Ecstasy

Seizure and use data indicate that the “ecstasy” market in East and South-East Asia has gained in importance. Europe and the Americas (primarily North America) together used to make up the largest amount of “ecstasy” seized worldwide, annually accounting for more than 80 per cent of global “ecstasy” seizures between 2009 and 2011, while East and South-East Asia and Oceania as a whole accounted for most of the remainder. And yet, in 2012, “ecstasy” seizures in the region have surged to almost 2 tons, just below the amount seized in Europe at 2.3 tons, but far higher than that seized in the Americas at 0.9 tons. In 2013, “ecstasy” seizures in East and South-East Asia and Oceania amounted to almost 1 ton, which was less than the year before but still at a higher level than between 2009 and 2011 when “ecstasy” seizures in the region annually remained below 0.8 tons. In 2014, law enforcement authorities in Australia and Myanmar have also reported of multi-ton “ecstasy” seizures. East and South-East Asia and Oceania might be becoming an emerging driver of the global market for “ecstasy”, though “ecstasy” seizures continue to only comprise a fraction of ATS seizures in the region.

However, seizures alone do not provide a direct indication for the size of a drug market. Therefore, an increase of “ecstasy” seizures in certain countries of East and South-East Asia might not necessarily be due to a growing domestic demand, but could instead be the result of growing domestic “ecstasy” manufacture, an expansion of transit trafficking or improved efforts in law enforcement. This chapter will start by assessing the demand for “ecstasy” in the region, followed by an analysis of the possible effects of NPS on “ecstasy” markets as well as investigating trends in the supply for “ecstasy” to the region.

Is the “ecstasy” market expanding?

These last few years, significant, and yet, steady levels of “ecstasy” use have been reported in Australia and New Zealand. The most recent 2013 Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that “ecstasy”, as in the previous survey in 2010, continues to be the second most used drug among people aged 14 and over, at an annual prevalence of 2 per cent, after cannabis at 16 per cent. In New Zealand, the latest drug use survey conducted in the country between 2007/08 showed that in terms of annual prevalence “ecstasy” was also the third most used substance among people aged 16 to 64 at 2.6 per cent, after cannabis at 14.6 per cent and hallucinogens at 3.2 per cent.

In spite of relatively high levels of “ecstasy” use in Australia and New Zealand, recent “ecstasy” seizures in both countries have not been the main contributors of the higher level of “ecstasy” seizures in the region in 2012 and 2013. A country-by-country breakdown of “ecstasy” seizures in East and South-East Asia and Oceania shows that the higher levels are primarily attributable to a surge of seizures in Indonesia, having more than doubled to 0.3 tons in 2011 and reaching 1.3 tons in 2012, the largest amount of “ecstasy” seized in the world that year. “Ecstasy” seizures in Australia have remained steady at around 0.1 tons between 2010 and 2012, rising to 0.3 tons in 2013. In contrast, seizures in China have decreased from 0.3 tons in 2009 to 0.1 tons in 2013. Together, all other countries in the region have annually accounted for less than 0.1 tons of “ecstasy” seizures.

“Ecstasy” seized by a number of countries in the region in 2012 was reportedly entirely intended for supplying domestic markets. All “ecstasy” seized in Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore that year, was destined for the domestic market. This continued to be a trend for Hong Kong (China), New Zealand and Singapore in 2013, where all “ecstasy” seized in these countries was reported to have been intended for the domestic market. “Ecstasy” seizures in most of these countries consisted of amounts less than 5 kg in both years.

There remains insufficient data available to establish the size of the “ecstasy” market in the region based on use figures. In Indonesia, use data of specific population groups suggests widespread use. The National Survey on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking among Workers of Transportation Modes (Land, Sea and Air) in 2013, found that “ecstasy” was the second most used drug in terms of annual prevalence at 1.4 per cent, after cannabis at 4.9 per cent. Moreover, in this survey “ecstasy” was identified as the drug of first use by 1.3 per cent of the respondents, after cannabis at 11.9 per cent. In 2012, the results of a drug use survey among Indonesian workers aged 15 to 60 ranked “ecstasy” as the second most used drug in terms of annual prevalence at 1.02 per cent together with methamphetamine, after cannabis at 3.50 per cent. Among students aged 15 to 19, a school survey in Indonesia in 2011 identified the annual prevalence of “ecstasy” as the second most used drug together with benzodiazepines at 0.34 per cent, after cannabis at 1.30 per cent. In this survey, “ecstasy” use at 0.34 per cent ranked higher than that for methamphetamine at 0.26 per cent.

