The re-birth and adaptation of the MDMA market
A new report from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA) concludes that:
Europe has experienced a recent resurgence in the use of MDMA, with much stronger tablets and powders now commonly available in several Member States.
One of the reasons that Ecstasy production had declined was that international controls had made it difficult to get hold of the main precursor chemicals. The resurgence of MDMA started in 2010/11 with the development of a new synthetic pre-precursor chemical which was easier to get hold of.
The amount of MDMA (the most common active ingredient in Ecstasy) had declined considerably in the late 1990s — early 2000s. The fact that most pills were much weaker had contributed to the drug’s waning popularity.
However, since 2010 the average strength of Ecstasy tablets has risen from 50-80mg to 125mg with considerable number of “super pills” in the 270-340mg range. This is a serious harm reduction concern as users who had been used to taking more than one pill at a time suddenly found they were taking pills 4-5 times stronger. The graphic below shows the average MDMA content of Dutch tables over a 12 year period:
More sophisticated supply models
The EMCDDA report describes an increasingly complex MDMA market structure in which suppliers are innovating to encourage growth and adopting marketing strategies to gain a larger share of a growing market.
The Netherlands and Belgium remain the global centre of MDMA production, but it is not clear that they will remain so indefinitely. Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) in these countries appear to have maintained a competitive advantage so far with the specialisation of production and decentralisation of specific roles (expertise, logistics, specialisms, chemical recovery) to avoid detection.
These groups have also diversified production processes, means of sale (increasingly over the inernet) and have developed a growing range of products (MDMA oil, crystals, designer pills, logos, etc.). In particular, the sale of MDMA via darknet markets (see more here) on the deep web could potentially be a game changer, with new players entering the marketplace and the declining importance of established organisational structures, including OCGs.
With the increase in the use of Ecstasy, the EMCDDA identifies three main risk factors:
- With increased rates of prevalence, the population at risk increases.
- With more novice users, the likelihood of problems linked to inexperience in drug taking increases.
- With increased doses of MDMA in available products, the relative risk of all users experiencing problems increases.
The EMCDDA identifies the variability in the potency of MDMA tablets as one of the greatest threats, with high variability of MDMA content in similar looking products.
They note that although the increased market supply of MDMA potentially reduces the rationale for and likelihood of adulteration, the increased use of this drug at festivals and mainstream events continues to provide an opportunistic market for exploitation with ‘adulterants’.
When MDMA/Ecstasy use was a closely tied to electronic dance music, harm reduction messages were targeted at this scene. However, now that MDMA is more widely used in the mainstream population the traditional harm reduction methods appear to be increasingly out of date.
The EMCDDA highlights the need for services to engage and work with a new, younger generation of more mainstream users, with an imortant role for online resources:
There is clearly a central role for the Internet in expanding consumer reach and targeting differential consumer risk behaviours. This is likely to require the development of a consensus on and processes for effective messaging, and also the development of new intervention models across the areas of rapid response, harm reduction and prevention.