DEA Congressional Testimony
June 05, 2000


Statement by:

Lewis Rice Jr.
Special Agent in Charge
Dallas Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration


Before the:

House Subcommittee on Crime
Committee on the Judiciary


Date:

June 15, 2000

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.


Chairman McCollum, distinguished members of the Subcommittee: I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the growing dangers and concerns over "Ecstasy" and other related "Club Drugs." I would first like to thank the Subcommittee for its continued support of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and overall support of drug law enforcement.

As you are well aware, the alarming spread of illegal drug abuse by our youth is having a profound affect in communities throughout the United States. It is fair to say that the increasing use of club drugs such as MDMA (Ecstasy), GHB, Ketamine, and LSD by our youth is quickly becoming one of the most significant law enforcement and social issues facing our nation today. DEA reporting indicates widespread abuse within virtually every major U.S. city with indications of trafficking and abuse expanding to smaller cities such as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Beaumont, Texas; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Savannah and Florence, Georgia; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Montgomery, Alabama. Recent seizure statistics clearly illustrate this prolific growth. According to the Federal Drug Identification Network (FDIN) database, in 1998, 276,904 tablets and 118,016 grams of powder MDMA were seized (equivalent to 944,128 tablets @ 0.125g/tab) which totaled 1,221,032 tablets. Conversely, in 1999, 2,847,719 tablets along with 1,162,075 grams of powder was seized totaling 12,144,319 tablets. This translates into a ten-fold increase in the number of MDMA seizures in a one-year period. Furthermore, some abusers, primarily in the Miami and Orlando areas, are combining MDMA with heroin, a combination known as "space." Perhaps most frightening is the decreased perception of risk that young teens have regarding the use of these drugs.

MDMA can produce stimulant effects such as an enhanced sense of pleasure, self-confidence and increased energy. Its hallucinogenic effects include feelings of peacefulness, acceptance, and empathy. Users claim they experience feelings of closeness with others and a desire to touch them. As such, because of the feelings attained by the MDMA user, there exists a misconception that these drugs are relatively safe. However, various researchers have shown that use of club drugs can cause serious health problems and, in some cases, even death. Used in combination with alcohol, some of these club drugs can be even more dangerous. Furthermore, MDMA's long-term psychological effects can include confusion, depression, sleep problems, anxiety and paranoia. Between 1998 and 1999, past year use of ecstasy rose by a third among 10th graders, and by 56 percent among 12th graders. The greatest number of MDMA users fell into the 18-25 year old category with slightly greater than 1.4 million people reporting its use.

Because DEA is the only single-mission federal agency dedicated to drug law enforcement, the agency has developed and further advanced our ability to direct resources and manpower to identify, target and dismantle drug organizations headquartered overseas and within the United States. In carrying out its mission, DEA is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of criminals and drug gangs who perpetrate violence in our communities and terrorize citizens through fear and intimidation. The drug organizations operating today have an unprecedented level of sophistication and are more powerful and influential than any of the organized crime enterprises preceding them. The leaders of these drug trafficking organizations oversee a drug industry that has wreaked havoc on communities throughout the United States. Their principal motive is pure and simple: greed.

MDMA: The Emergence of New Drug Trafficking Organizations:

The ecstasy drug market in the United States is supplied and controlled by Western European-based drug traffickers. In recent years, Israeli Organized Crime syndicates, some composed of Russian émigrés associated with Russian Organized Crime syndicates, have forged relationships with the Western European traffickers and gained control over a significant share of the European market. Moreover, the Israeli syndicates remain the primary source to the U.S. distribution groups. The increasing involvement of organized crime syndicates signifies the "professionalization" of 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. DEA reporting indicates their distribution networks are expanding from coast to coast, enabling a relatively few organizations to dominate MDMA markets nationwide.

Typically, these MDMA trafficking organizations are well organized, well educated, multi-lingual, and capable of producing and smuggling significant quantities of MDMA from Europe to the United States. In 1999, more than 2 million pills were seized in New York alone. The U.S. Customs Service estimates that since October 1999, approximately 5.8 million pills have been seized at various ports throughout the United States. Perhaps, the most notable estimation comes from German police officials who suspect that more than 2 million pills are smuggled into the United States each week from various cities throughout Europe. In Belgium alone, DEA reports that since March, 2000, approximately 675,000 ecstasy tablets were seized, the vast majority destined for the United States. This figure eclipses the total number of tablets seized for all Fiscal Year 1999.

