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Bitter Pill

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Her Sweet 16 party was turning out just as she had dreamed. Surrounded by 30 or 40 friends at her mother’s home in middle-class Superior, Colo., near Boulder, Brittney Chambers was reveling in the feel-good moment of a teenage milestone. And there was more in store. She and three friends planned to “roll” together that evening—each would take a tablet of the drug Ecstasy at the same time. “We wanted to experience this together,” says Lisa Weaver, 16, a Monarch High School classmate. “I’d heard nothing bad would happen.”

But a little after 9 p.m. Brittney balked, not sure she wanted to do it. About an hour later, though, she relented and took half a tablet, getting high with her three friends. At approximately 11:15, with her friends reassuring her that they felt fine, Brittney swallowed the other half. Within 90 minutes she was on her way to the hospital in Boulder. Six days later she was dead.

Brittney’s death a year ago, on Feb. 2, could have been just another forgotten drug tragedy. But when more than 30 suspects were arrested in late August for allegedly dealing the drug throughout the state, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson personally traveled to Colorado to announce the busts—and underscore the government’s growing concern over Ecstasy. “In five years we’ll see enormous social cost and health cost from these drugs,” says Hutchinson. “We intend to stop it now.”

The concern is well-founded, given evidence that the body count from the country’s Ecstasy binge may just be taking off. In the past five years the use of “X” or “E,” as it is called, has jumped an estimated 500 percent, with teens and young adults the most common abusers. According to startling new statistics released last week by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, roughly 12 percent of teens, 2.8 million kids, have tried the drug at least once—and in the next five years, usage could double. Last year there were more than 4,500 emergency-room cases nationwide involving Ecstasy, up 58 percent from 1999. That year, the most recent for which statistics are available, 41 deaths were blamed on Ecstasy, which can cause heart, liver and brain damage.

Ecstasy, which costs about $20 a tablet, first made its appearance in the early ’80s at big-city dance clubs on the East and West Coasts. To law-enforcement officials, what makes the drug, which is made in clandestine labs and has properties similar to those of stimulants and hallucinogens, especially insidious is that it has acquired a reputation on the street as a perfect high—safe, cheap and readily available, a “hug drug” that makes anyone who takes it feel mellow and happy.

But the case of Brittney Chambers illustrates how quickly it can also derail a healthy and happy life. She and her brother Preston, 18, grew up in Colorado. In 1988 their parents, Marcie, 45, and Loren, 58, divorced, after which the kids moved to Superior with their mother, who remarried, earned a Ph. D. and became a psychologist. Meanwhile Loren, who had been a rancher, moved to Arizona for his health. Brittney’s parents remained on cordial terms, but she regretted not spending more time with her dad. In the fall of 2000 she moved in with him in Phoenix. She was happy there, says her father, in part because she saved $3,800 to buy a used red Chrysler Le Baron convertible. “She sure was excited and proud,” says Loren. She drove the car to the Phoenix airport on Jan. 25 for the flight back to Colorado, where she was to celebrate her birthday.

Brittney’s mom, Marcie, had planned all sorts of activities to mark the occasion. One was a special party that Marcie would oversee at her home. As it happened, Brittney and her mother had talked about Brittney’s feelings about drugs a few weeks earlier. Brittney acknowledged that she had tried pot. She also told her mom there was a lot of Ecstasy at her old school, Monarch High. But the teenager said that she had been told the drug made people crave sex, and she had steered clear. “It wasn’t something she was interested in,” says Marcie.

Marcie was gratified that her daughter seemed so levelheaded. Still, as a vigilant mom, she took nothing for granted. The night of Brittney’s birthday bash, Marcie made it a point to circulate through the four-bedroom house so she could keep watch over the guests. About midnight she noticed that Brittney was in the upstairs bathroom. She knocked and asked what was going on. Brittney and a friend replied that they were just talking. The truth was that around 11:30 Brittney had started to feel sick to her stomach.

