Ecstasty’s growth as cult drug
worries federal officials
New York Times
NEW YORK - Some of the small tablets are shaped like the
familiar Playboy magazine rabbit ears and are known as Bunnies. Others
are called Buddhas because they bear his likeness. Some are stamped
with the Nike swoosh, a shamrock or Dino the Dinosaur.
All are part of an alarming explosion in MDMA, the synthetic
psychoactive drug known as Ecstasy. Seizures of the tablets, which have
become something of A cult drug among teenagers in nightclubs around
the country, have increased 450 percent between 1998 and 1999, a
federal enforcement official said. The Customs Service is projecting
500 percent increase this year from last.
Salvatore Gravano, the Mafia turncoat arrested Thursday in
Arizona, was charged with financing a ring that sold 20,000 to 25,000
tablets of the drug a week. But those sales figures pale in comparison
with those of an organization shut down one day earlier in New York.
Police said they arrested several Israelis who were selling 100,000
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration, in an intelligence
paper issued this month, reported widespread use of the drug "within virtually every city in the
United States," including rural areas, although its use is concentrated
in larger cities.
Energizing and mildly hallu-cinogenic, the drug was first
patented in Germany in 1912 as a potential appetite suppressant. It is
similar to LSD, but also stimulates the nervous system like speed, at
the same time creating a sense of well being, euphoria and empathy.
Because it reduces inhibitions and suppresses the need to eat or
sleep, it gets those who use it through hours and sometimes days of
dancing, concerts or other activities. One pill's effects can last up
to six hours, but users build up a tolerance, and an overdose can cause
accelerated heartbeat, high blood pressure, fainting, muscle cramps or
Raymond Kelly, the commissioner of Customs, said the increase in
demand for the drug was caused by "innovative marketing."
"They have been pushing it as something that gives you a
relatively painless high with relatively little downside," he said.
But, he said, it’s reputation was not based on reality. "There are all
sorts of horror stories," he said.
On Web sites and Internet chat rooms, testimonials praise the
drug as everything from a per-sonal growth tool to a means to enhance
sexual sensitivity. But Kelly and others cited an increase in emergency
room mentions of the drug in federal Drug Abuse Warning Network
reports, to 637 in 1997, the latest year statistics were available,
from 68 in 1993.
Kelly said that Customs Service seizures have grown from 350,000
pills in 1997 to 750,000 in 1998, 3.5 million in 1999 and 2.9 million
in just the first two months of this year.
"We are projecting seizures of up to 7 (million) to 8 million
pills this year," he said, adding that in March the service will begin
training 13 dogs to sniff out the drug.
An intelligence briefing paper issued by the federal Drug Enforcement
Administration last year said that the involvement of Israeli organized
crime syndicates, some with ties to Russian immigrants associated with
Russian organized crime, has "professionalized" the MDMA market.
"These organizations have proven to be capable of producing and
smuggling significant quantities of MDMA from source countries in
Europe to the United States," the paper said. "DEA reporting indicates
their distribution networks are expanding from coast to coast, enabling
a relatively few organizations to dominate MDMA markets nationwide."
Lewis Rice Jr., the special agent in charge of the DEA's New
York division, said there is one powerful, driving force behind the
stunning growth in the drug's popularity: profit.
The drug is produced for
pennies, mostly in Belgium and the Netherlands, where it is sold for as
little as 50 cents, said Rice, whose office worked on the Queens case.
Rice said his agents have seen the tablets selling wholesale in the
United States for between $6.50 and $8 and then being sold in clubs for
$20 to $25 in New York. In smaller cities, such as Nashville, college
students say they buy the drug for $30.