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The latest about GHB & MDMA (Ecstasy) at Northern Illinois University

First a little history. Since 1988, the University Health Service has been conducting surveys of NIU student health behaviors. One area we assess is alcohol and other drug use behaviors. Results of our research show that alcohol is the drug of choice for NIU students, with about 70% reporting using it at some time in the last 30 days and 75% reporting using it at some time in the last 12 months. Although students use alcohol more frequently than any other drug we've asked about, most students drink moderately. Most NIU students drink 0-4 drinks per week, on average, and "party" one time per week or not at all.

In addition to NIU students reporting using alcohol, a minority of students also reported using GHB (Gamma-hydroxybutyrate) and/or MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine). In this article, we will give an update about GHB and MDMA use on campus. Our Spring 2001 survey yielded the following results: 1.3% of NIU students reported using GHB in the last 30 days while 4.1% reported using GHB in the last 12 months; and, 4.1% of NIU students reported using MDMA in the last 30 days while 14.2% reported using MDMA in the last 12 months. (Data based on 2001 Annual Student Health Behavior Assessment conducted by the University Health Service, n=1318.)

Clearly, the norm (what is true for most students) at NIU for both GHB and MDMA is non-use. As Student Affairs professionals, we need to do all we can to accurately report use of these substances so as not to increase the perception that this behavior is more common than it is. By being accurate in our reporting, we are able to support the norm of non-use and also not reinforce the inaccurate perception that "everyone's doing it." Reinforcing this false norm may give the unintended message that if a person considers him/herself a normal NIU student, then perhaps he/she should try GHB or MDMA, like everyone else.

While it is true that the norm is non-use, it is also true that both GHB and MDMA have risks associated with their use like most other drugs. As such, it is important to be able to provide our students and ourselves with accurate information, in order to reduce the likelihood of harm. What follows is a brief overview of the effects of these substances.

Both GHB and MDMA are illicitly produced in uncontrolled "street labs" where there is no quality control. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to predict how an individual will react to them. Factors impacting an individual's reaction to GHB and MDMA include but are not limited to:

  • Actual vs. reported content of the drug
  • Amount of the drug taken
  • Purity of the drug
  • User's perception of drug effects
  • Actual effects of use
  • Environment in which the drug is used
  • User's physical and emotional well-being
  • Other substances taken at the same time

GHB is a central nervous system depressant that can relax or sedate the body. Primarily used in liquid form and almost always taken orally, effects begin within 15 minutes to an hour after ingestion and last approximately 1 to 4 hours. GHB produces intoxication effects similar to that of alcohol (euphoria, disinhibition, etc.), but without an appreciable hangover. Some GHB effects sought by users are considered positive (relaxation, inhibition reduction, etc.) while others can be negative and harmful with effects ranging from simple discomfort to life-endangerment. Reactions and dosage can vary greatly causing unpredictable results. Loss of consciousness, disorientation, stiffness, breathing problems, and coma have been reported, especially when GHB is combined with alcohol or other depressants. Combining GHB and alcohol can be extremely risky.

MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy, is also referred to as "X", "E", "XTC" or "Adam." It is a synthetic, psychoactive (mind-altering) drug with amphetamine-like and hallucinogenic properties that is chemically related to both amphetamine (speed) and mescaline (a hallucinogen). MDMA is a white crystalline powder that is most often used in the form of tablets embossed with pop culture icons. MDMA's main action is to increase levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls emotions, anxiety and clear thought or judgment.

Taken orally, MDMA's effects begin within 15 minutes to an hour after ingestion and last approximately 3 to 6 hours. The effects of MDMA can be positive, neutral, or negative and may include one or more of the following: relaxed mood, feelings of openness and empathy, stimulation, anxiety, increased blood pressure and heart rate, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, loss of appetite, increased body temperature, and teeth grinding.

In high doses, MDMA can be extremely dangerous. It can cause a marked increase in body temperature leading to muscle breakdown and kidney and cardiovascular system failure. Chronic use may be linked to long-lasting, perhaps permanent, damage to the neurons that release serotonin, which may cause consequent memory impairment, although more research is needed to know for sure.

For more information, call Health Enhancement Services at 753-9755. For immediate help for a GHB or MDMA crisis, call 911 or call The University Health Service's Acute Care Clinic (8am - 4:30pm M-F, 9am - 1pm Sat) at 753-9770; Kishwaukee Hospital Emergency Room at 756-1521; or, DeKalb Clinic's Convenient Care Center (8am - 8pm M-F, 8am - 6pm Sat) at 758-5061.

Written by: Amy Franklin Havasi & Steven Lux, Interim, Co-Coordinators, Health Enhancement Services, University Health Service.

Spring 2002

**Portions of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.