The hidden world of ‘ecstasy’ tucked away in the recesses of party places
CEBU CITY, Philippines – It was inside a club in one of Metro Cebu’s known party places – with only narrow, strobe lights giving way to darkness – when Chen, for the first time, saw up close what was ecstasy.
This drug whom she had previously only heard from some of her friends looked like any other ordinary medicinal tablet that one could buy in a local drugstore, she said.
“It was this small pill that looked like any ordinary drug. It even resembled that of a tablet intended for children because it’s colorful. You wouldn’t know that it was something illegal!” Chen remarked.
A tablet of ecstasy, usually shaped to look like someone’s ordinary prescription pill or even supplemental vitamin, costs around P1,500 – P3,000.
Requesting to go by her nickname only, Chen said she was offered to buy one during her club-hopping days in college a few years ago for around P1,200 – which she described as a “pretty decent” price for someone like her who could afford to purchase a single tablet.
She described the tablet as round, with a color shade that ranged from cherry-like to pastel.
Now 23 years old and working as a professional in the real estate industry, Chen, a native of Mindanao, spent most of her young adulthood in Metro Cebu.
With both parents owning and managing a company whose services involved the mining industry, Chen’s family belonged to the upper socioeconomic class.
“Even if I did buy that (ecstasy), I could still manage to go by my regular life in school without worrying about my finances. I’m fully aware of my privileges,” she added.
But Chen refused to even try the tablet and a couple of years, she couldn’t thank herself enough for not biting into the offer dangled in front of her by the ecstasy peddler, who was introduced to her by a friend.
“I was only 17 or 18 when it happened… Looking back now, I knew I really can’t make myself do drugs,” she said.
This was just Chen’s first encounter with what turned out to be a complex and organized network of sellers and users of party drugs in Metro Cebu.
A world tucked away
Young adults like Chen visit and spend their weekends in nightclubs and bars to relieve stress, hang out with their friends, meet new acquaintances or to expand their social circles.
As the nights progressed into years, she said she began to notice “the little things” in these establishments that sparked her curiosity.
Describing them as a group of few individuals who rarely interact with the rest of the clubbers, and that they almost never stepped foot on the dance floor, Chen nicknamed them as the “elite.”
Faces whom she saw belonged to the “elite” were mysteries to her, especially as to why this particular bunch seemed to look like they were hiding from everyone else.
“It really sparked my curiosity. But later on, I found out that it’s not about why they looked like they were hiding from or avoiding most of us. It’s what they were trying to hide or avoid from everyone else!” she said.
Several clubs in Metro Cebu have been in the radar of several law enforcement agencies for having a reputation as a meet-up place for dealers of party drugs.
And in Chen’s observations, the ecstasy trading is a world discreetly tucked away in every club’s nook or cranny where only the select few have access to.
According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in Central Visayas (PDEA-7), this is because sellers of these types of illegal drugs know that their target markets are often found here.
“Party drugs are commonly used in parties, including those held inside clubs, to get your spirit or mood up. You don’t usually use them inside the house,” said PDEA-7 information officer Leia Albiar-Alcantara in an interview with Cebu Daily News Digital.
Like Chen, Albiar-Alcantara described the ecstasy trading world as “small,” wherein sellers are always cautious and selective when it comes to meeting buyers.
“Selling this type of drug is difficult. Also, it’s a market that is hard to penetrate by law enforcers. The party drugs trade is a ‘small world’ since it involved a select few, with connections so tight and selective,” Albiar – Alcantara said.
Back then, Chen only had limited information about the illicit party drugs trade, mostly coming from rumors and exchanges between her peers.
In 2019, however, all of these came to light after the tragic death of 19-year-old Ashley Abad.
An aspiring restaurateur pursuing an accounting degree in one of the city’s top privately-owned universities, Ashley’s life was cut short after suffering cardiac arrest in a pre-Sinulog concert in uptown Cebu City.
Eventually, police confirmed she died due to an overdose of “an adulterated” ecstasy (not pure ecstasy).
Ashley’s death, however, marked the start of several revelations and police-led operations that exposed most, if not all, aspects of the party drugs trade in Cebu.
It led law enforcers to publish a matrix of Cebu’s ecstasy ring, reportedly led by a woman whom they classified as a member of the Alta Sociedad – a Spanish phrase which means “high society” in English.
A few weeks after the tragedy, police arrested several individuals suspected of peddling ecstasy in Cebu. One of the operations, however, resulted in one fatality, identified as Ken Kenneth Rosales whose name was also included in the party drug ring matrix.
Another person tagged in the matrix, Neil Benjamin Yap, was killed by unidentified perpetrators in March 2019 in Mandaue City.
