DEA Congressional Testimony
July 06, 2000


Statement by:

Michele M. Leonhart
Special Agent in Charge
Los Angeles Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration


Before the:

House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime
Pasadena, California

Date:

July 06, 2000

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


Mr. Chairman, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee: I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the serious methamphetamine, Ecstasy and club drug problem facing the citizens of Southern California and our nation. I would especially like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support of federal, state and local drug law enforcement.

Methamphetamine has become the most notable drug problem facing Federal, state and local law enforcement in Southern California. It is fair to say that methamphetamine is one of the most significant law enforcement and social issues facing our nation today, and it has affected specific regions of the country in a dramatic fashion. Our country has seen methamphetamine trafficking and its use increase exponentially over the past six years.

The increasing use of synthetic club drugs such as MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy), GHB, Ketamine, and LSD by young adults is also quickly becoming a significant concern for law enforcement in Southern California. DEA reporting indicates widespread abuse within virtually every major city throughout the United States with indications of trafficking and abuse expanding to smaller cities across the nation.

It is my hope that at the conclusion of my testimony today, you will have a clearer understanding of how Southern California plays a key role in the production, trafficking and availability of methamphetamine in our nation, as well as a key role in the trafficking and availability of Ecstasy and other club drugs.

The History of Methamphetamine in Southern California

Methamphetamine is not a new problem for California, unlike other areas of the country. Methamphetamine trafficking and clandestine methamphetamine laboratories have been encountered by California's Federal, state and local law enforcement officials since the 1970's. Historically, the suppliers of methamphetamine throughout the United States have been outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups. Although these groups continue to produce and distribute methamphetamine, organized, polydrug trafficking organizations operating from Mexico and California now dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States. Over the past few years, these groups have revolutionized the production of this drug by operating large-scale laboratories in Mexico and the United States that are capable of producing unprecedented quantities of methamphetamine. These groups have saturated the western U.S. market with this product, increasingly moving the product to markets in the eastern United States.

The Methamphetamine "Source"

Presently, while Mexican organizations operate approximately 5% to 20% of the laboratories, they produce an estimated 95% of the methamphetamine produced in the Southern California area. The principal reasons for their rise to dominance is the Mexican drug traffickers' ability to exploit an existing, well established transportation and distribution network on both sides of the border, as well as their ability to illegally secure precursor chemicals.

Most of the methamphetamine sold throughout the country is produced in California super laboratories, making California a "source area" for this illicit drug. These "super labs" are capable of producing over 10 pounds of finished product per process. Almost all of the "super labs" operating in the country are located in California, and almost half of them are located in Southern California. These "super labs" supply at least 80 to 90% of the methamphetamine in this country. The methamphetamine production process in a "super lab" takes approximately one to two days to complete.

Current DEA statistics indicate that in 1999, DEA alone seized 2,021 clandestine laboratories and that the total number of laboratories seized by Federal, state and local law enforcement officers nationwide was over 7,000. The majority of the labs seized in California were located in Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and Orange County. In 1999, 48% of the clean up costs paid by the State of California were as the result of labs seized in the four-county Los Angeles area.

Domestically Produced Methamphetamine

While the vast majority of methamphetamine available in the United States is produced and trafficked by the well-organized groups from Mexico, domestic production of methamphetamine is also a significant problem. The production level of these laboratories, often makeshift and described as mom and pop labs, is relatively low; however, the large number of these labs and the environmental and law enforcement concerns associated with their operation, poses major problems to state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as to DEA.

Methamphetamine is, in fact, a very simple drug to produce. A user can go to retail stores and easily purchase the vast majority of the ingredients necessary to manufacture the drug. Precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine can be extracted from common, over-the-counter cold medications. Unlike Fentanyl, LSD, or other types of dangerous drugs, it does not take a college-educated chemist to produce methamphetamine. In 1999, 20 Los Angeles area officers and/or firefighters were injured responding to methamphetamine lab explosions and fires.

The highly toxic and flammable chemicals involved make these rudimentary laboratories ticking time bombs that require specialized training to dismantle and clean up. DEA is pleased to have certified thousands of state and local law enforcement officers in raiding and dismantling them and provide funds for cleaning them up.

The threats posed by clandestine labs are not limited to fire, explosion, poison gas, and booby traps; the chemical contamination of the hazardous waste contained in these labs also poses a serious danger to our nation's environment. Each pound of methamphetamine generated in a clandestine lab can result in as much as five pounds of toxic waste, which clandestine lab operators routinely dump into our nation's streams, rivers, and sewage systems to cover up the evidence of their illegal operations. The average clean-up costs per clandestine lab in FY 2000 is estimated to be $3,500. The clean up of "super-labs" can cost over $100,000.

Social Impact

The violence associated with methamphetamine trafficking and use has also produced a collateral impact in our communities. Mental health agencies in the Southern California area warn that methamphetamine abuse can be directly linked to a myriad of social and economic problems, to include child abuse, domestic violence, poverty and homelessness. Spousal and child abuses, as well as homicides abound among methamphetamine users. Particularly children and infants are susceptible to permanent health damage resulting from inhalation of chemical fumes. In 1999, 548 children were present or residing at clandestine laboratories located in the Los Angeles area at the time of law enforcement intervention.

DEA Methamphetamine Strategy

The primary focus of the National Methamphetamine Strategy calls for a strong and highly aggressive enforcement effort that is aimed at chemical companies, chemical brokers, and large scale domestic Mexican trafficking organizations involved in the production, transportation and distribution of methamphetamine and its precursors.

