Words: Jasper Van Der Bliek
Photos: ANP, PA Photos
Originally published in Mixmag September 2004
It's a typically dull April morning in the Dutch countryside. As the dawn stretches over the flat landscape, a special squad of 2O police officers are whispering quietly into walkie-talkies and nervously checking the safety catches on their handguns. Hiding in ditches, some peer through icy binoculars at a small, ordinary-looking barn next to a farmhouse lust a few hundred metres away.
These buildings are the only remarkable features for miles around in the rural area of Riisbergen, in southern Holland. It’s quiet here, eerie even, and no one is around. In place are members of the local police, forensics experts, firemen and a special drug lab dismantling task force. Down the road, a collection of marked patrol cars, large trucks and unmarked cars have crept to a halt so quietly that not even a dog barks to announce their arrival.
For months, the police have been staking out the building and its contents: an ecstasy lab capable of producing enough pills and powder to keep the UK gurning for months. With the quiet gurgle of a walkie-talkie it’s time to act. The dismantling team steps forward wearing protective white suits that look like they’ve been nicked from an X-Files set. When their measuring equipment goes into the red seconds later, they caution the police officers to wait. The barn is so full of toxic vapours that even a mobile phone could trigger a gigantic explosion.
Fire brigade cranes move in and remove part of the buildings roof. As the chemicals escape into the dawn sky, their horrible, penetrating odour mixes with the musty countryside smells. Once the barn is judged safe enough to enter the dismantling squad make their way in. No one is inside but what they find is unbelievable. They barn is packed with canisters, glasswork, a hi-tech tableting machine and seven freezers. Their equipment determines the nature of the chemicals. As they thought, most of it is PMK, the main ingredient or precursor for MDMA pills.
The size of this bust is enormous by any standards. 200 litres of MDMA (enough for over a million pills), hundreds of litres of acetone, hydrochloric acid and other dangerous chemicals. The white-suited police have to use two trucks to move the canisters and barrels, and spend most of the morning clearing everything out of the barn. The street value of the bust is estimated to be around €7 million.
In separate police swoops that same April morning, two more labs are being dismantled. During one bust, Dutch cops find 45 litres of PMK, enough to make 675,000 pills. According to a spokeswoman, the operation is one of the biggest and most successful police swoops on the Dutch E market. “We struck them a major blow,” she smiles. “The market will feel this.”
The pill chain starts with a chemist, then on to the buyer, the smuggler and the dealer, before dropping down the throat of the final part of the E chain. Despite the best efforts of the Dutch government, Holland is still responsible for most of the world’s E production. And wherever else in the world Es are produced, say the police, Dutch gangs are almost always involved.
In 2002, 43 drugs labs were shut down in the Netherlands alone (compared to just four in the UK) and 30 per cent of all E and speed seizures in the world that year happened in Holland. The Dutch and E go way back. Dutch scientist Robert Hollemans, inspired by Ecstasy godfather Alexander Shulgin, pioneered experiments with E in the early 1980s. Another Dutch chemist, Andre LNU (that stands for ‘Last Name Unknown’) was one of the first to make pills on a mass level for a Dutch-French-American trafficking network, but has never been arrested despite the Dutch authorities’ attempts.
Very little is known about the Dutch ‘Pillenboer’ or ‘pill farmers’. “The people we catch in busts are almost never the real chemists,” says Desirée Leppens of the Special Synthetic Drug Unit. “They are smart. They let petty criminals stir the pots while they stay out of sight.”It’s the large drug-producing cartels who control 90 per cent of the local Dutch E market. The chemists are mostly white Dutch nationals, based either in Greater Amsterdam or southern Holland. Immigration is a hot topic in Holland and racial tensions often divide drug dealing networks. The chemists sell their pills to dealers who are very close to the production process and usually come from poor southern Dutch caravan park backgrounds. These dealers, in turn, sell on to large Dutch and foreign buyers.
Although the world of professional E chemists is cloaked in secrecy, thousands of amateur chemists discuss their ideas and post recipes on the net. Mixmag spoke to one 23-year-old hobby chemist, Martin, a science student from the USA. “Making MDMA is fairly easy if you have a good education,” says Martin, “Otherwise, it’s the equivalent of a blind man trying to cross a busy road.”
