faintness, muscle tension, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and elevated body temperature, the Hazelden official said.
The risk of overdose is high — and there really is no safe dose — because of the lack of quality control in illegally manufactured drugs, Falkowski added. The user doesn’t know how large an amount of the drug there is in any given pill or what adulterants have been added that might have an adverse effect on an individual’s biology.
Beyond the drug’s immediate effects, Falkowski said, recent research has linked Ecstasy to long-term damage to parts of the brain involved in thought and memory. The researcher, whose book Dangerous Drugs: An Easy-To-Use Reference for Parents and Professionals has just been published, has this advice for youths contemplating the use of Ecstasy: “Don’t believe what you hear on the Internet about Ecstasy being harmless. It’s a dangerous drug and using it is a risky, sometimes fatal proposition.”

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