Before setting out to board a Sabena flight from Brussels to Shanghai via Beijing last week, three Malaysian men stuffed 32 kg of the synthetic drug ecstasy into cardboard candy boxes and distributed it among their carry-on bags. Tens of thousands of the pills were stamped with the number 88--a lucky number for intended consumers in China, but not for the couriers. Belgian police arrested them at the airport. Their only stroke of luck was to have been caught in Belgium rather than the Far East, where drug trafficking can draw a death sentence.
That seizure, the biggest so far this year at Brussels National Airport, offered a glimpse at just how huge and lucrative the export market has become for ecstasy, most of which is produced in the Netherlands and Belgium. Police in both countries report sharp increases in seizures since the end of 1998. Production is booming and distribution becoming more professional. Alongside traditional markets in Europe there is now big money to be made smuggling e into Australia, Israel and even Southeast Asia. But what is driving the market is the seemingly insatiable appetite for ecstasy among young Americans.
Law enforcers in the U.S. have started to come across gigantic stashes of European-made ecstasy in places where it was rarely seen before last year. U.S. Customs officers have already seized more ecstasy this fiscal year (nearly 3.3 million hits) than in all of last year; in 1997, it seized just 400,000 hits. In New York City, according to one survey, one in four adolescents has tried ecstasy. In December, U.S. Customs Service agents discovered 45 kg of ecstasy shipped from France to the FedEx headquarters in Memphis. The agents followed the drugs' intended trail to Los Angeles and eventually found a staggering 1.2 million tablets, worth about $30 million.
In one elaborate sting last summer, Customs and the Drug Enforcement Administration helped dismantle a far-flung ecstasy empire run by a Canadian based in Amsterdam who allegedly claimed he could sell 100,000 hits of ecstasy in Miami in 48 hours. The mastermind was using pious-looking Hasidic Jews as couriers between Europe and Miami. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case says the couriers imported a total of more than 1 million pills.
Simple reasons lie behind the drug's popularity among both sellers and users: e is cheap to make, easy to distribute and consume--no syringes or passe coke spoons needed, thanks--and it is undeniably fun to do. E's euphoria may be chemically manufactured, but it feels no less real. The mildly psychedelic drug not only helps its mostly young users bear up under the onslaught of dance music delivering 220 bone-jarring beats per minute. It also induces a sense of well-being and universal connection that can melt whole crowds of clubbers into "cuddle puddles"--groups of students who massage and embrace on the dance floor. Says one denizen of the New York City club scene: "E makes shirtless, disgusting men, a club with broken bathrooms, a DJ that plays crap, and vomiting into a trash can the best night of your life."
Though they are often cut with other drugs, ecstasy pills are at least supposed to be a substance called MDMA (and known only to chemists by its full name: methylenedioxymethamphetamine). MDMA is pharmacologically related to both amphetamines and mescaline, though it produces neither the nervy, wired feeling that accompanies speed nor the confusion of a pure psychedelic like lsd. It doesn't generate physically addictive cravings, but many users report they need higher and higher doses to get the same "roll" or high. "The drug has a fuzzy image," says Georges Estievenart, director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon. "The people who use it aren't marginalized like heroin users, and they aren't very conscious that they're taking a risk."
In fact, its lack of immediately noticeable downsides accounts in large part for e's popularity. It's possible to overdose on ecstasy, but even police agree that the drug isn't like heroin or crack in regard to short-term dangers. Most deaths are attributable to severe dehydration among young novices who don't drink water. Another club drug, however--ghb, which is also known as "Liquid X" even though it's chemically unrelated to ecstasy--can easily cause coma and death. MDMA was first synthesized in 1912, but the first big experiments with it didn't begin until the 1970s, when a group of psychologists rediscovered it as a possible tool in therapy settings. By the early '80s, the drug--then perfectly legal--was sold openly in bars and clubs. But at the time a scientific debate had begun--and continues today--about whether MDMA can cause brain damage. Estievenart says some studies indicate it can in the medium term, but even Dr. George Ricaurte, the Johns Hopkins University neurologist who first warned of the drug's toxicity, says that his ongoing research has never shown that MDMA's probable damage to certain nerve cells has any visible effect on "the vast majority" of users. The debate has now found its way onto the Internet, where the old therapist crowd behind MDMA has become active again. Ecstasy websites are mostly populated by young users, however, kids who praise the drug and spread advice about which tablets offer the best high.
The life of a typical ecstasy tablet begins somewhere along the Dutch-Belgian border, a quiet region of pig farmers and mushroom growers. The setting is rural but it's not far from the Brussels airport. Manufacturers convert abandoned barns, garden sheds and even mobile pommes frites stands into factories that range from professional quality to downright filthy. "They've been mixing chemicals in dirty cans I wouldn't even use for garbage," says Charles De Winter, director of the drug section of Belgium's police force. But these mills aren't amateur setups, at least not anymore. "We're seeing more and more hardened criminals," says Cees van Doorn, a Dutch organized crime specialist.
They are drawn by the profits: after the initial expense of setup, the marginal cost of each pill is maybe 10¢. It's sold in New York City clubs for $30. Most ecstasy pills now come with a catchy brand name--anything from Mickey Mouse to a corporate trademark. Users ask dealers for a good brand by name, if it's still being produced. Last year's "Mitsubishis," for instance, were hugely popular because they seemed to have an extra kick of speed. This winter's "AOLs" were duds.
Officials in Belgium and the Netherlands are cracking down on the network of ecstasy factories and tightening controls, but that will hardly put an end to the booming ecstasy business. "There's a lot of money involved, and these guys are always adapting," says Tony Verachtert, head of the Belgian National Police organized crime squad at the Brussels National Airport. Production is cropping up in places like Spain and Central Europe--in some cases by transplanted Dutch experts. For now, the quality of European ecstasy assures a nearly boundless market in the U.S. European police will breathe somewhat easier when American producers catch up.
With reporting by Edward Barnes/New York, Joseph A. Reaves/Flagstaff and Elaine Shannon/Washington