Bulk of Illicit Club Drug Concocted in Netherland

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Jul 17, 2001.

  1. By Mitchell Maddux, Staff Writer
    Source: Bergen Record

    On the outskirts of this hamlet, a narrow dirt track cuts through pine forests and grain fields, meandering toward the Belgian border. But as farmers drive their tractors across the pastoral landscape, they sometimes find their paths blocked by piles of plastic drums dumped in the road, or they come across charred, abandoned panel vans.
    At times, they might even sniff what smells like licorice wafting in the wind. This is the unlikely heart of Ecstasy country.

    Chances are good that an Ecstasy tablet taken at a party in North Jersey or at a New Jersey shore nightclub came from a clandestine lab within miles of this farming village, where chemists working in rustic barns transform drums of chemicals into one of America's fastest-growing illicit drugs.

    "Two years ago, I didn't ever hear of this stuff," said Bergen County Assistant Prosecutor Kenneth Ralph, who heads the county's narcotics task force. "Now it's everywhere."

    Dubbed the "love drug" or "hug drug," Ecstasy removes inhibitions and makes it easier for users to connect with others. Taking the drug -- or "rolling" -- heightens sensations: Lights become brighter, the slightest touch feels tremendous, and music rhythms are intensified. It also supplies seemingly endless energy.

    This summer, federal drug officials say, more than 750,000 Ecstasy tablets are being consumed each week in the region from the New York-North Jersey metropolitan area to the shore. And the vast majority of those tablets come from southeastern Holland.

    An affluent nation renowned for its tulip fields and picturesque canals, Holland has been accused by the U.S. government of being the "principal source country" of Ecstasy worldwide.

    "The Netherlands is to Ecstasy as Colombia is to cocaine," John C. Varrone, who heads the investigative arm of the U.S. Customs Service, recently told a congressional panel.

    About 80 percent of the Ecstasy that makes its way into the United States is produced in the Netherlands, U.S. law enforcement officials say.

    As a result, State Department officials are discussing placing the Netherlands on the government's "decertification" list, which identifies nations it considers "major" drug-producing or transit countries that have not met the objectives of a United Nations anti-narcotics treaty, or have not taken sufficient action to stop the problem, a department official said.

    With only Afghanistan and Burma currently listed, even the threat of being placed on the pariah rolls brings tremendous embarrassment to a European nation such as the Netherlands. It could even exacerbate the colossal law enforcement and public relations nightmares the Dutch government already faces.

    In 1998, Dutch officials formed a national police unit devoted to tracking the Ecstasy trade. They also passed stronger drug-trafficking laws. Ecstasy seizures in the Netherlands jumped dramatically as a result: In one year, they more than tripled, climbing from 1.16 million tablets seized in 1998 to 3.66 million in 1999.

    "We have increased significantly the resources dedicated to fight Ecstasy," said Han Peters, a Dutch Embassy official in Washington.

    But U.S. authorities say more Ecstasy is flooding into the United States than ever before.

    Customs inspectors seized 660,000 Ecstasy tablets smuggled into Newark International Airport in the fiscal year that ended in September 2000. By this Sept. 30, they expect to have broken the 1 million mark.

    A crossroads for smugglers

    Why the Netherlands became the world's leading Ecstasy producer is a mixture of history and circumstance -- including the country's long-existing drug underworld, its culture and social policies, domestic political considerations, and restrictions in Dutch criminal law.

    "In the United States, everything is black and white," said a Dutch Foreign Ministry official, who requested anonymity. "In the Netherlands, everything is gray. We always compromise in the Netherlands. The Dutch are always pragmatic."

    Smuggling has long thrived in Holland's North Brabant region. For more than 100 years, black marketeers smuggled goods from adjacent Belgium and circumvented Holland's high taxes.

    Historically, North Brabant was long considered unimportant and remote, with few links to the Dutch interior. Local folklore is rife with tales of highwaymen who operated with impunity in the dark forests.

    The soil is fertile, making agriculture the region's economic mainstay. It remains one of the least populated areas, honeycombed with thickly wooded back-road connections that cross the virtually unpatrolled Belgian border.

    In the 19th century, a bootleg liquor industry flourished deep in the forests. Toward the end of World War II, black market traders smuggled food and consumer goods from liberated areas of Belgium to the Dutch north, still occupied by the Nazis.

    Smuggling continued until five years ago, when formation of a unified European Union eliminated most border controls and tariffs among member nations. Today, the two-lane roads running across the Belgian border have no checkpoints. Traffic passes unfettered in both directions.

    Chemistry also has deep roots in the region. In the Industrial Revolution, Tilburg, a textile center of 200,000 eight miles north of Esbeek, became known for its fabric dyes.

