MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 in the Merck Pharmaceutical labs in Germany. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that literature was released on the studies of MDMA use which induced a growth in psychological and therapeutic experimentation by doctors and professionals (Rosenbaum and Doblin 1991). The massive explosion of recreational use within the United States began in 1983 in Los Angeles when producers and distributors remained the drug “ecstasy” in order to gain popularity on the street. Consumers at that point in time were able to seek out “pyramid structures”, use 1-800 telephone numbers, and legally access the new street drug both for recreational use and on a large scale (Rosenbaum and Doblin 1991).
Ecstasy gained its illegal status in 1986 after a review of the substance by a judge and the FDA found the substance to possess attributes which classified it as a schedule 3 substance, but against the courts suggestion the DEA solidified the drugs fate by scheduling it as a level 1 eliminating any and all scientific and psychological experimentation. Despite a recorded 11 million doses of the drug consumed with not one case of neurological damage, the DEA effectively created the illegal drug atmosphere that is ecstasy (Rosenbaum and Doblin 1991).
To gain a better sense of how this illegality has molded the world around ecstasy, it’s important to look at its modern production and the economics surrounding it. Today it is reported that 8.1 million people world-wide use MDMA between the age of 15 and 65 while North America, Europe, and Oceania account for 80 percent of the consumption with China closing in due to the rise in synthetic drug use (Blickman 2005). With readily available chemicals to produce the substance with no investment in growing natural products such as the case with cocaine or heroin, there is little hassle beyond securing the elements and knowledge necessary to carry out the rather simple chemistry experiment. These chemicals are generally produced and shipped from South-East Asia to individual “cooks” or “chemists” who function inside cliques or small groups of producers in European countries like Germany, Belgium, and especially the Netherlands (Blickman 2005). When the finished product is ready for sale the numbers that arise are astounding. At $7-13 per pill (each containing 80-100 mg MDMA) the wholesale value annually amounts to $9.8 billion with a retail value of $23.4 billion (Blickman 2005).
In response to such a massive economic entity outside of the law, we can see domestically the effects of such a phenomenon. The DEA’s budget now exceeds $500 million annually while US customs dedicate nearly one fifth or $5 billion towards counter measures to stop drug flow into the States (Nadelmann 1988). Alongside this expenditure are the multi-year sentences handed down to thousands of single offense perpetrators for minimal possession as well as the counter intuitive lack of educational and treatment programs for users and abusers (Nadelmann 1988).
How this has gone global is interesting and the application of the post-modern theory on drugs can help explain this process. It has been observed that the current major players in the production, trafficking, and distribution of MDMA are the Dutch, Israelis, and Russian crime organizations, respectively. Through emigration the later two groups have established themselves internationally. Thus the theory follows according to Agar and Reisinger (2003):
1. The core historical networks (the Israelis and Russians) float ambiguously across many national boundaries due to emigration.
2. Within those networks, organizations tend to be multiple and small-scale groups of entrepreneurs rather than a single dominant hierarchy (allowing the small groups of producers to work alongside these small factions).
3. Those small-scale groups are fluid- they appear, change in membership, form and drop alliances, and disappear (accounting for the constant adaptation of trafficking methods and making the distribution to certain demographics unique to ecstasy as compared to cocaine, etc. this will be discussed in another post).
4. Many people who are not members of the core historical networks, growing in number with time, appear in production-distribution system, and many networks from what used to be viewed as different “organized crime” systems form alliances as well.
5. Drug production in laboratory rather than crop based. This makes production more flexible and capable of diversification than a crop that requires certain ecological conditions.
Thus, the modern climate of ecstasy has been illuminated and we can see that it has taken the path of similar illicit substances such as cocaine and heroin; however it remains unique in the cases of whom and how it is produced and distributed.