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A U.N. report says Czechs are No. 2 users in Europe March 24, 2005 The Prague Post
Stefan P. considers Ecstasy, the combination stimulant and hallucinogen, a risk to his health. Every once in a while he takes it anyway. "I've had it five or 10 times in the last five years," said the 23-year-old student on a recent Friday night. "It opens my mind. But I wouldn't do it often. That would be unhealthy. It's like ancient cultures - a lot of them took drugs in ceremonies, but only once or twice a year."
Young and interested in the drug just occasionally, Stefan is what police and health officials say is a typical Czech Ecstasy user. And studies show this group, already in the hundreds of thousands, is growing. According to a report released this month by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the Czech Republic ranks second in Europe in Ecstasy use, with 2.5 percent of Czechs ages 15-64 having tried it in the last year.
"We've seen a big jump in the last three years," said Jiri Komorous, director of the National Drug Enforcement Center, which seized 110,000 Ecstasy pills in raids in 2004, three times more than in 2003.
Ecstasy, or MDMA as chemists know it, is readily available in dozens of Prague dance clubs for anyone with 150 Kc ($6.70). The pills are also sold and consumed at loosely organized dance parties in apartments and warehouses in and around the capital. Internet and word of mouth advertise the locations, and fans of techno and mass drug use have several events to choose from each week.
"This is the first generation of Czechs that can explore drugs and be free," said a foreigner involved with underground dance parties. "And they're going to try it all."
The users themselves, judging by a random sample on a recent weekend, seem neither intimidated nor infatuated by the drug, which has been used by psychologists to break down mental barriers in patients and shown by researchers to burn out receptors in the brains of primates and rats.
"It's good to try it when you're young," said Tomas, a 23-year-old theology major who took Ecstasy for the first time when he was 17. Like others questioned about their experience with the drug, he declined to give his last name.
"You get to know a different point of view. Maybe you've never before had that feeling of unity with people. It's a feeling of total empathy, no fear of communication.
"It's a very good feeling. But you eventually realize it's in you, not the pill. I don't take it much anymore, maybe once or twice a year."
Tomas and others familiar with Prague's Ecstasy subculture say they've noticed no marked increase in use among their friends in recent years, suggesting that a rise in national statistics could be a result of experienced users continuing to take the drug, while younger, inexperienced Czechs join their ranks.
Other explanations for the rise are falling prices — the drug is about half the price now that it was in the late 1990s — and fading interest in heroin.
"We had success shutting down the heroin trade from the Balkans," said Komorous. "Young people have also realized how terrible heroin can be. Many of them are instead trying Ecstasy."
How dangerous is it?
Ecstasy, say experts, is patently safer than heroin: It is not believed to be physically addictive. The average user takes it several times a month at parties, Komorous said, rather than craving it every day. Ecstasy users don't steal to feed their habit, and they almost never overdose.
There was only one Ecstasy-related death in the last year in the Czech Republic: The victim thought he was taking Ecstasy but got DOB instead, a synthetic drug that is more toxic. He took unusually high quantities, authorities said, along with alcohol and several other drugs.
Research shows that chemicals in the brain that are stimulated by Ecstasy, notably serotonin, are left depleted in the days after the drug is taken, causing bad moods. As is the case with many drugs, daily consumption leads to forgetfulness, sluggishness, confusion and depression.
"If you take it all the time, you end up loony," said Lenka, a student and social worker who takes Ecstasy a few times a year. "But most Czechs only do it once in a while. Otherwise, 80 percent of Prague would be walking around like zombies."
Doctor Pavel Kubu, who answers questions on Ecstasy in forums on the Internet site of the anti-drug nonprofit Sananim, says even moderate Ecstasy users run the risk of developing depression later in life.
"It's an unresolved question — will the neurons that release serotonin be able to regenerate?" he asks. Serotonin plays a leading role in mood, emotion and sleep. "Studies show the neurons don't regenerate indefinitely. If they become exhausted in a significant number of young people, we could see a spike in cases of depression in the next 10 to 15 years."
But 10 to 15 years is clearly a long way off to many partyers on a Saturday night. And even doctors aren't certain what amount of Ecstasy and frequency of use will cause irreparable damage. Long-range studies are lacking, and damage caused by the drug varies in individuals.
"I don't see it as a problem for people who only take it once in awhile," said Lenka. "We're not talking about drug addicts. We're talking about people who want to have fun and dance."