X in the Suburbs: April 05 issue

Ecstasy and other party drugs used to be an import-only business. But now, home-grown gangs are figuring out the trick to pill-making and flooding the market with their wares. JAMES MORROW in Sydney and SHAUN DAVIES in Melbourne report on the growing drug industry in our own backyards.

March 9, 2005: Federal agents stop a van traveling down the Hume Highway near the Victoria-New South Wales border. After arresting the two men on board – a 39-year-old Sydneysider and a 31-year-old Melburnian – cops find five 44-gallon drums of chemicals that can be used to make MDMA, or ecstasy. That night, armed with search warrants, police sweep through a number of suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne, including Pyrmont – an increasingly trendy and cashed-up inner-city neigbourhood which is also home to Sydney’s Star City Casino – and make several more arrests and seizures.
Amongst the cops’ haul for the evening: “proceeds of crime”: a 4WD Porsche Cayenne and a Lamborghini, as well as five more 44-gallon drums of so-called “precursor chemicals”. According to the Australian Federal Police, “a conservative estimate of the MDMA pills capable of being produced from this amount of precursor is four million tablets, which has an estimated street value of $160 million.”
But while the AFP was quick to trumpet this “largest-ever seizure” of precursor chemicals, the bust only scratched the surface of a growing trade in so-called “party drugs”: MDMA (better known as ecstasy), as well as GHB, methamphetamine, the animal tranquilizer ketamine, and a variety of other chemicals that are increasingly popular with Australian youth. According to figures published in 2001 by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, one in five Australians between ages 20 and 29 had tried ecstasy – a figure that experts agree has only gone up in the four years since.
Fast-forward to Melbourne, the following week. On Sunday night of the Labour Day long weekend in Melbourne, the dance floor at Revolver, one of the city’s best-known clubs, is packed with sweaty bodies. It is well past midnight and you’d expect the pulsing electronic music to be driving the crowd into a frenzy. But the atmosphere is actually quite subdued: most dancers are only swinging their arms in time to the beat, and some of them are barely moving their feet at all.
It may be that the crowd is not enjoying the DJ, but an equally likely explanation is that a batch of “smacky” pills has been doing the rounds. A “smacky” pill generally contains some MDMA, but it’s adulterated with another drug, usually ketamine or heroin, which leaves users in a stupor. Contrary to commonly held ideas, not all pills sold as ecstasy drive users to all-night dancing and potentially fatal dehydration.
Some of the drug users in Revolver are easy to spot. One young clubber, dressed in low-slung jeans and a trucker’s cap, has obviously overindulged. He stumbles about the club with a slack jaw and a faraway look in his eyes, disoriented and seemingly unsure of where to put himself. Eventually he collapses on a couch in the corner of the room with his legs splayed out, rolls his head back and stares at the ceiling.
But most of the people who have taken ecstasy are more in control, and to spot them you have to know what to look for. Furious chewing is one clue: ecstasy makes users grind their teeth incessantly, and users chew gum to prevent aching jaw muscles the next morning.
Another sure sign is excited hugging and sloppy smiling – ecstasy’s empathetic qualities give users a seemingly uncontrollable urge to tell anyone within earshot just how amazing it is to be alive.
Ecstasy comes on in a rush. About 40 minutes after swallowing a pill, your body and brain are consumed with overwhelming pleasure: this is the strongest part of the trip and users refer to it as “peaking”.
After about an hour the intensity of the trip will decrease slightly, although the effects won’t really start to wear off until a good three or four hours later. The comedown is difficult and many users will take multiple pills over the course of an evening to prolong the rush and put off the inevitable.
Those who use ecstasy regularly agree that in the past six months the market has been flooded with high-quality ecstasy. The pills are purer now, which means longer and better peaks and easier comedowns. Users have become pickier and local drug manufacturers, it seems, have been rushing to meet this demand.
One Pill, Two Pill, Red Pill, True Blue Pill
Last week’s bust, and several others over the past year (none of which have made a dent in supply on the street, incidentally), lends further credence to the theory that ready-made ecstasy is no longer being imported on the scale it once was, and that instead, domestic gangs are now bringing in just the ingredients and manufacturing it themselves. This was hinted at in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency report last year which noted that, “There also have been several large-scale 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), a.k.a. Ecstasy, laboratory seizures in the Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan areas. The chemicals seized at these MDMA laboratories originated from locations throughout Southeast Asia. Australian law enforcement and customs officials are also seizing increasing amounts of sassafras oil being smuggled through various ports-of-entry, such as Sydney and Melbourne. Sassafras oil produces safrole, which can be used as a precursor chemical in the manufacture of MDMA”.
Or as an ecstasy user, calling himself Zaki, put it recently, “I think Australia has stepped up to the mark and shown we are not only good at swimming, cricket [and] rugby. We are now among the best in good, clean and therefore harm-minimising MDMA production”.
The amount of harm MDMA does is another question (see below), but the fact remains that no matter how many busts the police make, ecstasy prices remain stable (at around $30 to $40 a hit), and there is never any shortage of supply in the dance clubs of any of the capital cities.
“The market is so big, and we know that there are lots of different ways that pills are getting here”, says Johnboy Davidson. “We’ll see big busts, you know, three million pills or something like that, and still supply won’t be affected.” Davidson is the spokesman for Bluelight, an Australian website that has grown to be the biggest online drugs forum in the world. A public advocate for the principles of harm minimisation, Davidson is careful not to paint himself as a wild-eyed libertarian of the “legalize it” stripe, but rather calls for a more “realistic approach” to drug use in Australia.
