The Ecstasy capital of the world
Most of the world’s Ecstasy is produced in the Netherlands, and yet despite the government’s best efforts to combat the production and trafficking of the drug, the Ecstasy party shows no sign of abating.
What is Ecstasy?
Perhaps traumatised by being rather unflatteringly christened Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) when invented around 1912, the little pill has adopted many pseudonyms since, including XTC, Ecstasy, E and the love drug in its search for acceptance.
The little pill, with its disproportionate stimulant and hallucinogenic properties, hit the big time when the “rave” clubbing craze started in the mid 1980s.
Its advocates say Ecstasy produces positive feelings, empathy for others, extreme relaxation and eliminates anxiety.
It also suppresses the need to eat, drink or sleep, allowing users to dance all night.
Opponents say it can lead to exhaustion and dehydration, brain damage and death. Indeed, some users have “drowned” themselves by drinking too much water while trying to compensate for the dehydrating effect of dancing frantically for hours.
The drug is illegal.
The drug party that doesn’t end
The Dutch government is working hard to dispel the image that it tolerates hard drugs. However, the fact remains that the Drug Enforcement Administration in the US cites the Netherlands as the world’s primary producer of the party-drug Ecstasy .
Every week, about 2 million Dutch Ecstasy pills are smuggled into the US and Ecstasy is the drug of choice for revellers in dance clubs all across Europe and America. Foreign governments, and the US government in particular are none too pleased about this at all and they never miss an opportunity to criticise Holland.
The United Nations-inspired International Narcotics Control Board also singled the Netherlands in its 2000 annual report as the bad boy of Europe when it comes to drugs production and smuggling.
But there is nothing like a good police raid to show how seriously the fight against Ecstasy is being taken.
In one month alone (March 2002), the Dutch police tell us they have broken up two major Ecstasy gangs. One was in the north of the country where three men, including two company directors, were arrested and about 100,000 Ecstasy pills seized. Investigators also found a truck containing thousands of litres of chemical ingredients, enough to make a few million more Ecstasy pills.
About a week later, Rotterdam detectives arrested nine people allegedly involved in another ring smuggling Ecstasy to the US. About 18 kilos of Ecstasy were seized.
The investigation started a few weeks earlier following a tip from the public prosecutors office in Belgium. Two couriers were arrested in Belgium with kilos of Ecstasy hidden in a specially doctored suitcase.
Police operations like these make for good news and give the impression the Netherlands has the Ecstasy gangs on the run. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The police closed down about 38 production centres back in 1998 but the party goes on and on. When the police close down one laboratory, you can be sure two more open somewhere else.
The Netherlands declares war on Ecstasy
There are a number of reasons why the production of Ecstasy is centred in the Netherlands. Firstly, The Netherlands has long been a hub for international trade and transport.
Secondly, the country is traditionally tolerant when it comes to drugs. The cannabis coffee shops are an integral part of country’s tourist industry. Perhaps, says the government, but we take hard drugs seriously and keep them out of the coffee shops.
Certainty things have changed since the early 1960s when amphetamines were not a controlled substance in the Netherlands and were produced by Dutch gangs for export to Scandinavia and the UK.
It was easy for the gangs to switch to Ecstasy production when the dance craze took off in the late 1980s.
The government finally made the war on Ecstasy a priority back in 1996. It set up a special police taskforce, the Synthetic Drugs Unit (USD), and set about closing down the Ecstasy plants. It all sounded very Elliot Ness; that is, until the presentation of the USD’s annual report last year.
Public prosecutor Martin Witteveen said the unit did not have enough officers to follow up on many of the leads received from foreign police forces about the activities of Ecstasy gangs here. And focusing on one case sometimes necessitated officers being taken off another case, he said.
When the justice department catches a gang, it asks the courts to impose a heavy penalty. Unfortunately, what the Netherlands, and many other European countries, consider to be a heavy sentence can be likened to a slap on the wrist in places like the US and Britain.
Take the tale of the two disk jockeys. An Irish DJ was jailed for three years after he was caught with over 30,000 Ecstasy pills in Amsterdam. The court heard he was part of an international gang that smuggled Ecstasy to the US and Britain.
In contrast, a DJ from Zwolle who was extradited to US in January 2002 to face Ecstasy smuggling charges faces the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.
Dealing with the drug rings
The drug gangs operating in the Netherlands are just as multinational as Philips or Royal Dutch/Shell. Eastern European and Russian “Mafia” gangs saw the potential as an international base as soon as soon as the Soviet Bloc collapsed and moved in west.
Israel has criticised Dutch police for lacklustre co-operation in dealing with a number of powerful Israeli gangs using the Netherlands as the production centre for their growing Ecstasy empires.
And Irish drug dealers – not particular whether they sell cannabis, Ecstasy or heroin – use Amsterdam as their bolthole whenever the pressure from police or other criminals gets too much at home.
There has been a lot of international co-operation in the last few years on cutting the supply of the chemicals needed to produce Ecstasy . As a result, most of the chemicals now come from China. The Dutch are reluctant to co-operate too closely with the Chinese authorities because of their poor human rights record and their liberal use of the death penalty.
The Dutch authorities acknowledge that most of the world’s Ecstasy is produced here but they point out that it takes two to tango. There is a world market out there impatiently awaiting the next batch from Holland. Each pill costs EUR 0.50 to produce but sells for about EUR 4.50. That is the bottom line.