The tracking of methamphetamine precursor chemicals is essential in the Drug Enforcement Administration's effort to identify and eliminate methamphetamine production. By tracking precursor chemical purchases of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, red phosphorus and freon from rogue chemical companies, numerous methamphetamine production laboratories have been identified and seized. Because of federal, state, and local efforts aimed at chemical suppliers, there has been a noticeable shortage of available freon and caustic soda.

Nationwide, methamphetamine arrests by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1999 totaled 8,783, a 37% increase over 1998. In the past six years alone, DEA Los Angeles has realized a staggering 370% increase in methamphetamine related arrests in the Southern California area.

In the last two years alone, we initiated more than 40 investigations aimed directly at significant methamphetamine and chemical traffickers. Information obtained from these investigations indicates that these drug trafficking groups are complex and steadily weaving their way throughout the United States.

Due to the significant role Southern California plays in the overall methamphetamine situation, DEA has also initiated a local methamphetamine strategy that addresses critical areas that could not be addressed by local law enforcement due to limited resources. While we have focused our efforts on targeting significant chemical suppliers and Mexican methamphetamine organizations, we have strengthened our assistance and support to our state and local counterparts.

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 it was patented but 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. Prices in the United States generally range from $25 to $40 per dosage unit, with prices as low as $20 per dosage unit in Los Angeles, and as high as $50 per dosage unit 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.

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.

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.

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 potential 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.

Overview of Other "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. 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 nationwide. 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. GBL increases 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. Adverse effects of LSD include 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. LSD manufacturers predominantly operate on the West Coast of the United States, with distribution occurring all over the country.

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.

DEA 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, many being conducted in Southern California, which is indicative of the increasing law enforcement 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.

Presently, DEA has several ongoing investigations into these MDMA trafficking organizations. One particular investigation of note was conducted by DEA's Special Operations Division. The Special Operations Division is a joint national coordinating and support entity comprised of agents, analysts and prosecutors from DOJ, the USCS, the FBI and DEA. This investigation, entitled Operation Rave, focused on an MDMA distribution cell that operated throughout the northeast and Florida. The leader of this organization, an Israeli national, was responsible for the distribution of approximately 150,000 tablets of MDMA per week. This and related spin-off investigations resulted in the arrest of 105 defendants, the seizure of 620,000 tablets of MDMA and approximately $935,000 in U.S. currency. The significance of this investigation was the fact that it identified, for the first time, the involvement of Israeli and Russian crime groups in MDMA trafficking.

In addition, DEA, in conjunction with the United States Customs Service (USCS) and Los Angeles area state and local Task Forces, has conducted controlled deliveries of MDMA tablets which originated in Europe and were destined for the Los Angeles area. Working together, DEA, FBI and the USCS are currently investigating the highest levels of MDMA international and national trafficking organizations impacting on the United States.

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 plan to bring this issue to the attention of the American public. It should be noted that DEA's Operations Division has organized a club drug conference scheduled for the latter part of July 2000 in the Washington, D.C. area. 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 use of MDMA and other club drugs.

In addition, DEA's Los Angeles Field Division has sponsored several club drug training courses for agents and police officers. Demand Reduction presentations have also been conducted by DEA in the Los Angeles area to warn and educate young adults and parents about the alarming rise in Ecstasy and club drug abuse in Southern California.

Conclusion:

Methamphetamine, and other controlled substances, which are produced in clandestine laboratories, provides an increasing threat to drug law enforcement personnel as well as the citizens of our nation. The vast power and influence of international drug trafficking syndicates, particularly those based in Mexico, continues to grow. Their impact on communities around our nation is devastating. The DEA will continue to promote cooperative investigative efforts and work closely with state and local agencies within the parameters of national, regional and local methamphetamine strategies.

As the number of clandestine labs operated by both internationally-based criminal organizations and mom and pop, small, independent groups continues to escalate, the chances of narcotics officers, or other uniformed personnel, inadvertently encountering clandestine labs will increase. In the years to come, DEA will continue to work to improve its efforts in the methamphetamine arena to ensure a safe future for both our law enforcement personnel dedicated to addressing this dangerous problem as well as our citizens.

MDMA abuse, although a relatively new phenomenon, has certainly taken parts of this country by storm. The magnitude of the current MDMA problem cannot be understated. The media coverage alone is indicative of the impact this drug has had on the United States. One only has to review the dramatic increase in seizures over the past twenty-four months to recognize the insidious upsurge of this drug.

DEA will continue to utilize a multi-faceted approach employing both prevention and enforcement strategies in targeting MDMA and methamphetamine trafficking and abuse. In this regard, DEA is working in conjunction with law enforcement officials throughout Europe and Israel in an effort to identify, target, dismantle and prosecute those organizations responsible for the proliferation of MDMA throughout the U.S. and Europe. Furthermore, DEA has established a methamphetamine strategy that focuses on international drug trafficking groups, independent domestic methamphetamine operations, and rogue chemical companies that are responsible for the smuggling, production, and distribution of methamphetamine in the United States.

DEA greatly appreciates the assistance given to us by both the Congress and this Administration in our efforts to combat the methamphetamine threat posed to our communities. DEA will continue to fully utilize these assets and support any new initiatives that will assist in this ongoing struggle. I thank you for providing me with this opportunity to address the Subcommittee and I look forward to taking any questions you may have on this important issue.

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