    The Dutch textile industry collapsed in the early 1960s, battered by competition from southern Europe and the developing world. Soon after, clandestine drug laboratories sprouted, specializing in the production of LSD and methamphetamine.

    Now the North Brabant labs make Ecstasy. The distinctive odor of root beer or licorice the process gives off, which would be obvious in more densely populated areas, poses little problem among the woods and isolated farms.

    When a batch is finished, barrels are discarded in the countryside, and stolen vans used to transport them are burned to destroy evidence. Then couriers laden with tiny tablets board airliners bound for the United States.

    Most of the labs are believed to be run by Dutch organized-crime groups, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says much of the trafficking is controlled by Israeli crime syndicates. Also reportedly involved are Russian, Yugoslav, Dominican, and Dutch drug groups.

    In 1998 and 1999, the Dutch police Synthetic Drug Unit found 71 drug-making labs -- in barns, shacks, houses, and even the backs of vans -- many of them near Esbeek, a town of no more than 300 people. The place doesn't even appear on most maps.

    Yet most of the "discoveries" came only when something went wrong: Some of the labs were already abandoned when they were found, and a number exploded, sometimes killing people inside. In 1999 alone, authorities say, 16 labs blew up.

    Marco recalls the boom days

    When Ecstasy emerged at "rave" house parties in the Netherlands 10 years ago, many of the early traffickers were what DEA agents call "freelancers." One of them was a 20-year-old university undergraduate named Marco.

    Sitting in a restaurant in the central Dutch city of Utrecht, an hour north of Esbeek, Marco recounted Ecstasy's boom days in an interview with The Record. He asked that his last name be withheld.

    At the time, Marco said, he organized large, all-night raves in warehouses. Ecstasy use was integral.

    "Everybody was using it at this party, and everybody liked each other -- everybody was walking around with a smile," Marco said of his first Ecstasy experience. "So the party was really very loving."

    French and British guests at Marco's raves in the Netherlands wanted their own supplies, so Marco bought tablets from a contact in Amsterdam and paid acquaintances to serve as couriers.

    To prepare the shipments, he said, he cut drinking straws into sections about an inch long and stacked eight to 10 Ecstasy pills in each. He sheathed the straw sections with plastic wrap, melted the plastic around the ends, and coated the containers with beeswax. He dubbed the creations "caramels." Couriers then dipped the straw sections in yogurt and swallowed them.

    On average, they ingested 120 tubes -- about 1,000 to 1,200 Ecstasy pills, Marco said. They then traveled by car or train across Europe, or by air to more distant destinations. Marco said he sent one courier to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe with 5,000 pills, and another to Australia with 2,500 tablets.

    "The biggest one we did was 10,000 pills to France," he said. "A friend of mine did 10,000 in a teddy bear. I never did any to the U.S.A., because I didn't have any contacts there."

    Marco said he earned about $2,000 a month from his part-time smuggling business, which helped finance a lifestyle far more lavish than that of the average student. Despite opportunities to boost those profits, he abided by an unbreakable rule: "I would never cross the border."

    That was based on the perception that authorities outside the Netherlands pursue drug dealers far more aggressively than do the Dutch authorities. This perception also helps explain why so many Ecstasy laboratories are set up in Holland.

    Indeed, Marco's experience symbolizes what some U.S. and European law enforcement officials say is wrong with Dutch drug policy.

    A public health approach to drugs

    The Netherlands has a long, liberal tradition of personal freedom. Its social mores on drug use and legalized prostitution, for example, are extremely permissive by American standards. Overall, illegal drug use is considered a public health problem, not a crime.

    "Soft" drugs such as marijuana are technically illegal, but people who possess amounts under five grams are not prosecuted. In 105 of Holland's 538 municipalities, specially licensed cafes sell marijuana along with coffee and cake, while officials look the other way.

    Ecstasy is considered an illegal "hard" drug in the Netherlands. But, as with marijuana, those caught with small amounts for personal use aren't prosecuted. Instead, the Dutch Health Ministry parks official vans in front of nightclubs and raves, offering free tests of Ecstasy pills to guard against overdoses.

    "The Dutch drug politics is mostly health politics, and users are approached more as patients who are sick and need to be helped instead of criminals who need to be put in jail," said Martin Witteveen, chief national public prosecutor for southeastern Holland.

    All of these factors influence the Dutch Parliament, which has opposed drug-fighting methods it considers too draconian.

    As a result, some law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic have privately accused the Dutch government of being soft on Ecstasy. They criticize Dutch laws that virtually ban plea agreements and ignore low-level street dealers and small-time smugglers such as Marco.

