MDMA is back in European nightclubs. Could China be responsible?

Pay a nocturnal visit one of the many nightclubs that comprise Europe’s hedonistic playground and you may notice that many of the regular clubbers look a bit happier (and sweatier) than usual. Ok, perhaps a lot happier than usual; with wide-eyed gurns the likes of which haven’t been seen on  dancefloors since the height of the 90s rave scene. 

For months anecdotes and rumours have been abound that MDMA (ecstasy) has made a triumphant return after an extended drought, and it seems the press has finally caught up. Recent reports have confirmed that MDMA is certainly back, with the excited buzz colouring the online forums of clubgoers tempered by the predictable knee-jerk sensationalism of the right-wing press (MDMA is back and ‘deadlier than ever’, the UK Daily Mail (unfoundedly) claims). 

But how to explain this resurgence? And where has MDMA been for the last decade? Whilst conflicting reports have divergent suggestions on the origins of the MDMA, few have highlighted the confluence of circumstances that point to China as the likely source. Free from the chemical controls to which other neighbouring countries are subject and with a burgeoning domestic consumer market of ecstasy-hungry hedonists on its urbanised east-coast, China fosters the perfect base conditions to become a centre for global MDMA production - and it appears as though this process has already started. To explore deeper, we need to look to the complex, multi-faceted global markets of MDMA production and trafficking at their most fundamental level; to the opaque world of the chemical precursors integral to MDMA synthesis. 

Let’s start by clarifying the rumours surrounding the status of MDMA’s resurgence on European soil. Look beyond the, shall we say, enthusiastic responses from various divergent groups within British society and clear substantive evidence of MDMA’s return onto the drug market is available. Drugscope, an independent centre of expertise on drug use, have found that ecstasy pills with a high MDMA content were on sale in half of the 20 towns and cities featured in its annual survey of the UK drugs scene, following a ten year absence. Pill prices are rising in reflection of their increasing MDMA content – with some purportedly containing the same amount of MDMA as the premium strength pills sold at the height of the rave scene 20 years ago. Whilst comparative Europe-wide information is scant, we might assume that there exists a similar picture across Europe. 

Two precursor chemicals are primarily associated with the manufacture of MDMA: 3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2- propanone (3,4-MDP2P; more commonly known as PMK) and safrole. Consistently efficient control of PMK has been one of the greatest success stories of international precursor restriction efforts in recent years, much to the dismay of ecstasy-users.   

Unprecedentedly enormous PMK seizures in the early noughties – 76 times higher in 2002 than a decade earlier – would have wide-reaching and long-lasting implications for global MDMA production over the subsequent few years. The magnitude of precursor seizures in 2002 alone purportedly reduced potential global MDMA production by some 12 tonnes. Marked increases in the closures of clandestine MDMA-producing laboratories, along with large seizures of piperonal – an alternative ‘pre-precursor’ for the manufacture of MDMA – signified the final nails in the coffin for MDMA production in the UK, and more generally across Europe. 

One need look no further than the sleuth of pill-related online forums to discover extensive anecdotal evidence as to the scarcity of MDMA throughout the mid-noughties. Throughout this period, European clubbers were regularly duped into purchasing ‘ecstasy’ pills with zero MDMA content. Instead they were unknowingly swallowing tablets containing amphetamines and other (uncontrolled) substances masquerading as MDMA, such as piperazines. 

According to recent data the availability of PMK in Europe seems to remain extremely low, with a mere 40 litres seized in 2009. How, then, can we account for the supposed resurgence in MDMA? We must attempt to de-tangle the answer from a series of divergent and enigmatic sources and suggestions. Before we look to China, let’s consider some of the more commonly raised suggestions...

Some recent reports have suggested that the newfound source of MDMA lies thousands of miles from the traditional production sites of Western Europe; in the rainforests of South-East Asia, no less. 

Enter safrole, the chemical precursor that is purported to be the increasingly prevalent go-to for aspiring MDMA producers. 