MDMA is clandestinely manufactured in Western Europe, primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. It is estimated that 90% of MDMA distributed worldwide is produced in these countries. MDMA production is a relatively sophisticated chemical process making it difficult for inexperienced individuals to produce MDMA successfully. However, there are several manufacturing processes for MDMA and a multitude of "recipes" that are posted on the Internet. Most of the MDMA laboratories are capable of producing 20-30 kilograms on a daily basis, although law enforcement authorities have seized some labs with the capability of producing 100 kilograms per day.

Normally, the MDMA is manufactured by Dutch chemists and transported and distributed by various factions of Israeli Organized Crime groups. These groups recruit and utilize Americans, Israeli and western European nationals as couriers. These couriers can smuggle anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 tablets (2.5-5 kilograms) on their person and up to 50,000 tablets (10 kilograms) in specially designed luggage. In addition to the use of couriers, these organizations use the parcel mail, DHL, UPS, and U.S. Postal Service. Due to the size of the MDMA tablet, concealment is much easier than other traditional drugs smuggled in kilogram-size packages (cocaine, heroin and marijuana).

What brings these Drug Trafficking Organizations together is the enormous profit realized in these ventures along with the fact that MDMA is not produced in the United States. Although estimates vary, the cost of producing an MDMA tablet can run between $.50 - $1.00. The wholesale, or first level price for MDMA tablets have ranged from $1.00-$2.00 per tablet, contingent on the volume purchased. This four-fold profit provides huge incentives for the laboratory owner or chemist. Furthermore, manufacturing laboratories can realize these profits without coming into contact with anyone except the first level transportation or distribution representatives. Once the MDMA reaches the United States, a domestic cell distributor will charge $6-$8 per tablet. The retailer then turns around and distributes it for $25-$40 per pill. Clearly, there is a tremendous profit realized in each function in MDMA trafficking from the producer or clandestine laboratory operator to the transporter to the wholesaler to the retailer, then on to the consumer.

MDMA: The Drug:

Primarily illicitly manufactured in and trafficked from Europe, 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), is the most popular of the club drugs. Its origins can be traced to Germany in 1912 where was patented but was never studied or marketed for human consumption. In the 1970's and early 1980's some health care professionals experimented with the drug in "introspective therapy" sessions, outside of FDA-approved research. DEA reporting indicates widespread abuse of this drug within virtually every city in the United States. Although it is primarily abused in urban settings, abuse of this substance also has been reported in rural communities. Although prices in the United States generally range from $25 to $40 per dosage unit, prices as high as $50 per dosage unit have been reported in Miami.

The drug is a synthetic, psychoactive substance possessing stimulant and mild hallucinogenic properties. Known as the "hug drug" or "feel good" drug, it reduces inhibitions and produces feelings of empathy for others, the elimination of anxiety, and extreme relaxation. In addition to chemical stimulation, the drug reportedly suppresses the need to eat, drink or sleep. This enables club scene users to endure all-night and sometimes 2-3 day parties. MDMA is taken orally, usually in tablet form, and its effects last approximately 4-6 hours. Taken at raves, the drug may lead to severe dehydration and heat stroke, since it has the effect of "short-circuiting" the body's temperature signals to the brain. An MDMA overdose is characterized by rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, faintness, muscle cramping, panic attacks, and in more severe cases, loss of consciousness or seizures. One of the side effects of the drug is jaw muscle tension and teeth grinding. As a consequence, MDMA users will often use pacifiers to help relieve the tension. The most critical, life-threatening response to MDMA is hyperthermia or excessive body heat. Recent reports of MDMA-related deaths were associated with core body temperatures ranging from 107 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Many rave clubs now have cooling centers or cold showers designed to allow participants to lower their body temperatures.