According to Davidson the international ecstasy trade began in earnest in the 1990s but, until recently, Australian drug traffickers haven’t had the means to make their own product. “The Golden Triangle states switched over from heroin to methamphetamine production in the ‘90s, and then they switched over to MDMA as well,” he says. “A lot of the supply routes came through Indonesia. There used to be a triangular trade from Europe, across Indonesia, and into Australia, but then it became more smugglers from China or Thailand bringing drugs into Australia via Indonesia. Oddly enough, the trade in Indonesia is run by a lot of African and even Israeli gangsters.”
Today, however, some of the best ecstasy on the market is thought to be home-grown, and in the past six months to eight months, the Australian market has been flooded with high-quality MDMA and other pills. Ecstasy is given street names according to the colour of the pills and the type of logo that is stamped on them: Red and green Mitsubishis (red or green pills with the Mitsubishi automaker’s logo stamped on them), yellow doves, red Rolexes and red Russians have all been popular on the market lately and, according to those who take them, these drugs are more pure than anything they’ve had for years.
But for Australian drug traffickers to make their own ecstasy takes both expertise – about equivalent to that of a third-year university chemistry student – and equipment, including precursor chemicals and a pill-pressing machine. It is this second item that, experts say, is one of the hardest and most dangerous tools of the trade to come up with.
“Pill presses are a monitored thing and you can’t buy one without a very good reason…having one is like printing money, and it’s one of those things that can get ripped off as well”, says Davidson, who makes a gun with his fingers and demonstrates what can happen if a rival crew hears about the existence of a pill machine. “Most of them would be only about the size of a washing machine. There was a bust three or four years ago somewhere in a block of flats in inner-city Melbourne where a neighbour complained about a guy who had his clothes-dryer on all night. So the landlord looked in, realised what it was, and told the cops. Then a full production lab was busted”.
So who was behind the Hume Highway bust? Cops are tight-lipped, not wanting to compromise their investigation. But speculation is that with the bust taking place near Wodonga, a small town that is also home to several motorcycle gangs and a crime rate far higher than similarly-sized Australian communities, one crew may have heard about a rival’s shipment and ratted it out to the police.
More telling, though, is that the amounts involved show a far greater ability of Australian drug peddlers to acquire the chemicals needed to make their own MDMA, rather than purchasing pills or powder from overseas. Says Davidson, “a tonne of precursors is … an astonishing amount. We’d only thought people were making small batches, maybe ten to twenty kilograms at a time, but this really gives you an idea of the market”.
The Sting in the Tail
With demand so high, it is clear that even with a ten-fold increase in resources, the police would be hard-pressed to make much of a dent in the local market for party. The urgent question thus becomes, are there chickens that will come home to roost from an entire generation’s chemical bender, or is a young person’s going out to a dance club and popping a few pills occasionally no more dangerous than him or her having a really big night at the pub? In the short term, that is probably correct: on any given weekend night, far more emergency department admissions will be made as a result of alcohol and the behaviours it inspires than as a result of MDMA or other party drugs.
“Drugs are always going to be a major factor in presentations at emergency departments, both for hyperventilation and dehydration as well as for people who might have had some underlying psychiatric problem”, says Dr. Bob Batey, a clinical advisor at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. “With that said, it’s probably a minority of users who show up. At the moment, except for the people who show up with acute medical consequences – which are often a one-off – we don’t have much long-term data.”
While this may seem to give ecstasy a reasonably clean bill of health, or at least place it somewhere in the shouldn’t-have-had-that-last-Bundy area of youthful overindulgence, Batey cautions that it’s still early, so the full effects of the drug are still not yet known. And while he says that ecstasy definitely leads to structural changes in the brain and has problems associated with long-term depression, “we need more information before saying anything dogmatic about the substance”.
Still, “people who say that pure MDMA is harmless are most probably wrong”, says University of Sydney psychpharmacologist Dr. Iain McGregor, who explains that ecstasy works by flooding the brain with the neurotransmitter serotonin – a chemical that not only regulates mood, but is also thought to help memory and thinking skills. (Prozac and other anti-depressants in its class work specifically by preventing serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain. This is not only why it works as a treatment for depression, but also explains the so-called “Prozac effect”, in which healthy patients who take the drug report not only feelings of euphoria, but also sharper thinking and greater overall efficiency and brain function).
“Ecstasy may cause a surge in serotonin, but there is a sting in the tail: for weeks or months you may have lowered levels, and in the days after a binge, there is a documented depression”, he says – a well-documented phenomenon amongst users, known as “suicide Tuesday”. “Studies we’ve done in our lab here have found that if we give lab rats ecstasy regularly for three months they wind up with anxiety and poorer memory. Furthermore, if you’ve taken a huge amount of ecstasy and really knock down your serotonin levels, they may never recover to where they were before”. Further weight to the ecstasy-depression link was uncovered recently by researchers at Cambridge University in England, who found that in people with certain genetic make-ups, MDMA could cause an increase in depressive symptoms.
But the bigger danger is mixing drugs, or worse, taking unknown substances – a message Davidson has been preaching for ages. If you have to take something, says McGregor, “you’re better off with pure MDMA if you know that’s what it is. It’s certainly a lot better than methamphetamine [which is often sold as ecstasy], which has a different sort of toxicity. We see a lot of real problems when meth and MDMA are combined, especially by accident, because there is a real exaggerated toxicity”.
Perhaps the most sobering words for ecstasy users come from Dr. Batey, who points out that “like cannabis ten years ago, we didn’t think it was going to be a big problem, but anything that is altering the neurotransmitter system causes real concern for long-term potential damage”: a lot of people may be able to go come through their experiences unscathed, but for users prone to depression or other psychological ailments, there could be a lot of agony after the ecstasy.