A dangerous campus combination

A dangerous campus combination

URBANA — OK, parents of college students. As the semester begins, you've undoubtedly discussed the do's and don'ts with your child.

No running over on the cellphone data plan. Never overdraw on the checking account. Eat right. Don't mix whites with blue jeans in the washer. Go to class daily.

But how about: Beware of Ecstasy — or "Molly," as the increasingly popular drug is known on campus?

If you haven't covered that base, it's time.

"We've noticed an alarming increase in the rate of dealing with users. I've noticed it in the last few years, especially with underclassmen, 18 to 20," said University of Illinois Police Detective Sgt. Joe McCullough.

A police officer for 14 years, McCullough has specialized in drug investigations for about half his career and is currently part of a team of five UI detectives who work drug and other street crimes.

While it may not be as commonly abused as alcohol or heroin at present, Ecstasy — or MDMA — is easily obtainable and can be very dangerous.

A man-made stimulant, Ecstasy comes in brightly colored pills or capsules, some with special markings that users believe might be better than others. Because users like to take them before listening to live music, they are referred to generically as "club drugs."

Court records reveal some of Champaign County's more noteworthy MDMA arrests in the past couple of years happened in the vicinity of The Canopy Club, 708 S. Goodwin Ave., U, a popular live music venue.

In February 2013, five people were arrested in the parking deck of the Krannert Center in Urbana after police found them with cocaine, cannabis, LSD, nitrous oxide, and about $23,000 worth of Ecstasy. They planned to sell those to Canopy Club concert-goers. Three of the five suburban Chicago residents were sentenced to 12, nine, and fours years in prison; two received probation.

Earlier this month, the 4th District Appellate Court found that Judge Thomas Difanis had not abused his discretion in imposing the nine-year term on the defendant who had pleaded guilty only to possession with intent to deliver cocaine. A charge dealing with the MDMA was dismissed as part of the plea but the judge heard about the 375 Ecstasy pills the group had when he sentenced the man. He also heard how violent the man was toward his girlfriend when he was using drugs.

"We do take these cases very seriously because the consequences for the users of these drugs can be so dramatic," said Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, "especially because they do seem to be sold outside of concerts or clubs" by out-of-towners.

"They know to come to a college town," Rietz said. "Law enforcement has very legitimate concerns about what might happen if a large group of users buys a bad batch and are inside a closed crowded venue."

McCullough said UI officers encountered that potential in September when a patrol officer dealt with a person parked in a car outside The Canopy Club. The officer found a "small amount of real Ecstasy but more alarmingly, found several dozen pills of a caustic cleaning powder packaged to be sold as (Ecstasy) inside the club."

Had those substitutes been sold, McCullough said, "we would have to imagine several dozen people would be transported to hospitals for injuries or worse."

McCullough said officers have seen users of synthetic club drugs become paranoid and combative, a "terrible combination."

In March, a male student in Lundgren Hall, a UI dormitory in Champaign, overdosed on Ecstasy. Disruptive and obviously high, staff called police.

Although it was a cold night, the man was shirtless and "extraordinarily sweaty," a common side effect of Ecstasy, he said.

The student wasn't speaking as he came toward the officer, ignoring commands to stop, and not flinching when the officer got out his Taser.

"It seemed as if he was laughing and not in control of any inhibitions. The officer didn't know what the kid was going to do," McCullough said.

Even after being hit by the Taser, the student continued to wrestle with officers trying to handcuff him.

"The subject was able to crawl with four men on him, including one who was a former linebacker in college. There's a burst of strength as well as the subject's inability to feel pain," McCullough said of the drug's effects.

A third incident in April not only threatened a user but emergency workers trying to help the young man who refused to get off a garage roof after biting someone at a party on Green Street.

"He wouldn't come down. We ended up having to physically restrain him on a roof. It took 30 to 40 minutes to get a combative subject, who we believed to be high on MDMA, down. It took 12 to 14 first responders an hour and a half on a busy Saturday night," he said.

McCullough said a dose of Ecstasy runs anywhere between $10 and $20.

"Often, we see people who have taken more than one but less than four or five. People will take one dose before and a couple during an event because it builds on each other," he said.

The length of the effects depends on the person's metabolism and the concentration of the drug. The effects include little control over motor functions, he said, and the craving of touching and being touched. The latter can make women particularly vulnerable. McCullough said he's seen video footage shot inside clubs by undercover police or informants that is "sickening."

"Males will take advantage of females. They have massage tables and massage chairs set up in these raves. Any of the senses are heightened with this drug," he said. "It often makes the person feel like everyone is his or her friend, even when that's not the case."

Dealing with a person under the influence of Ecstasy can also be unnerving to a police officer.

"Officers have to understand their presence can cause euphoric reactions. They want to touch and get close to you. They are attracted to the shiny badge, your flashlight. Subjects not really under the influence are more talkative. Somebody who's taken several doses can become erratic and sometimes combative or violent."

McCullough was involved in a drug bust in May of seven college-age men who knew each other from living together in Champaign. After a year-long investigation, two were charged with Ecstasy possession while the others had other drug-related charges. Most of those cases are unresolved. Such lengthy investigations are an exception.

"The majority of what we find are people coming in from Peoria and Chicago for one night to try to put this stuff out there, make some money, hit the road and leave," McCullough said. "We're concentrating on stemming the flow of this."

Drug busts

Ecstasy cases, ranging from possession to sales, prosecuted in Champaign County, are on the rise.

2011: 168

2012: 174

2013: 199

2014: 99

Source: Champaign County state's attorney's office

UI forms group to spread word

Because of Ecstasy's current popularity, University of Illinois staffers have recently formed a focus group to get the word out about its dangers.

"There is a trend in the use of synthetic drugs," said Kenneth Ballom, UI dean of students and associate vice chancellor of student affairs. "All of them are equally dangerous. We give the message that a healthy lifestyle of engagement in university activities is the best thing for all students."

Ballom explained his office educates students about substance abuse and steers them to resources if they have problems. Its other main role is to enforce the rules — violation of which can often be harsher in the university arena than in the criminal courts.

"It can result in your dismissal from the university," he said.

All new students are required to take a program taught by the Alcohol and Other Drug Office about the dangers of illegal drugs and the abuse of legal ones, and students who think they might be substance abusers are encouraged to call that office for help (217-333-7557).

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