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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs > Remarks, Fact Sheets, Reports, Other Releases > Fact Sheets > 2003

Use and Trafficking of Ecstasy: What the United States Is Doing

Washington, DC
March 20, 2003

Overview

While overall drug consumption has decreased or stabilized in the United States over the past decade and a half, the use of ecstasy among youth has increased dramatically over the past few years. A recent survey of U.S. high school seniors indicates that 11% reported trying ecstasy at least once. This disquieting trend can also be observed abroad, as use of ecstasy has increased commensurably in Europe and parts of Asia. Also known as MDMA, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine, ecstasy was first synthesized in 1912 for possible use as an appetite suppressant. Classified as a Schedule I substance due to its lack of medicinal benefit and high potential for abuse, ecstasy has been controlled in the United States since 1985.

Health Effects

Usually taken orally in pill form, the effects of ecstasy commonly produce feelings of exhilaration that can be accompanied by nausea, generally lasting between 3 and 6 hours (though some effects can linger for up to 14 days). The immediate effects of the drug include dilated pupils, dry mouth and throat, lower jaw tension, central nervous system stimulation, and some of the qualities associated with psychedelics. Ecstasy is toxic to the human nervous system. Scientific studies have found that ecstasy use produces long-term-perhaps permanent-damage to the brain’s ability to release serotonin, which regulates mood, body temperature, and memory. Use of the drug often leads to dramatic increases in body temperature exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which in turn can lead to muscle breakdown and kidney and cardiovascular system failure. The greatest short-term dangers of ecstasy are hypothermia-which can result in fatal blood clotting-and its ability to overload the heart, precipitating heart attacks, and strokes. According to statistics taken from hospital emergency rooms in the United States, ecstasy use resulted in 5542 emergency room mentions in 2001, almost doubled from 1999.

Recent studies show that chronic MDMA users often experience worn teeth, cracked tooth enamel, and jaw problems. Worse, ecstasy produces a significant increase in heart rate and blood pressure which may lead to hypertension. Depth perception is also impaired significantly, increasing the chances of accidents (particularly automobile accidents) under the influence of the drug. Moreover, ecstasy use can result in mental confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and paranoia. According to research, cognitive functions such as learning and memory can be permanently affected by even a few doses of the drug.

Trafficking Trends

Production

A majority of the world’s supply of ecstasy is produced in clandestine laboratories in the Netherlands. As a center of the international chemical industry, the Netherlands is an attractive location for criminals to obtain the precursor chemicals used to manufacture ecstasy and other synthetic drugs, and the country’s modern transportation infrastructure and busy ocean ports offer ideal transit routes for traffickers moving the illicit drugs. For these same reasons, Belgium is experiencing increased ecstasy production, and recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in production in Poland. Some European law enforcement agencies estimate that Polish-produced ecstasy now accounts for a significant share of the market for the drug in northern and Eastern Europe. In addition, ecstasy labs have been detected in the United States and the Middle East. In Southeast Asia, there is some evidence that ethnic-based insurgent groups operating in Burmese territory have begun to manufacture ecstasy in limited amounts in Burma, as well as in Thailand.

In a deliberate attempt to cultivate brand loyalty among young users, ecstasy producers often mark their pills with a distinctive brand logo, such as a symbol or animal, according to public health experts.

Routes

Europe

Within Europe, organized crime syndicates have assumed firm control over the international distribution of ecstasy. In recent years, Israeli organized crime syndicates, some composed of Russian émigrés associated with Russian organized crime syndicates, have forged relationships with Western European traffickers and gained control over a significant share of the European market. In Poland, indigenous criminal gangs play a leading role in trafficking the drug and precursor chemicals necessary for its production, both domestically and to international markets. The Iberian Peninsula may also be emerging as a transit area for ecstasy exiting Europe. There have been some incidents indicating that Dutch and Colombian traffickers have bartered ecstasy for cocaine in Spain; in July 2000, four individuals-two Dutch and two Colombian-were arrested by Spanish authorities for possession of large amounts of ecstasy and cocaine.

North America

In the United States, approximately 80% of ecstasy seized in 2000 came from or through the Netherlands. Israeli trafficking syndicates are currently the primary source to distribution groups operating in the United States, smuggling through express mail services, via couriers aboard commercial airline flights, or more recently, through air freight shipments.

Recent seizures indicate that substantial amounts of ecstasy are flowing into Canada from a variety of means. Asian trafficking syndicates with established histories of heroin smuggling may be involved in moving ecstasy to Canada’s west coast. Utilizing their international links, outlaw motorcycle gangs may import ecstasy along with other drugs from Europe, in addition to trafficking across Canada and into the United States. The majority of shipments arrive from Europe via commercial airline flights and commercial maritime shipments.

Latin America/Caribbean

Seizure statistics indicate that Colombian and Mexican-based drug trafficking organizations are increasing their involvement in the ecstasy trade. In 2000, for example, Mexican authorities reportedly seized a shipment of 60,000 ecstasy tablets on route to the United States. Traffickers in the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands Antilles, and Suriname are also active, due in part to enduring historic links between the Netherlands and its former colonies, and a sizeable Dominican population in the Netherlands.

What is the United States Doing?

Working to Promote an Effective Precursor Chemical Regime

In addition to strict domestic controls on the chemicals required to manufacture ecstasy, the United States is working with the international community to deny traffickers access to the chemicals necessary for producing ecstasy. The March 20-29, 2001, meeting of the 53-member UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs adopted a resolution jointly sponsored by the United States and the 15 Member States of the European Union, outlining a number of measures governments should take jointly and individually to identify and control ecstasy and other synthetic drug chemicals. These measures include early warning systems to identify substitute chemicals being used in place of controlled chemicals, collaboration among laboratories to provide a better understanding of illicit manufacturing trends, and enhanced cooperation with the chemical industry. In June 2001 the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) launched Project PRISM (Precursors Required In Synthetic Manufacture), which aims to cut off the supply of chemical precursors to clandestine laboratories and to identify and arrest the traffickers. The U.S. is an active participant in this project.

Understanding the Threat

In 2000, the United States Customs Service created an Ecstasy Task Force to monitor developments in ecstasy-related cases and smuggling trends. This multi-disciplinary task force acts as a repository for intelligence on investigations and field operations, and provides briefings for both domestic and international law enforcement entities on U.S. Customs’ perspective of the international ecstasy threat.

Educating Against the Danger

In August 2000, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) launched a nearly $10 million nationwide radio and Internet advertising initiative focused specifically against ecstasy use as part of its larger National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The overall objective of this initiative is to create a base level of awareness among teens and adults of the dangers of ecstasy use. ONDCP has also sponsored roundtable discussions among writers, executives, and producers in the entertainment industry to increase awareness of the drug’s danger and collaborated with the National Guard Bureau, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, and the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America to produce a 90-minute television program for satellite broadcast, highlighting the ecstasy threat.

Taking Action Against Traffickers

In March 2001, new sentencing guidelines for U.S. Federal judges were enacted to strengthen existing penalties for importing or selling ecstasy. Manufacturers, importers, and dealers of ecstasy now face prison terms similar to those imposed on their counterparts dealing in heroin and cocaine.

For additional information on ecstasy, please visit the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign’s web sites: www.antidrug.com (for adults) and www.freevibe.com (for youth).


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