Though there has been a reported increase of “ecstasy” seizures in Malaysia in 2012, “ecstasy” was identified as the least used ATS in 2010 and 2012 according to expert perception. However, Malaysia has been identified as a transit country for “ecstasy” seized by several countries in the region in recent years. In Singapore, almost all of the “ecstasy” seized in 2012 and 2013, and almost two-thirds of the “ecstasy” seized in 2011 had been reportedly trafficked via Malaysia. Furthermore, all “ecstasy” seized in Brunei Darussalam in 2011 and 2013, and a quarter of “ecstasy” seized in New Zealand in 2011 had reportedly also been trafficked via Malaysia. Therefore, the increase of seizures in Malaysia might point to growing transit trafficking of “ecstasy”.
Recently, there are indications of “ecstasy” use in the Mekong sub-region. According to expert perception in 2012, “ecstasy” use had increased in Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam but this was not confirmed for 2013 and “ecstasy” seizures in Cambodia and Thailand and Viet Nam have remained at a comparatively between 2009 and 2013.

Are there different types of “ecstasy” in the market?

Some NPS contain molecules that might share similar effects and profiles of MDMA that they are designed to mimic. For instance, synthetic cathinones can evoke stimulant and empathogenic effects similar to ATS, including MDMA. In East and South-East Asia and Oceania, there are increasing reports of seized “ecstasy” tablets that have been found to contain little or no MDMA and consist mainly of a blend of non-controlled substances. In 2012, only Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, New Zealand and Singapore reported the presence of NPS adulterants in “ecstasy” tablets. In 2013, such reports were also received from Brunei Darussalam, the Republic of Korea, Macau (China), Malaysia and Thailand. In both 2012 and 2013, almost all countries had identified piperazines (such as BZP and TFMPP) in seized “ecstasy” tablets. Synthetic cannabinoids (such as JWH-018) and synthetic cathinones (such as mephedrone (4-MMC) and methylone) were other NPS groups that had been frequently found in seized “ecstasy” tablets. Overall, it remains unclear whether certain NPS are replacing MDMA, in either the short or long term, or whether they are simply being used to supplement the “ecstasy” market.

A closer look at the “ecstasy” market in New Zealand, points to a diversified market in which two types of “ecstasy” might be present. According to the National Drug Intelligence Bureau in New Zealand, “ecstasy” is increasingly being trafficked in the form of orders over the internet by individuals and small networks who in this way do not rely on domestic manufacture of the drug. The authorities in New Zealand believe that this may reflect a market niche for higher quality “ecstasy” tablets in the country with actual MDMA content, especially considering that roughly half of the “ecstasy” seized was perceived to have been trafficked from the Netherlands (where ecstasy mostly contains MDMA).

Whilst “ecstasy” trafficked to New Zealand from other regions of the world are found to have a high MDMA content, the drop in “ecstasy” prices in New Zealand might reflect “ecstasy” of low MDMA purity manufactured in the country. This assumption would be supported by the fact that between 2008 and 2012, “ecstasy” seizures in New Zealand have been steadily increasing from about 4 kg to just under 50 kg. However, the typical street price per tablet has dropped from about US$ 43 to US$ 16 over the same period. The increase in seizures accompanied by falling prices usually implies an increased availability of “ecstasy”. However, it could be that lower prices since 2010 were reflecting “ecstasy” tablets of low MDMA purity manufactured in the country and not changes in availability. For instance, a laboratory believed to be intended for the supply of “ecstasy” tablets discovered in New Zealand in November 2012, was in fact manufacturing NPS that were sold as “ecstasy”. “Ecstasy” seizures in New Zealand have dropped to around 5 kg in 2013, but given that the typical street price per “ecstasy” tablet was not reported that year, the trend for 2013 remains unknown.

It might be that New Zealand has a two-pronged market in which “ecstasy” high in MDMA is being supplied from countries outside the region, predominantly Western Europe, and “ecstasy” containing various controlled and non-controlled substances is being manufactured domestically. So far, there is not enough information available to establish whether the growing availability of NPS in New Zealand and other countries in the region may have impacted the “ecstasy” market.

What is the extent of “ecstasy” manufacture in the region?

Over the last few years, “ecstasy” manufacture has been reported by a number of countries in the region. In Australia, 16 MDMA laboratories were dismantled in 2011, but only another 2 the following year. In total, 6 “ecstasy” laboratories were dismantled in Malaysia in 2011 and 2012 respectively and another 8 “ecstasy” or undefined ATS laboratories were dismantled in 2013. In Indonesia, 5 “ecstasy” laboratories were dismantled in 2011 declining to 2 in 2012 (some of which were reported to be of “kitchen”-size), while one laboratory was dismantled in New Zealand in 2012 and another 2 in 2013. Overall, there has been a decrease in the number of discovered illicit laboratories in the region from 27 in 2011 to 12 the following year, mostly due to the drop reported in Australia and Indonesia. Given that the size of most laboratories is unknown, the sheer number of dismantled “ecstasy” laboratories does not indicate the quantity produced in the region. Therefore, it is difficult to establish the extent of “ecstasy” manufacture in the region based on the number of dismantled laboratories.