About 12:30, with her daughter still in the bathroom, Marcie demanded to be let in. There she found Brittney sitting on the floor with bottled water all around, disoriented, slurring her words, her pupils dilated. “I knew when I saw her eyes that this was drugs,” recalls Marcie. She went downstairs and demanded to know from the other girls what Brittney had taken. When she was told Ecstasy, she called the hospital.

By that time Brittney had started vomiting water and also asking for more water, possibly because she had heard the common wisdom that dehydration is one of the perils of Ecstasy. An ambulance arrived and took her to Boulder Community Hospital. When she arrived she was conscious and responsive but still throwing up water. The emergency-room doctors told Marcie they suspected her daughter was suffering from a condition called water intoxication, in which the victim consumes so much water that the blood becomes diluted, reducing vital sodium levels drastically, which in turn causes brain swelling and seizures. Eventually the swelling can become so severe that the blood supply to the brain is cut off, resulting in death. The doctors put Brittney into a medically induced coma to do a CAT scan. “I wasn’t really scared then at all,” says Marcie. “They told me she would come out of the coma and not to worry.”

Over the next two days nearly a hundred friends came to see Brittney in the hospital, where Marcie and her second husband, Art Ruiz, 47, who works for the Colorado Department of Labor, kept a vigil. But Brittney showed no signs of waking up. By Jan. 30 doctors had told Marcie that she should prepare for the worst, that her daughter’s coma now appeared to be irreversible. (The doctors have declined to discuss the case.) On Friday, Feb. 2, after consulting with other doctors and even trying some forms of alternative medicine such as a homeopathic remedy, the family had Brittney’s life support removed. “We held her hand and told her how much we loved her and that she was going to heaven,” says Marcie. “We told her not to be afraid, that she would be with the angels.”

An autopsy showed that Brittney had indeed died of water intoxication as a complication of her Ecstasy use. Boulder coroner Dr. John Meyer says it is impossible to determine why Brittney consumed so much water, nor can he estimate the amount she drank. It is true that severe dehydration is the major concern with Ecstasy, since it can trigger heart failure. But he speculates that another reason for her binge may have been that the drug, which can sometimes appear to heighten senses, fooled her into thinking she was constantly thirsty.

With Brittney’s death, local police launched a criminal investigation. Within days they had arrested six people. Three were Brittney’s friends, including Weaver, who has chosen to speak out, an acquaintance and two others who allegedly provided the drug to the high schoolers. At first there was talk from the district attorney that the girls could face serious jail time. In the end, though, D.A. Mary Keenan allowed the three friends, who were expelled from Monarch High, to plead guilty to charges of drug dealing, for which they were sentenced to probation and community service. “When you punish someone, you look long and hard at intent, and there was no intent to harm here,” says Assistant D.A. John Pickering.

Marcie Chambers bears no ill will toward the girls and lobbied Keenan for the lenient treatment. “I wish I could blame someone, but the truth is Britt made that choice, she took that pill,” she says. “They learned a horrible lesson. I think they will be heartbroken the rest of their lives.”

But the same sense of forgiveness has not applied to the two men and one woman who are alleged to have been part of the drug network that provided the Ecstasy that killed Brittney. The three, including alleged kingpin John Sposit, 26, are being held on federal charges of distributing drugs that result in a death, which can carry a sentence of 20 years to life. U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Suthers, who did not prosecute the minors, argues that “these girls weren’t part of distributing the drug. They made a stupid mistake. We are looking for the folks who are making millions of dollars from this business.” Indeed, traffickers are drawn to Ecstasy because it costs only pennies to manufacture a tablet and promises quick and easy profits.

As Marcie sees it, her mission is to spread the word, especially to teens, about the dangers. With the help of volunteers and a local businessman, William Suitts, she has raised nearly $125,000 for a youth center that will focus on drug awareness. “It’s a game of chance,” says Brittney’s friend Lisa Weaver. “Just because you take it safely 12 times doesn’t mean you can’t get in trouble on the 13th.”

Bill Hewitt

Maureen Harrington in Superior and Kate McKenna in Washington, D.C.