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Ecstasy boom drug has ups and downs

Ecstasy boom drug has ups and downs

HERE'S the view from the back corner of a popular yet pricey Phnom Penh nightclub.

Its Tuesday, 2 am, beers are going for six dollars a pop. Imported, if slightly dated

American house music booms over a sparsely-lit dance floor.

Ostentatious ethnic Chinese businessmen and their bodyguard sidekicks sit camped

at the bar, ogling the dozens of mostly Chinese and Vietnamese "taxi girls"

strewn across the room. One hopes that everyone has checked their guns at the door

as noted on the sign out front.

Look closer. There's something preternatural in the way these people are dancing.

Glazy-eyed, their heads twitch almost epileptically from side to side. Their teeth

grind, their bodies perceptibly convulse.

You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled across a freak show of Stevie Wonder


At least half of these revellers are tripping out on the boom drug of the Asian nightclub

scene - ecstasy, the synthetically made methamphetamine derivative designed to enhance

the human sensorium and generate feelings of euphoria and well-being.

A seventeen-year-old boy deals in the illicit drug right outside the entrance to

the club. A collective of armed, military-fatigued bouncers casts a nonchalant glance

as the kid pulls a colorful assortment of pills from a trouser pocket; a readily

visible irony of perhaps the only transparent aspect of Cambodia's narcotics trade.

He quotes his prices. "This [blue] one's five dollars. This one's ten,"

he says, pointing to a packet of orange, aspirin-sized tablets. "These are better

for you ... stronger."

Medically known as MDMA, the physical effects of ecstasy are akin to those of amphetamines;

euphoria, hyperexcitability, accelerated heartbeat, sweating and, somewhat paradoxically,

an overwhelming sense of relaxation.

Pisay (not her real name), a twenty-five year-old Khmer-Chinese prostitute, claims

that ecstasy use remains rife in about four or five other prominent nightclubs around

the capital. "Everybody does it ... It makes me want to dance ... be happy.

I cannot afford drinks all night."

One well-known Phnom Penh bar proprietor, preferring anonymity, believes that ecstasy

use grew markedly with the arrival of thousands of peacekeeping UNTAC troops to Cambodia

in 1993. "UNTAC arrived and many nightclubs began to open around Phnom Penh

... hundreds of prostitutes began arriving from the countryside and from Vietnam,"

he explains.

"They use it so they can be happy while they are working ... they will be happy

to go home with any man, even if he is ugly or boring, " he adds.

But the ecstasy market is not confined to all-night flesh-trade girls consigned to

losing themselves to time. Foreigners, particularly short-time tourists on the faddish

backpacker trail, have become increasingly savvy to the high accessibility and low-cost

nature of Asian narcotics. Ecstasy being no exception.

Says Darren (not his real name), a twenty-two-year-old Australian at the club, "A

pill like this might set me back forty bucks in Melbourne. ... [Still], you can never

be sure what you're buying."

For users, not "being sure" of the exact chemical components of any powerful,

physically taxing, mind-altering drug is to court risk. Ecstasy in its purest form

comes with a noxious medley of unfavorable side-effects - increased heart rate, higher

blood pressure, dehydration, dizziness, insomnia - that can, and have, hospitalized

persons whose bodily functions and psychological fabric have been unable to cope

with the drug's toxicity.

Some medical experts have suggested that MDMA's temporary depleting effect on neurotransmitters

in the brain can induce depression and anxiety in the mentally unstable.

Dr Gavin Scott, of the Tropical and Travellers Medical Clinic in Phnom Penh, is aware

of the city's "big, underground scene" in ecstasy use. Though he personally

hasn't treated many patients with ecstasy-induced ailments, Scott laments the fact

that ordinary Khmer and Vietnamese night-clubbers are ingesting the drug untutored

as to its harmful repercussions.

"I've heard secondhand reports of people fainting ... these people really don't

want to spend the money it might cost for treatment," he says.

Dr Choi May, an anesthesiologist specializing in intensive care medicine at Phnom

Penh's Calmette Hospital, has seen firsthand the injurious effects of ecstasy on

unprepared users. "I saw a girl recently who had taken two capsules of ecstasy.

She was convulsing wildly. ... We don't have figures but [usage] has definitely increased."

Dr May cautioned that until the Ministry of Health approved funding for a hitherto

planned Poisons Unit at the hospital, Cambodia's pharmaceutical knowledge of ecstasy

would, along with precise user statistics, remain "obscure" at best.

An International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the US State Department

in 1999 concluded that Cambodia's geographical location and scarcity of public funds

for drug enforcement agencies had rendered it increasingly vulnerable to drug traffickers

and money launderers operating in Southeast Asia.

The report furthermore suggested that, along with ethnic-Chinese triads - whose numbers

may swell in Cambodia following the recent hand-over of Macau to Beijing - certain

elements within Cambodia's RCAF have colluded in amphetamine and ecstasy smuggling.

Khieu Samon, Deputy Director of the National Police's Anti-Drugs Department, agrees

with the ethnic-Chinese connection. "They are using Cambodia as a transit hub

for shipments to wealthier Asian countries ... Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong

Kong [especially]."

As for local ecstasy use, Samon believes that it "has been blown way out of


The conviction that Thai and Burmese drug-smugglers are also involved in the trafficking

of ecstasy to Cambodia gained momentum recently in the wake of two discoveries, one

on Nov 9, another on Jan 3, of massive quantities of amphetamine pills and tablet-minting

machines in Bangkok.

Many of the pills were stamped with the symbol "cy" on one side, a variety

of pill commonplace in the Phnom Penh ecstasy scene. According to a Dec 26 Bangkok

Post article, the "cy" label is widely recognized as the hallmark of amphetamines

and ecstasy manufactured by the United Wa State Army, a drug warlord-run unit of

former Communist Party of Burma affiliates operating in the "Golden Triangle"

between Thailand, Burma and Laos.

Meanwhile, back inside the nightclub, a delirious, semi-passed out female raver is

dragged to a nearby sofa by two of her friends. Thirsting for fluids and fresh air,

she sits down to battle with the chemicals holding hostage to her body. "She

will be okay," declares Dani (not her real name), a twenty-year-old Vietnamese

taxi-girl. "Last week I [was] also like that ... no problem."


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