The long-term effects of MDMA are still under evaluation; however, research by the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1998 directly measured the effects of the drug on the human brain. The study revealed that the drug causes damage to the neurons (nerve cells) that utilize serotonin to communicate with other neurons in the brain, and that recreational MDMA users risk permanent brain damage that may manifest itself in depression, anxiety, memory loss, learning difficulties, and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

Overview of "Club" Drugs: An Emerging Epidemic:

The use of synthetic drugs has become a popular method of enhancing the club and rave experience. These rave functions, which are parties known for loud techno-music and dancing at underground locations, regularly host several thousand teenagers and young adults who use MDMA, LSD, GHB, alone or in various combinations. Users of drugs such as MDMA report that the effects of the drug heighten the user's perceptions, especially the visual stimulation. Quite often, users of MDMA at clubs will dance with light sticks to increase their visual stimulation. Legal substances such as Vicks's VapoRub are often used to enhance the effects of the drug.

"Club" drugs have become such an integral part of the rave circuit that there no longer appears to be an attempt to conceal their use. Rather, drugs are sold and used openly at these parties. Traditional and non-traditional sources continue to report the flagrant and open drug use at "raves." Intelligence indicates that it has also become commonplace for security at these parties to ignore drug use and sales on the premises. Tragically, many teens do not perceive these drugs as harmful or dangerous. These drugs are marketed to teens as "feel good" drugs and are widely abused at raves. The following is a brief summary of other selected club drugs.

Gamma HydroxyButyrate (GHB) is easily accessible at rave parties and is currently popular among teenagers and young adults alike. Commonly referred to as a date rape-drug, GHB was originally used as a substitute anabolic steroid for strength training. GHB has been used in the commission of sexual assaults because it renders the victim incapable of resisting, and may cause memory problems. GHB costs approximately $10-$20 per dose and is frequently mixed with alcohol. As of January 2000, DEA documented 60 GHB-related deaths. The drug is used predominantly by adolescents and young adults, often when they attend nightclubs and raves. GHB is often manufactured in homes with recipes and ingredients found and purchased on the Internet. As a result of the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Prohibition Act of 2000, GHB was designated a Schedule I drug under the CSA.

Gamma Butyrolactone (GBL), a List I chemical, is a precursor chemical for the manufacture of GHB. Several Internet sites offer kits that contain GBL, sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide and directions for the manufacture of GHB. This process is relatively simple and does not require complex laboratory equipment. Upon ingestion, GBL is synthesized by the body to produce GHB. As a consequence, some partygoers drink small quantities of GBL straight. These chemicals increase the effects of alcohol, and can cause respiratory distress, seizures, coma and death.

d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), listed as a Schedule I drug under the CSA, first emerged as a popular drug of the psychedelic generation in the 1960's. Its popularity appeared to decline in the late 1970's, an effect attributed to a broader awareness of its hazardous effects. Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of LSD abuse, especially among young adults. Typically, LSD users experience panic, confusion, suspicion and anxiety. Liquid LSD has been seized in Visine bottles at rave functions. LSD is also sold at raves on very small perforated paper squares that are either blank or have a cartoon-figure design. Most users of LSD voluntarily decrease or stop using it over time, since it does not produce the same compulsive, drug-induced behavior of cocaine and heroin.

As of August 1999, Ketamine, also known as "Special K," was placed in Schedule III of the Controlled Substance Act. Used primarily by veterinarians as an anesthetic, Ketamine produces hallucinogenic effects similar to PCP with the visual effects of LSD. Ketamine is diverted in liquid form, dried and distributed as a powder. Prices average $20 per dosage unit. Ketamine is snorted in the same manner as cocaine at 5-10 minute intervals until the desired effect is obtained.

Legislative History:

Ecstasy, as well as all other club drugs, have been scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Recently, due to the exponential growth and abuse of Ecstasy and its devastating and potentially lethal effects, Senate bill S. 2612, was introduced by Senator Bob Graham and co-sponsored by Senator Charles Grassley. This bill calls for the United States Sentencing Commission to amend the federal sentencing guidelines to provide for increased penalties associated with the manufacture, distribution and use of Ecstasy. Those penalties would be comparable to the base offense levels for offenses involving any methamphetamine mixture. The bill would also assure that the guidelines provide that offenses involving a significant quantity of Schedule I and II depressants, including GHB and its analogues, are subject to greater terms of imprisonment than currently in place. Furthermore, the bill calls for greater emphasis to be placed on the education of young adults, the education and training of state and local law enforcement officials and adequate funding for research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The current federal guidelines for MDMA require a relatively complex calculation, by which MDMA - like many controlled substances not listed directly in the guidelines tables - is equated to a fixed amount of marijuana (1 gram=35 gm marijuana). The result leads to inadequate sentences. Base offense level 26 (to which five-year mandatory sentences are keyed) is reached by trafficking about 28,570 dosage units of MDMA, which weighs about 8 kilograms. (Typically, a kilogram of MDMA consists of 3,500-4,000 pills).

