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 tablets weekly.
  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 panic attacks.
  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.