However, in the last few years there have been significant seizures of ecstasy precursor chemicals in the region. The primary precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of MDMA and its analogues, MDA and MDEA, are safrole (including in the form of safrole rich oils), isosafrole, piperonal and 3,4-MDP-2-P. Between 2008 and 2010, ecstasy precursor chemical seizures annually remained below 90 litres, but in 2011 seizures surged to over 58,000 litres and still reached 8,000 litres in 2012. This significant increase in ecstasy chemical precursor seizures reported in 2011 is primarily attributable to the surge of safrole seizures reported in Thailand, from where there have been no reports of “ecstasy” manufacture to UNODC. Of the ecstasy chemical precursor seizures reported in 2011 and 2012, consisting mostly of safrole and some 3,4-MDP-2-P, 70 per cent were reported in Thailand, 12 per cent in Malaysia, 9 per cent each in Australia and Cambodia, and less than 1 per cent were reported in China, New Zealand and the Philippines.

The large amount of ecstasy chemical precursors recently seized in the region might indicate the potential to manufacture considerable amounts of ecstasy. Based upon the commonly used MDMA manufacturing methods as provided by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the total of about 66,000 litres of safrole and 3,4-MDP-2-P seized in the region in 2011 and 2012 would have been sufficient to potentially manufacture about 44 tons of ecstasy. This amount far exceeds the total ecstasy seized worldwide in both 2011 and 2012, which amounted to 9 tons.

Although the ecstasy precursor chemicals seized in East and South-East Asia and Oceania may have been intended for the use of domestic manufacture, reports show that large amounts are also being trafficked from this region to other parts of the world. For instance, between November 2012 and November 2013, the Netherlands had reported 3 safrole seizures, two of which occurred at the port of Rotterdam, involving 12,000 litres in a shipment mislabelled as palm oil from Thailand and 1,800 litres in a shipment from Cambodia, while another 25 litres were seized in a shipment sent via courier service from Indonesia. Over the same period, 1,000 litres of 3,4-MDP-2-P originating in China and heading for the Netherlands was seized whilst transiting Koper seaport in Slovenia in a container mixed with piperonal.

Geographic diversification in the supply for “ecstasy”

Although ecstasy is manufactured in the region, a decreasing number of “ecstasy” trafficking attempts from countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania are being intercepted within the region and beyond. In 2008, seized “ecstasy” had reportedly been trafficked from China to Mongolia and New Zealand, from Thailand to the Republic of Korea and the Philippines, and from Indonesia to Niger. In contrast, in both 2012 and 2013 there had only been one report of “ecstasy” having originated from a country in the region and in both years “ecstasy” was perceived to have originated from China. On the whole, the number of countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania that were identified as origin or departure for “ecstasy” trafficking has decreased from 4-5 times annually between 2007 and 2010, to 3 times in 2011, only once in both 2012 and 2013.

“Ecstasy” has been supplied from countries outside the region for some time. Since 2008, Canada and the Netherlands have annually been identified as countries of origin or departure for “ecstasy” seized in the region, by Australia, Hong Kong (China), Japan and the Republic of Korea. However, the number of countries annually identified for “ecstasy” trafficked from outside the region to East and South-East Asia and Oceania has increased from just 2 in 2009 to 7 in 2012, most of which are located in Western Europe and include France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, in addition to Canada, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States.

Moreover, there appears to have been a regional diversification of “ecstasy” trafficking to the region, which up until 2011 had been limited to Western Europe and North America, but since 2012 has included Western Asia. The number of recipient countries for trafficked “ecstasy” has also diversified from comprising China, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore in 2009 to additionally include Australia, Hong Kong (China), the Republic of Korea and New Zealand (with the exception of China, which was not identified as a destination country for “ecstasy” seized in 2012 by any country worldwide). Given that the exact annual amount of “ecstasy” trafficked from outside the region is unknown, this trend does not imply that there are increasing amounts of “ecstasy” being sourced in East and South-East Asia from other countries in the world, but that the interception of trafficking attempts from countries outside the region has increased. For instance, according to the Australian Crime Commission (ACC), the number of small quantity MDMA detections along the Australian border is on the rise, most of which occur in the postal stream and have been trafficked from Western European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.



Ongoing gaps and data limitations

On the whole, there are indications of increasing activity in the regional “ecstasy” market. However, information on “ecstasy” prices, purity levels and prevalence rates remains scarce and prevents establishing conclusive arguments on the “ecstasy” situation in the region. Also, there are discrepancies in the data and information regarding ecstasy manufacture. The number of dismantled laboratories provides an incomplete picture, given that the size of the operations are usually not known, and yet, large seizures of safrole point to a high availability of ecstasy precursor chemicals. The emergence of NPS further confuses the analysis of the “ecstasy” market. Given that a number of countries in the region have reported of NPS sold as “ecstasy” on ATS markets, reports of high level “ecstasy” use in some countries may be misleading. Furthermore, although law enforcement agencies in certain countries have reported increased “ecstasy” seizures, many of these tablets might have contained NPS with little or no MDMA. Therefore, more forensic evidence and analysis is needed to distinguish between “ecstasy” seizures of varying MDMA content.