What’s With All the Dutch Ecstasy?

Why it’s not made in the USA.

Police in the United States and Canada have busted a massive, Toronto-based ecstasy ring, resulting in over 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 abroad?

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 (like 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. Very 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 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 epicenter 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 percent 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.

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