Martin first made E in 2001 when he started studying chemistry at university. He’s not involved in dealing or trafficking and stresses that, even for trained experts, making E is a dangerous process. “It takes time, effort, and patience. I knew a guy a couple of years ago who was producing many pills and was eventually arrested for trafficking.” For some, however, the risks are worth it. “The yields are absolutely ridiculous. Even if you spend £1,000 on a lab and chemicals. It doesn’t matter when you’re making six-figure profits.”
Since the mid-90s, as part of their war on drugs, the US government has placed immense pressure on their Dutch counterparts to crack down on E production. This political pressure has had seismic effects on the quality of E that eventually finds its way into your pocket on a Saturday night. In 1996 a special task force, the Synthetic Drug Unit (SDU), was established in Holland to deal with the problem. The SDU had an immediate impact with around 30 busts and massive seizures of the ingredients required to make E. The E market temporarily collapsed and the repercussions were felt worldwide. In the UK a clubbing recession followed, as fewer and fewer pills reached clubber and dodgy beer-fuelled music genres took over clubland.
Within months, the underground Dutch E labs regrouped and fought back with the Mitsi. The heavily copied pill design borrowed its logo from Japanese car manufactures Mitsubishi and almost always contained MDMA. Aided by E’d up classics and the emerging superclub trance scene, in 1999 Mitsis fuelled dance music’s assault on UK culture.
In 2004, the E labs are better supplied, equipped and run than ever and around 90 per cent of pills actually contain MDMA. “The quality of Dutch pills is top-notch,” says Jaap Jamin, a health worker and consultant for the Amsterdam Jellinek Clinic. Jamin is also coordinator of Antenna, an annual monitoring system, which keeps tabs on the drug market by testing pills. “The quality has improved immensely since 1998. However, in 2001 pills contained PMA, which is life-threatening at doses over 60milligrams. It disappeared after some deaths, none of them in Holland.”
The quality is up and the quantity of pills being produced is on the increase, so the Dutch authorities are now taking a different approach, according to Desirée Leppens, “We target the import of MDMA’s precursors, PMK and Safrole. Most of the chemicals arrive from China, and in recent years they’re coming from Eastern Europe too. Cracking down on the trafficking of these chemicals is vital, because you can’t get them otherwise in Holland.”
The new approach meant seizures of E precursors by Dutch police has jumped by around 70 per cent. However, it could be a disastrous move for E users around the world. Wen the precursors aren’t available to make E there’s always the danger that chemists will to turn to lethal substitute ingredients like PMA. So if the police keep targeting the supply of precursors that could mean an increase in the likelihood of the chemists making – and then clubbers taking – a killer pill. “That’s why regulating the whole Ecstasy process from production to retail should be considered, so at least we would know what goes in the pills, and therefore have some control over hem,” says E health specialist, Jaap Jamin.
Many drug experts agree with Jamin and believe that legalising drugs like E will mean that the labs are regulated properly, and the risks ran talking pills produced by dodgy underground labs will be softened. It wouldn't save pill takers from the possible long-term effects of taking E, but it would make taking E a lot safer than it already is.
Research into the effects of E is still so thin on the ground we have no way of knowing for sure what damage E actually does. With money to be earned from legally making E, more money could be spent by the government and E manufacturers on studying E and its long-term effects.
One company in the US is already testing out E as a treatment for depression but drugs experts argue that more money needs to be spent on finding out for sure just how harmful E really is. “A radical approach like this could take years. But police have been fighting E labs for a similarly long time and the quality has never been better or pills cheaper, so it s clearly not working," says Jaap.
In 2001, 43 people in the UK died from taking E, and that death toll rises each year. Even if that number is tiny in comparison to the number of deaths blamed on booze or smoking, no one should have to die trying to have a good time.
Legalising Ecstasy might be the catalyst for the absolute mother of all drug debates. But if it helps save the lives of users worldwide – and also starts to answer the mounting questions about E’s long-term effects – it might be the only answer left.