For 2019, law enforcers both from PDEA, the Philippine National Police (PNP) and its corresponding dedicated anti-drugs unit, and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Central Visayas confiscated over 200 ecstasy tablets worth more than P400,000.
Increased awareness among young people like Chen was considered one of the most apparent aftermaths of these chain of events, PDEA-7 noted.
In January 2020, particularly in the days leading to the Sinulog Festival, PDEA-7 conducted surprise inspections in clubs and bars along General Maxilom Avenue, Fuente Osmena Circle, and portions of Juana Osmeña Street.
Called Oplan EcstaNO, law enforcers not only entered establishments reportedly frequented by party drug dealers but also distributed information materials, often with photographs of the illegal substances reportedly being peddled in the region, to both owners and patrons on the dangers of ecstasy.
No illegal drugs were confiscated during the operation.
Albiar-Alcantara said an intensified information drive is one of their most effective tools in combating illegal drugs – in terms of supply reduction, demand reduction, and harm reduction.
“Based on the reports we collated from our field agents, they observed that some of the sellers are more cautious than ever due to increased awareness among the public,” she added.
Albiar-Alcantara said their agency also regularly conducts knowledge seminars to various institutions, both in the private and public sectors, free of charge, “to equip members of the community with the right information on illegal drugs.”
“This is also one way to promote a drug-free workplace by capacitating employers and employees alike all the necessary information they need to know about illegal drugs,” she added.
Types and effects of ecstasy
In Central Visayas, some of the party drugs the agency has cataloged from drug bust operations are those with street names like “silver skull” (gray-colored tablets shaped and designed like skulls).
The pink-colored tablet offered to Chen, however, was just one of the many types of party drugs peddled in an underground world that only a few have access to.
According to PDEA-7, the designs of the tablets themselves – whether in terms of color, shape, flavor, and even its form- are formulated in a variety of choices, a strategy used by makers and pushers to prevent further detection.
Date-rape drugs, also commonly found in clubs and rowdy parties, come in liquid form, and are usually laced into the drinks of unsuspecting club-goers and guests.
Presently, Albiar said they received advisory from their central office in Manila that a new party drug, in crystal form, with a street name called “Molly” has reached the National Capital Region (NCR).
“So far, and fortunately, it hasn’t reached the Visayas but we’re closely monitoring it,” she added.
According to DrugsData.org, an open online archive of illegal drugs sold and distributed around the world, including party drugs, ecstasy is a more simplified term of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA).
MDMA is further defined as a type of recreational, psychoactive drug primarily ingested to alter sensations in varying degrees and manners that can last within three to six hours.
However, experts said these drugs bear several harmful side effects – a factor that led most countries to ban its distribution and production.
At one point, Chen also revealed that she started noticing why some of her friends, during their clubbing days, would constantly drink or look for cold water or soak their faces with it.
Hyperthermia, the sudden increase of the body temperature, is just one of the side effects that comes with ingesting ecstasy, particularly if mixed with other substances such as alcoholic beverages.
“Later on, I learned that you get dehydrated after taking and getting high with ecstasy,” Chen said.
Albiar-Alcantara said in cases where party drugs are used to stimulate senses, users are often notably thirsty, and drink lots of water than usually observed.
“Stimulant drugs will lead our organs to function at a faster rate. And as a result, water in our bodies is being used up at a faster rate, too,” she explained.
“Not all party drugs are stimulants. There are others that are used for a more relaxed mood or trigger hallucinations – which we called as hallucinogens,” she added.
If users fail to address dehydration, it could lead to organ failure and cardiac arrest.
On DrugsData’s list, most MDMAs are manufactured in developed countries such as those found in Europe, and cities in the United States.
“Based on our monitoring, there’s no laboratory in the country that has the capacity to formulate this type of drug. That’s why most of them are imported, which also explains their hefty price,” said Albiar-Alcantara.
Last line of recklessness
Although she hasn’t participated in any government-led seminars on illegal drugs, Chen agreed on law enforcers’ observations that there’s an increased awareness among the public on the harm and extent of the party drugs trade.
“I can attest to that since I can feel that even my own scope of awareness has widened, especially that I, my friends, and some family members openly talk about them,” Chen said.
Deaths due to overdosage of party drugs such as ecstasy had previously made their mark in modern Philippine history.
In 2016, six people who attended the CloseUp Forever Summer Concert in Pasay City died after they reportedly ingested drinks laced with several types of party drugs. Like Ashley, the victims collapsed inside the concert grounds after suffering from cardiac arrest.
For Chen, these reports did not deter her from enjoying her youth dancing her worries away in clubs, spending time with friends, and meeting new and random people – but somehow, it changed a part of her lifestyle.
“At this point in life, I knew that alcohol would be the last line for me to be reckless,” Chen said./elb
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