ECSTASY: HOLLAND'S NEW EXPORT
Police in the United States and Canada have busted a massive ecstasy ring,
resulting in more than 145 arrests. According to authorities, the criminal
enterprise imported powdered ecstasy from the Netherlands, pressed it into
pills, then smuggled it across the border. Why don't American drug
enterprises simply synthesize their own ecstasy, rather than import it from
Partly because of America's tough drug-enforcement regime and partly
because of simple economics. Though manufacturing ecstasy isn't child's
play, most any serviceable chemist can make the drug, given the appropriate
equipment and supplies. It's much easier to produce than LSD, for example.
The problem in the United States is that law enforcement tends to monitor
the purchase of the precursor chemicals required to synthesize ecstasy.
Chemical-supply companies often tip off the Drug Enforcement Administration
when a customer purchases, say, an unusually large amount of isosafrole or
MDP2P, two critical ingredients in ecstasy recipes.
DEA agents sometimes pose as chemical salesmen in order to bust suspected
ecstasy cooks. Such a sting operation led to the 2002 arrest of four New
England men who were later indicted on charges of manufacturing tens of
thousands of pills in a Connecticut trailer.
As a result, ecstasy labs are relatively rare in the United States. In
2001, for example, the DEA raided only 17. By contrast, makeshift labs that
produce the synthetic drug methamphetamine are legion -- thousands of such
facilities are busted annually. That's largely because meth can be
manufactured with over-the-counter ingredients (such as cold medicines
containing pseudoephedrine) that the DEA can't track.
It only requires an investment of a few hundred dollars to produce a
saleable batch of meth, whereas it takes thousands of dollars to get an
ecstasy operation up and running. And the meth market is much more
lucrative, given the drug's addictive nature.
Though the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that
"current users" of ecstasy outnumber those of meth -- 676,000 versus
597,000 -- the latter drug tends to draw more frequent repeat business.
ry few current ecstasy users (defined as someone who has used in the past
30 days) will purchase more than a pill a week, at $10 to $20 U.S. a pop.
(Prices have fallen in recent years, though not as precipitously as in
Europe, where a pill now goes for as little as $5.) A half-gram of meth, on
the other hand, goes for around $40, and heavy users may purchase several
bags in a week.
So the smart move for ecstasy dealers is to import their product from the
Netherlands, the longtime epicentre of the drug's production (although,
according to the U.S. State Department, Belgium and Poland are becoming
manufacturing hotspots, too).
In 2001, the DEA estimated that 80 per cent of the U.S. ecstasy supply
originated in the Netherlands, with Israeli organized crime playing a key
role in the smuggling process. Although ecstasy is illegal in the
Netherlands, the government there has tended to treat the drug more as a
public-health problem than a law-enforcement issue -- to the chagrin of
U.S. authorities, who have repeatedly pressed the Dutch government to
conduct more raids.
The Netherlands is also an ideal ecstasy producer because of its prominent
chemical industry, which makes it relatively easy to obtain precursors.