    U.S. authorities arrest and prosecute street dealers, some of whom accept plea deals and cooperate in exchange for shorter prison terms. "Squeezing" such smaller players for information about higher-ups is a key tool.

    In the Netherlands, plea bargains are extremely rare and "highly controversial," said Witteveen, who last year was the first prosecutor in the nation to have a plea deal approved by the Dutch Supreme Court.

    Objections focus on the ethical quandaries plea agreements raise -- that criminals should not be offered deals or receive reduced sentences.

    With no prospect to reduce their time behind bars, lower-level drug operatives in Holland have no incentive to cooperate with authorities, said several U.S. law enforcement officials.

    "In the United States, often our investigation starts at the time of arrest," a federal law enforcement official said privately. "Theirs [Dutch investigations] end at the time of arrest."

    Witteveen and several other Dutch officials said they had too few people to fight low-level drug dealing as aggressively as they wanted. They also said the government has made a strategic decision to concentrate on major traffickers and producers.

    But even when they pursue high-level dealers, other aspects of Dutch law apparently get in the way. For instance, laws severely restrict the use of undercover detectives, and this curtails most infiltration of criminal groups.

    Such limitations are based on a historical distaste for "agent provocateur" activities, Witteveen said. There are also philosophical disagreements in the Netherlands about the ethics of allowing the police to break the law to enforce it. And there is a fear that overall police integrity could be corrupted by close contact with criminals.

    "Basically, we believe it is a very serious matter for a police officer to pretend to be a buyer or deliverer," Witteveen said.

    As a result, the Dutch almost never use such standard U.S. drug enforcement techniques as "buy-and-bust," in which officers pose as drug buyers and arrest the dealer when the transaction is complete, or "controlled deliveries," in which undercover officers intercept a mailed drug shipment, deliver it, and arrest the recipient.

    Western undercover officers tipped off to overseas connections have sought to pose as potential Ecstasy buyers in the Netherlands. But that requires permission from the Ministry of Justice and more than half a dozen national agencies and local officials. In a situation that demands swift interaction between buyer and seller, the multiagency Dutch approval process sometimes takes up to six months, U.S. authorities complain.

    Dutch officials say they are confident they are taking the right tack. The United States' hard-nosed approach would run afoul of Parliament, some say, because it is out of step with the Netherlands' collective mentality.

    "I don't think the Dutch people like to be known as the world's largest Ecstasy producer -- that's not something we're proud of," said Madelien de Planque, a Dutch Embassy official in Washington. "But what works for the Netherlands would probably not work for the United States. For us, it works."

    What it may lead to, however, is another question.

    The normally bucolic southern Dutch countryside has seen an increase in violence the last four years amid trade wars between traffickers. In the woods near Esbeek, gunmen executed four people in a country house. In Tilburg, three people were killed when a man on a motorcycle fired a submachine gun into their home. Dutch authorities believe these and other recent slayings were Ecstasy-related assassinations.

    "In the last few years, we've had dozens of killings, mostly in the south," Witteveen said.

    Organized crime, already identified as a player in the Dutch drug trade, is a looming threat for "deep penetration" into the Netherlands, warned Varrone of the U.S. Customs Service.

    He challenged the Dutch to do more.

    "Do you want to put yourself at risk for the corrupting power of money?" Varrone asked.

    A Dutch detective has some success

    The nerve center of the Dutch Ecstasy counteroffensive lies 30 miles east of Esbeek in an industrial area of Eindhoven. Inside an undistinguished concrete building that once housed offices for a natural gas utility, Peter Reijnders talks about the synthetic chemical concoction that has come to dominate his professional life.

    "Ecstasy in the Netherlands is a hard drug, as is cocaine and heroin," said Reijnders, a police officer who has been appointed the Netherlands' first Ecstasy czar. "It is not as harmless as everybody thinks it is."

    Affable and polished, Reijnders, 41, travels frequently to assure others that the Dutch are serious about fighting Ecstasy. A day earlier, he was in Paris meeting with police. The week before, he was at an Ecstasy conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

    "This is a form of organized crime, and organized crime is always hard to fight," he said. "And it is hard to dismantle these types of organizations."

    Reijnders heads the Synthetic Drug Unit of the Dutch police, a team of 50 agents from the national police, customs, domestic intelligence, and other agencies. Earlier in the day, he was in the Hague, meeting with government ministers to request additional funding and 30 percent more manpower.

    The drug unit goes after the major producers and traffickers, but employs a global strategy of looking at "the whole chain of activities" involved in the production and distribution of Ecstasy, Reijnders said. That includes the importation of chemicals and machines that make the tablets, their production in secret labs, and their export overseas.

