Ecstasy: the story
From failed truth serum to successful party starter, this is the story of how ecstasy became the worlds favourite dance drug.
What is ecstasy?
Ecstasy is a synthetically produced drug that became famous in the 1980s for its ability to make people dance. Also known as E, or MDMA [based on the drug's chemical name 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine], it's a Class A drug that usually comes in tablet, capsule or powder form. It can be swallowed with water or crushed and snorted and makes users feel happy, energetic and acutely aware of their senses.
It can take up to an hour for the euphoric high of the drug to kick in. The high is often followed by an intense low, commonly referred to as a comedown, which can last up to three days.
Ecstasy became famous in 1980s clubs
Where does ecstasy come from?
MDMA was first synthesized by accident in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company called Merck during medical research. Although they patented the compound in 1914, MDMA wasn't heard of again until the 1950s, when the US government investigated, and discarded, its suitability as a truth serum.
MDMA didn't really hit the streets until the early 1980s, when a group of chemists known as The Boston Group began manufacturing the drug in tablet form and selling it to party goers. By 1983, ecstasy pills were being sold openly in bars and nightclubs in the US, and there was even a freephone number for users to buy over the phone using a credit card.
MDMA had been banned in the UK in 1977, but the drug's popularity amongst clubbers soared. By the late 80s, acid house had taken hold of Ibiza and the ecstasy-led rave culture spread to Britain. Despite changes in musical fashion, ecstasy remains popular on dancefloors to this day. According to the UN's World Drug Report 2009, 12-24 million people around the world used ecstasy-group drugs [MDMA and its derivatives MDA and MDEA] in 2007.
How is ecstasy made?
MDMA is the result of a complex scientific process involving chemical reactions, distillation and crystallization. Once MDMA powder has been produced, it can be mixed with a binding agent, such as china clay, paper binding, sucrose or lactose, and put into a press to make ecstasy pills.
By the late 80s, acid house had taken hold of Ibiza and the ecstasy-led rave culture spread to Britain.
The presses often stamp logos like Mitsubishis, doves or cartoon characters onto the pills to help users identify what they are buying. In reality, these designs bear no relation to what is inside the tablet, as production is not regulated.
The strength of each ecstasy tablet is determined purely by how much MDMA is added to the mixture at the time of the pill's creation. According to the Serious Organised Crime Agency [SOCA], the average MDMA content of ecstasy pills in the UK has fallen by 50% since 2000, with many being cut with caffeine, amphetamines, ketamine and piperazine, and some containing no MDMA at all. This has led to a two-tier system, with ecstasy pills averaging £3 per tablet and 'pure' MDMA powder selling for an average of £38 per gram.
Although MDMA can be produced anywhere, the large amount of chemicals required mean that commercial production of ecstasy tablets takes place in illegal laboratories. In 2007, there were 72 known ecstasy laboratories around the world, spread across eight different countries: Australia, Indonesia, Canada, USA, Holland, France, Mexico and Spain.
How does ecstasy reach Britain?
"A substantial percentage of the ecstasy in Britain comes from laboratories controlled by the Dutch," says SOCA drug trafficking expert Tony Saggers. "The tablets are then sold onto traffickers - if the manufacturers are not traffickers themselves - and smuggled into England via the south eastern coastal areas.
"Ecstasy is often brought in with cannabis and cocaine and concealed within a lorry's load or the vehicle's infrastructure. Once the tablets come into the UK, the batches are broken down and distributed amongst regional and city-based suppliers. A batch of 100,000 tablets may go through as many as six different distributors before it hits the streets."
How does the ecstasy trade work?
According to the UN office on drugs and crime, the global ecstasy group market is worth $16b. Although the total value is small compared to cocaine, heroin and cannabis, profits can be handsome for manufacturers and suppliers. According to a SOCA spokesman, it costs between 10 and 15 pence to manufacture an ecstasy pill, with smugglers selling batches of 10,000-100,000 for 35-40p each and street dealers ultimately pocketing £2-3 per tablet.
By Paul French
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