In addition to S. 2612, a companion bill has been introduced in the House by Congresswoman Judy Biggert. H.R. 4553 is almost identical to S. 2612, except it encompasses all "club drugs", to include paramethoxyamphetamine, commonly referred to as "PMA". In recent weeks, it is believed that "PMA," an Ecstasy analogue controlled by DEA since 1973, may be responsible for the death of three young people in suburban Chicago. The three victims, an 18-year old female and two males, 17 and 20 years of age, are said to have frequented the same nightclub. The deaths are being investigated by local authorities. At this time it appears that the drug users thought they were taking MDMA, but ingested PMA instead.

Another bill relating to club drug abuse, the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Prevention Drug Act of l999, (Public Law l06-172), was signed by the President on February 18, 2000. This legislation directed DEA to place GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid) in Schedule I. GHB induces hallucinogenic and euphoria-like highs. It is known as a date rape drug because it can cause victims to lose consciousness, making them vulnerable to sexual assault. Research of GHB as a treatment for narcolepsy as part of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved clinical studies continues.

Furthermore, Public Law l06-172 contains a statutory obligation that requires DEA to establish a special unit to assess the abuse of and trafficking in GHB, flunitrazepem, ketamine and other controlled substances (club or designer drugs) whose use has been associated with sexual assaults. In addition, the Attorney General was directed to develop a protocol for the collection of evidence, the taking of victim statements in connection with violation of the CSA - which results or contributes to sexual assault, crimes of violence or other crimes involving the abuse of GHB and the other designer drugs. In addition, DEA and the FBI are obligated to develop model training materials for law enforcement personnel involved in such investigations, and make such protocols and training materials available to Federal, state, and local personnel responsible for such investigations.

Enforcement Initiatives:

Operation "Flashback":

In an effort to target organizations and individuals that distribute and manufacture "club drugs," DEA established Operation "Flashback" in July 1997. On July 2, 1998, MDMA was approved for inclusion under this Special Enforcement Program. Since February 1998, active investigations have increased from 6 to 140, indicative of the increasing demand and availability of club drugs. Operation "Flashback" seeks to achieve the following five primary objectives:

  • Develop prosecutable cases against individuals and organizations that manufacture and distribute so-called club drugs.
  • Develop intelligence links between domestic wholesale distributors and the foreign source of supply.
  • Identify, arrest, and prosecute violators at a high level of distribution, including the clandestine lab operators.
  • Establish and coordinate an overall strategy for all domestic and foreign investigative efforts.
  • Identify the command and control infrastructures of organizations that are distributing so-called club drugs.

Furthermore, this Special Enforcement Program provides a mechanism to enforcement components in the field to fund undercover buys, confidential source payments, installation of pen registers and activation of Title III wiretaps. In addition, it acts as a central depository for any and all information related to club drugs. This database contains information on targets, organizations, arrests, seizures, modes of smuggling, types of drugs and the logos/brand names they bear.

While investigating MDMA organizations, DEA has recognized that enforcement operations which target designer or club drug distribution at the raves differ from the enforcement efforts required to combat other illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. This can be partially attributed to the lack of strict Federal sentencing guidelines - a situation that may be improved by the pending bills mentioned earlier. As such, the vast majority of cases involving club and designer drugs are prosecuted in the state system. In essence, these trafficking organizations are aware of the lenient sentencing guidelines for MDMA and fully exploit it.

