Highs And Lows Of Herbal Ecstacy

VALERIE HAD EAGERly awaited this summer's Lollapalooza tour and the chance to see her favorite band, Hole. Arriving with a friend at the Lakewood Amphitheatre, the 16-year-old from Atlanta noticed teenagers flocking to a booth which advertised Herbal Ecstacy. "The vendor told us these little blue pills were a safe, all-natural energy source with no side effects and that we needed to take a lot," says Valerie, a vegetarian and competitive swimmer who doesn't smoke or drink. "I was tired and Hole wasn't going to play for another five hours. I thought it might help to wake me up." The vendor recommended that Valerie, who weighs around 110 pounds, take 10 pills and her friend, 50 pounds heavier, 15. Within 30 minutes, Valerie's heart started pounding wildly and she fainted three times. Her friend became violently ill. Both were rushed to the hospital and had their stomachs pumped. "They told us we almost died," says Valerie.

Herbal Ecstacy--its name purposefully misspelled- is advertised on TV and in magazines like High Times as a safe organic alternative to illicit street drugs. Sold in record stores, nightclubs and head shops for about $10 for a package of five, the pills are particularly popular among teenagers and clubgoers looking for a "legal" high. Though they've reached no specific conclusions about Herbal Ecstacy, federal and state officials are concerned because the product contains a controversial mix of herbal stimulants, including ma huang (or ephedra) and kola nut, guarana and green tea (all of which contain caffeine). In certain weight-loss and energy products, this ephedra-and-caffeine combination has caused heart attacks, nerve damage, strokes and several deaths.

The Food and Drug Administration has received only a few complaints about Herbal Ecstacy, but agency officials say this may be because the product is still new. Though on the marker for two years, it became popular only this summer. In Texas, officials are investigating reports that a dozen Lollapalooza concertgoers in Austin also fell ill after taking Herbal Ecstacy. "They had some people in the EMS tent showing symptoms of rapidheart rate, shaking and other symptoms consistent with ephedrine side effects," says Dennis Baker of the state Bureau of Food and Drug Safety. But Robert Kessler, executive vice president of U.S. marketing and sales for Global World Media Corp., the Venice, Calif., company that created Herbal Ecstacy, dismisses such accounts. Kessler, whose company has sold 10 million five-tablet packages, insists the product is "well within the bounds of acceptable safety."

Others say the fuss over Herbal Ecstacy is exaggerated. "I didn't really feel anything at all," says Luis Gonzalez, a 25-year-old mortgage broker who recently took it to go out dancing in Florida's trendy South Beach. Kristin McCloy, a New York author who has taken the pills a half-dozen times, likes how they make her feel. "It's kind of speedy and mildly euphoric," she says. But McCloy takes only three at a time; any more and she gets the jitters. Global World Media suggests a dose of 3 to 5 tablets and cautions users not to exceed 10 in 24 hours. Valerie and her friend wish they had known that. For them, Herbal Ecstacy brought nothing but a long night of agony.