Safrole-rich oil (SRO) is extracted from various tree species in South-East Asia; particularly Cambodia. Safrole essentially acts as a chemical pre-precursor, from which the other substances necessary to manufacture MDMA can be extracted. Unlike PMK, SRO is unscheduled, and can be trafficked legally under the pretext of its various legitimate industrial uses (in perfume and insecticide manufacture, for instance). Despite recent efforts of local governments to prohibit the production, import or export of SRO for use in MDMA production, illegal production and trade has supposedly been growing steadily. The inconspicuous, small-scale apparatus used to harvest SRO is easily concealed within the dense fauna of the Cambodian rainforests. 

In an unexpected twist, the increased intensity of safrole-rich oil manufacturing has allegedly resulted in severe environmental degradation. The perpetual fires needed to distil the unrefined safrole-goop into a useable product necessitate wide-scale deforestation, and streams that provide water for processing become soiled with poisonous factory run-off. When one area is depleted of its natural resources, distillation moves elsewhere. 

But who cares? MDMA - now sold as a ‘premium product’ across the nightclubs of Europe - means big money, and where there exists sufficient demand, clandestine producers are more than happy to risk harsh criminal penalties to reap potentially enormous financial gains. The SRO producers have been reported to sell at around US$ 4 per litre. Traffickers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, can then supposedly  shift the oil for US$ 30 per litre, where it is subsequently smuggled to Vietnam and Thailand, and then elsewhere for use in MDMA production. 

But this doesn’t give the full picture. Press reports may have been keen to run the Cambodia angle because it presents an easy conflation of ecstasy production with environmental degradation. The phenomenon of MDMA’s resurgence is more complex, and the source of the precursor chemicals more enigmatic. 

Notably, other sources suggest that South-East Asia, and particularly Cambodia, is becoming far less significant as a source of MDMA precursor chemicals than certain media outlets would have you believe. Reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) attest that Cambodian seizures of SRO in 2010 were 95% lower than 2008, and that regional seizures of MDMA and ecstasy tablets have decreased since 2007.

So where is the MDMA coming from? The focus on Cambodia precludes the apparent significance of China’s central, yet arguably underreported, role in the European resurgence of MDMA. 

With its status as an ever-burgeoning industrial powerhouse China still harbours the majority of global PMK productive capacity. Whilst PMK is produced legally and legitimately in China, a hungry domestic consumer market has been driving up redirections of PMK onto the illicit production market.

Combine these factors, and what do you get? A potentially huge, nation-spanning MDMA production effort that seems to have successfully evaded international prevention. There is evidence that Chinese chemists have been producing a high-strength version of MDMA to satisfy an emergent class of young hedonists in China’s largest cities, which, crucially, is also being exported directly to Europe (see this report for more information on the ecstasy prevalence in China). Whilst detailed evidence on the nature of the burgeoning MDMA-production industry in China is rare, the circumstances – including marked decreases in MDMA production in the South East Asian region in combination with a ballooning domestic consumer market, and underscored by the ease of access to the relevant precursor chemicals – point to the likelihood that China will appear more regularly in the drug literature as a prominent source of global MDMA. 

So then, the rainforests of Cambodia may not actually represent the locus of the current upsurge of MDMA. The media may have opportunistically jumped on the Cambodian angle to facilitate the promotion of their staunch (and sensationalist) anti-drug line, whilst potentially overlooking the elephant in the room. 

In the clubs in Europe, revellers dance through the night, swallowing pills that have reached their final destination after a complex, globalised process of manufacture.  It will be interesting to see how the MDMA resurgence lasts. If previous experiences are anything to go by, it may only be a matter of time before the international drug control efforts catch up – but on the same token, past experiences are testament to the adaptability of drug manufacturers, and their tenacity in outmanoeuvring control efforts. We are increasingly beset with articles discussing the growth of China as an economic powerhouse; of Chinese potential to outstrip traditionally powerful Western nations. It may also be the case that China will be a future contender for the global MDMA production crown. Watch this space...