Presently, DEA has several ongoing investigations into these trafficking organizations. One particular DEA investigation of note was conducted in conjunction with the United States Customs Service and New York City Police Department. This investigation targeted a major ecstasy smuggling organization based in the Netherlands which operated throughout Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. Beginning in February 1999, Orthodox Jews, between the ages of eighteen and twenty, principally Hasidic men, were recruited to serve as ecstasy couriers. The recruiters believed that these couriers would not attract the attention of Customs inspectors.

Each courier was promised a free trip to Europe and approximately $1,500 in exchange for their services. Some couriers were also paid a finder's fee of approximately $200 for each additional courier they recruited. Many of the couriers allegedly believed that they were smuggling diamonds. Each courier smuggled between 30,000 and 45,000 ecstasy pills into the United States. During the time period of this conspiracy, the organization generally recruited three couriers per week. The couriers smuggled and attempted to smuggle drugs through Belgium, France and Canada. In a few instances, larger quantities of ecstasy- between 100,000 and 200,000 per shipment- were smuggled into the United States secreted inside various goods transported through the international commercial shipping system. In addition, some of the couriers smuggled drug proceeds (approximately $500,000/per trip) from New York to Amsterdam for delivery to the organizations' leader. This investigation was a resounding enforcement success because it identified an MDMA trafficking organization headed by an Israeli national who oversaw the recruitment of couriers, the shipment of drugs into the United States and the return shipment of the cash proceeds from the United States to Amsterdam.

Another case of note targeted an international MDMA and money laundering organization. This organization was responsible for the importation and distribution of approximately 50,000 MDMA dosage units per month in New York and Florida. The MDMA was imported into the United States from Europe hidden in furniture. The targets were primarily young, multi-lingual and extremely mobile violators. They frequently traveled to and from the United States throughout the duration of this investigation. In addition, the traffickers were utilizing cellular telephones, often making 70-80 calls per day. The investigation resulted in numerous arrests, the seizure of approximately 40,000 MDMA dosage units, and the seizure of approximately $350,000.

Demand Reduction Initiatives:

The increasing power and diversity of drug trafficking organizations operating throughout the United States and abroad demands an equally authoritative and creative response. These drug trafficking organizations seek to entrench criminal enterprise in modern society; they attempt to lure the youth of this country into the dark world of drug abuse and crime on a daily basis. As such, DEA is committed to developing and employing multi-faceted strategies to combat both drug trafficking and drug abuse. With this in mind, DEA's Demand Reduction program was created in 1986 in response to the widespread belief that both law enforcement and drug prevention were necessary components of a comprehensive attack against the drug problem in the United States. Given the age of the targeted user population of MDMA, DEA has created a very aggressive and comprehensive attack to bring this issue to the forefront.

Just to provide a brief illustration of these initiatives, DEA's New England Field Division has held three demand reduction training conferences specifically on club drugs. These conferences have included Federal, state and local law enforcement officers, prosecutors, medical personnel and educators. Four additional conferences are planned by the end of this fiscal year. The Newark Field Division has conducted two club drug seminars this past year. In addition they are presently producing a video relating to a statewide club drug demand reduction education curriculum. The St. Louis Field Division held a club drug training session for Federal, state and local law enforcement officers recently. They have also participated in a number of media interviews and club drug awareness presentations. Finally, DEA Headquarters has organized a club drug conference scheduled for the latter part of July 2000. Participants will include law enforcement personnel from around the world, leading researchers, clinicians, prevention specialists, educators, and medical professionals to discuss the alarming resurgence in MDMA and other club drugs.

Conclusion:

The DEA is continually working to develop and revise strategies to enhance enforcement effectiveness and aggressively develop investigations to dismantle significant drug trafficking organizations. We are confident that with the dedicated and tireless efforts of all our employees, we will continue to successfully address not only existing drug problems, but be proactive in devising strategies to address emerging trends in drug trafficking. As previously states, DEA will utilize a multi-faceted approach employing both enforcement and prevention strategies. In this regard, DEA is working in conjunction with law enforcement officials throughout Europe in an effort to identify, target, dismantle and prosecute those organizations responsible for the proliferation of MDMA throughout the U.S. and Europe. In addition, next month, DEA will participate in a conference in Israel that will focus on this significant issue.

I thank you for providing me the opportunity to address the Subcommittee and I look forward to taking any questions you may have on this important issue.

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