    Ecstasy is made by mixing several government-controlled "precursor" chemicals in pressure chambers with solvents and acids. The days-long process produces an average of 20 to 30 kilograms of Ecstasy a day. Some of the larger labs pump out up to 100 kilograms a day.

    The drug is generally made from a precursor chemical called piper methyl ketone or refined from sassafras oil. It is then reacted with methylamine. A liquid product called Ecstasy "oil" is produced, which is then dried with solvents into a powder. The powder is combined with a binding agent and formed into Ecstasy tablets. Metal stamps are then used to imprint designs on each tablet, often of cartoon characters or popular product logos.

    Among the countries making the chemicals are Poland, Romania, Vietnam, and China, where government controls are more lax and the possibility of finding corrupt officials is greater than in the West, U.S. and European law enforcement authorities said.

    The controlled chemicals are commonly smuggled into the Netherlands either by ship to Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe and a 40-mile drive from southeastern Holland, or overland by truck in barrels hidden among legitimate cargo. This takes advantage of virtually nonexistent frontier checks in the 15 European Union countries, from Greece to Britain.

    "When it enters the Union, we generally have no more border controls," Reijnders said. "It's very difficult."

    Ecstasy makers generally spread their risks -- and make police work tougher -- by splitting the phases of production: basic chemistry at one location, tablet production at another, packaging and distribution at a third, said Marianne Van Ewijck, a member of the Synthetic Drug Unit.

    But in a major coup last fall, Dutch police at the Belgian border seized a Portuguese truck hauling nearly 2,200 gallons of the piper methyl ketone -- enough to make 112 million Ecstasy tablets -- that had been offloaded in Lisbon from a ship from China.

    In addition to drug counts, the Dutch police now charge Ecstasy producers with environmental crimes -- for dumping chemical wastes -- or criminal copyright violations, for stamping the tablets with familiar symbols such as the Mercedes-Benz logo or cartoon characters, including Mickey Mouse and Woody Woodpecker.

    The drug unit also looks for drug proceeds and money laundering, and then tries to seize property and cash. Again, however, Dutch law makes seizures more difficult to obtain than they are in the United States.

    Despite such obstacles, Reijnders' team earns praise from European and U.S. law enforcement, including agents at the DEA's office at The Hague.

    "The Synthetic Drug Unit is doing an exceedingly good job," said Mike Stephenson, chief intelligence officer at Interpol's drug section in Lyon, France. "They've recognized they've got a problem on their doorstep, and they're dealing with it."

    One way to gauge the effectiveness of Reijnders' team is to look at the rising number of Ecstasy shipments that European and U.S. authorities intercept, Stephenson said. Many of the tips leading to those seizures "are coming from Dutch intelligence," he said.

    Still, the U.S. government remains concerned about the rapidly rising numbers of Ecstasy seizures on American soil.

    In April, State Department officials met with a Dutch delegation that included Reijnders, senior members of the foreign, justice, and health ministries, and the nation's top prosecutor and police officials.

    Afterward, the Netherlands said it would assign a Justice Ministry official and two police intelligence officers to its embassy in Washington to help coordinate Ecstasy investigations and other efforts with their American counterparts.

    Three weeks after the meeting, the Dutch government outlined a plan to spend $80 million to attack Ecstasy production within its borders.

    Dutch customs will get new X-ray scanners to screen outbound travelers at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport and export cargo in Rotterdam. And the government says it plans to increase public education about Ecstasy's risks through schools, television, and advertising.

    "We are intensifying our efforts," Peters said. "We are taking the production and trade of Ecstasy very seriously. We are putting our money where our mouth is."

    Complete Title: Bulk of Illicit Club Drug Concocted in Rural Netherlands Labs

    Source: Bergen Record (NJ)
    Author: Mitchell Maddux, Staff Writer
    Published: Sunday, July 15, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Bergen Record Corp.
    Website: http://www.bergen.com/
    Contact: letterstotheeditor@northjersey.com
     
  2. Jus came across this, Wanted to bump a DAMN old thread. :p
     
  3. I read it all, very interesting.

    was of the impression it was coming from our hat. . canada
     
  4. Yes, very interesting indeed. Funny that everything was near one small town of 300. Guess that secret wasn't secret for long. Reminds me of the meth lab me and homies found trying to find a good chill spot.
     
  5. There was a lot of interesting ideology in that. I love the Dutch governments attitude toward their citizen's freedoms. I have to do an informative speech for a class and I just may do Dutch Drug Policy. Some cool stuff in this section

     
  6. interesting.

    there are definitely worse drugs out there
     

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