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Increase in Use of "Club Drug" Ecstasy Grows

Increase in Use of "Club Drug" Ecstasy Poses Growing Risk (Efforts to curtail trafficking, abuse need expansion)

By Luke Johnson Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The recreational drug Ecstasy is fast becoming a problem with global implications, as growth in use and trafficking expand at alarming rates, according to law enforcement authorities. While international efforts to curtail the production and shipment of the drug are meeting success, additional domestic and international efforts are needed to halt the explosive growth in the abuse of this drug, also known as MDMA.

More than 2.1 million tablets of MDMA were seized at the Los Angeles International Airport July 26 in what U.S. authorities are calling the biggest MDMA bust ever. Federal agents intercepted the drug shipment, with an estimated street value of $40 million, upon its arrival on an Air France flight from Paris. Three men were arrested in connection with the contraband.

The drug 3,4-methylenedioxy methamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic substance, ingested in pill-form which also goes under the names X, Adam, and E. It is used primarily by teenagers and young adults at raves -- transient, all night, techno-music dance parties. MDMA gives the user a "high" by affecting the body's serotonin system, which governs mood and body temperature. Also called the "hug drug," ravers take MDMA to alter their perceptions, to dance longer and to lower their inhibitions.

Part of MDMA's popularity is rooted in users' belief that it has no ill effects, but Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says otherwise. "While users of 'club drugs' may think they're taking them simply for energy to keep on dancing or partying, research shows these drugs can have long-lasting negative effects," said Leshner at a July 25 congressional hearing on the growing MDMA problem.

Evidence that MDMA does, in fact, pose serious health risks is mounting. In the short term, MDMA puts users at risk for dehydration, hypertension and kidney failure through increasing the heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. These effects are exacerbated by the rave environment, marked by crowded dance floors, warm temperatures and a lack of facilities.

"The biggest short-term threat of MDMA is the ability to overload the heart, precipitating heart attacks or strokes, depending on the age of the user," said Donald Vereen, Jr., deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) at the same Capitol Hill event.

MDMA is also a neurotoxin, causing a variety of adverse effects, including "long-lasting, perhaps permanent damage to the neurons that release serotonin, and consequent memory loss," continued Vereen.

According to the ONDCP official, MDMA can also cause "mental confusion, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and paranoia."

Despite these dangers, use of MDMA in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the past year, and consumption has spread beyond the rave scene to include smaller cities and more rural areas. U.S. Drug Enforcement

Administration (DEA) reporting "indicates widespread abuse within virtually every major U.S. city with indications of trafficking and abuse expanding to smaller cities" like Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Montgomery, Alabama, said DEA Chief of Operations Richard Fiano.

The exponential growth in seizures of the drug by DEA and U.S. Customs Service officers clearly illustrates the seriousness of the MDMA threat. According to the Federal Drug Identification Network (FDIN) database, MDMA totaling 1,221,032 tablets-worth was seized in 1998, while 12,144,319 tablets-worth of the drug was seized in 1999 -- a ten-fold increase in MDMA seizures over a one year period.

Most MDMA is manufactured in small, clandestine "kitchen labs" in the Netherlands or Belgium, and is then shipped to various U.S. ports of entry via couriers and mail carriers like DHL, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. Despite its European manufacture, Israeli organized crime syndicates ship most of the MDMA available in the US, according to the DEA. Mexican, Colombian and Dominican drug trafficking organizations are also becoming involved in the MDMA trade.

The tablets -- produced at very low cost, and sold to users for anywhere between $20 and $40 -- offer a very high profit margin. Fiano said that the small size of the MDMA tablets makes smuggling and concealment "much easier than other traditional drugs smuggled in kilogram-sized packages." Smugglers can carry anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 tablets on their person and up to 50,000 tablets in specially designed luggage.

A number of U.S. and international efforts to stall the expansion of MDMA use and trade are currently under way. In the U.S. Congress, bills are being considered that would significantly stiffen penalties for MDMA manufacture, distribution and use.

MDMA is also included in a special DEA enforcement program targeting the so-called "club drugs," recreational intoxicants used by young adults. They include a wide-range of substances, such as amphetamines, barbituates and animal tranquilizers.

In the international arena, the U.S. is a part of enforcement efforts with other countries at many levels. Heightened European efforts in decreasing MDMA trafficking have lead to increased interception of the drug. In Belgium, and in particular, the Netherlands, MDMA seizures have risen dramatically, according to the DEA.

Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, emphasized the importance of international cooperation such as a U.S.-EU agreement on chemical substances and the "excellent relationship" between U.S. and Dutch enforcement agencies.

Among the many other multinational efforts are the DEA-chaired, MDMA working group comprised of American, German, Dutch, Belgian and Israeli officials. The U.S. has also committed funds to the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP). The primary goals of these and other international initiatives are to curtail the trafficking in and production of MDMA, as well as illegal diversion of MDMA's component chemicals.

According to Beers, the diversion of precursor chemicals is key to the production of illicit synthetic drugs like MDMA. As such, monitoring the sales and transport of these component chemicals in the MDMA- producing Benelux nations is a vital part of enforcement initiatives.

As the demand for MDMA continues to expand, so too do the many national and multinational efforts to curb the production and trafficking in the drug. Clearly, the answer to this growing problem lies in what Beers called "cooperative efforts against Ecstasy, both domestically and internationally."

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: {HYPERLINK ""} NNNN

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