Over the years, thrill seekers have tried just about everything in their misguided guest for forbidden--if completely legal--kicks.
And now--in an effort to experience "euphoric stimulation," "increased sexual sensations" and a "fantastically light headed, tingly happy-happy buzz"--many thrill-starved hedonists are scarfing down controversial herbal tablets some believe mimic the effects of the illegal drug MDMA. Called Herbal Ecstacy, the bright blue pills are being hailed by their manufacturer as a safe--and legal--alternative to the hallucinatory amphetamine more commonly known as "ecstasy" or "X."
On the market for about two years but just now reaching a wide audience, the herbal concoction is being marketed by Global World Media Corporation of Venice, California. Sold as a (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) "designer nutritional supplement," the product is sold locally at head shops, adult boutiques, topless clubs and through the mail, via a 24-hour 800 number. Priced at approximately $25 for ten tabs (the recommended dosage for two "experiences"), the X-surrogate is also peddled at rock concerts and raves, where some blissed-out enthusiasts claim that the pills' energizing effects allow them to dance for four or five hours at a stretch with no side effects or hangovers.
"It was really quite lovely," reports a twentysomething Chandler woman who tried Herbal Ecstacy at the Lollapalooza concert held here earlier this month. Explaining that some of her earlier experiences with actual MDMA hadn't been nearly as pleasant--she temporarily lost the sight in one eye after ingesting eight tabs of the "hug drug" at a nightclub some years back--she says, "Having tried it, I think I actually prefer the herbal."
But not everyone is ecstatic over the ersatz X. A combination of natural stimulants and herbs believed to increase mental alertness, the tablets have alternately come under fire for being overhyped, downright unpleasant and, some health experts warn, potentially deadly.
"I caught a mild buzz, but that was about it," volunteers one mildly disappointed X-head who recently sampled the herbal knockoff. "This stuff doesn't begin to compare with the real stuff. It's the difference between a Bud Light and a fine microbrew."
Yet another unsatisfied customer grouses that a more appropriate comparison might be between bong water versus Dom Perignon. Likening his own experiences with Herbal Ecstacy to the effects of "chasing a handful of No-Doz with a Thermos of coffee," he says, "Definitely not fun."
And while no formal complaints against the herbal tablets have yet surfaced, health officials suspect it won't be long before some herb-popping funster gets unlucky. In recent years, several all-natural products containing ingredients similar to those found in Herbal Ecstacy have been linked to heart attacks, strokes, seizures--and even death.
"The concern we have with products like Herbal Ecstacy is that when you look at the ingredient content, most of them contain two ingredients that in our estimation can be dangerous or have unpleasant side effects for the consumer," reports Food and Drug Administration spokesman Gil Meza. "Of course, most people who will read the ingredients have no idea what they are looking for because that's not their world."
While the product's trippy packaging--a silver cardboard pyramid and brochure adorned with butterflies, fairies, mushrooms and endorsements from publications nobody's ever heard of--suggests that the pills contain the psychedelic equivalent of eye of newt, the exotic-sounding ingredients are actually nothing more than an amped-up combination of herbs long used in health-store energy supplements and weight-loss products.
The Chinese herb ma huang, Herbal Ecstacy's main ingredient, is a natural form of ephedrine, an adrenalinelike stimulant found in many over-the-counter cold and asthma remedies. Cola nut, another key ingredient, is a natural source of caffeine.
Used in tandem, though, that combo may prove lethal to anyone prone to heart problems. After at least two deaths and dozens of heart attacks and related health problems were linked to an all-natural product called Nature's Nutritional Formula One, the FDA ordered the manufacturer to pull the product from the shelf. Like Herbal Ecstacy, the product (since reformulated) contained massive amounts of ephedrine and caffeine.
Reiterating a warning printed on Herbal Ecstacy's promo literature, a spokesman for the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center advises pregnant women and anyone with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes to steer clear of the tablets. Anyone else who chooses to indulge does so at his own risk, contends poison specialist Mark Murphy. "This stuff is going to raise your blood pressure, raise your heart rate and make you a little agitated," says Murphy. "People who aren't used to this kind of stuff will just feel awful."
Herbal Ecstacy is much more a testament to shrewd marketing than it is a breakthrough in all-natural technology, and a lot of its success can be attributed to a 1994 law that limits the FDA's ability to regulate sales of herb-based products marketed as dietary supplements. Because Herbal Ecstacy's manufacturer officially maintains that its product does absolutely nothing ("We make no health claims, or claims otherwise whatsoever," reads one canny disclaimer), Gil Meza says the FDA's hands are tied until consumers contact authorities with reports of adverse reaction to the tablets. "At this point, our bottom line is that we're continuing to evaluate the safety of all ephedrine-based products," says Meza.
Not surprisingly, the thrill pills have also drawn the wrath of herbalists who see Herbal Ecstacy as an irresponsible abuse of otherwise valuable all-natural resources.
"It's really scary to realize some people are using this stuff without having any idea what they're actually taking," echoes Barbara Miller, an employee of Herb Stop, an herbal apothecary on East Camelback. "People hear 'Herbal Ecstacy' and figure that this can't hurt them because it's herbal, it's natural. Well, sorry. Just because something is herbal or all-natural doesn't mean that it's beneficial in massive amounts or can just be combined with anything else."
Like Miller, Scottsdale herbalist Rick Landry fears that the exploitation of ma huang in Herbal Ecstacy (as well as in herbal pep pills sold at convenience markets) will eventually force the government to outlaw the use of the herb altogether.
"People are going to end up getting hurt with this kind of stuff," predicts Landry, owner of the East Earth Chinese Herb Clinic. "And when it winds up getting pulled off the market, asthmatics and other people who could really benefit from these herbs are really going to suffer. And that's what's sad."
And the word from Herbal Ecstacy's corporate headquarters in Venice? Chill out--perhaps using Nexus, the company's all-herbal answer to Prozac. (It also sells Ritual Spirit, billed as an all-natural psychedelic aphrodisiac.)
"Obviously, I am not a scientist," says Rob Kessler, Global World Media's director of marketing. "But my information is that [with the exception of] someone who has some sort of an allergy, the vast majority of people can take products containing ma huang with no problem."
According to Kessler, the company has not received a single complaint from anyone experiencing a bum trip after ingesting his firm's "adult-oriented recreational product." In fact, the marketing director insists that the only negative feedback he's aware of is from self-righteous moralists and outraged herbalists.
"It's a very strange position to be in," says Kessler. "But I guess being attacked from both sides at the same time means we're exactly in the right place. From what we're hearing, the vast majority of people who try the product really enjoy it."
If Kessler's company is still seeking out unsolicited testimonials, a Phoenix customer who tried Herbal Ecstacy a few weeks ago offers these left-handed words of praise.
After outlining an "ecstatic" afternoon filled with cold sweats, cotton mouth, anxiety, heart palpitations and incontinence, the curiosity seeker concludes, "As horrendous as it was, I have to say I really enjoyed the feeling when I finally began to come off the pills. It probably sounds stupid, but that really made me appreciate how good normalcy feels.