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E for Ecstasy
by Nicholas Saunders

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Chapter 12: What Ecstasy is and where it comes from For test results of samples of Ecstasy, see my site online in both North America and Europe Ecstasy is MDMA or, to give it the full chemical name, '3,4 Methylene-dioxy-N-methylamphetamine', pronounced 'Three-Four Methylene Dioxy N Methyl Amphetamine'. To a chemist the name describes what the molecule consists of. The word 'Methyl is sometimes abbreviated to 'Meth', and the letter 'N' and numbers '3,4' are often omitted, leaving the more usual 'Methylenedioxymethamphetamine'. (The 3,4 indicates the way in which the components of the molecule are joined together, as it is possible to produce an isomer which has all the same components joined differently.) Similarly, the initials are sometimes reduced to MDM (although this is old-fashioned) and of course there are the various popular names such as E, Adam, X and Empathy.

Many people believe that the name implies a mixture of ingredients but this is wrong - just as water is not a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen although its molecule consists of oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Like water, MDMA is a compound, not a mixture. So, although the name contains the word 'amphetamine' and the law refers to MDMA as a 'psychedelic amphetamine', MDMA contains no amphetamine. The amphetamine-like effects may be related to dopamine release.(38, 186)

Is it really Ecstasy? See under Testing on my site online in both North America and Europe What is sold as Ecstasy in Britain is just as often MDA (3,4 Methylenedioxyamphetamine) or MDEA (3,4 Methylenedioxy-ethylamphetamine, also called MDE or Eve). Again, these are pure substances. But in addition, 'Ecstasy' often consists of various other drugs such as mixtures of LSD and amphetamine or caffeine. In America, the last figures published by Pharmchem (1985) show a similar picture - only half the samples were pure MDMA, with nearly half the remainder being MDA or MDEA while the rest was either another drug altogether or fakes.(161)

Why Ecstasy may not be as good as it was Many regular users are convinced that the quality of Ecstasy is not as good today as it used to be. Though this may well be true, a person's experience on E depends on several factors quite distinct from the quality of the drug.

The first is tolerance.(34, 110, 37) If you had an unlimited supply of absolutely pure MDMA and took the same dose each day in the same situation, you would find that the most smooth, open, loving experience with the least amphetamine-like effects would be on the first dose. Each subsequent experience will have less of the loving feeling and more speediness until, after 5 days or so, you might as well be taking amphetamine (speed). You would then have to stop taking MDMA for a time before you could experience the good effects again. After a week without MDMA, its effect will nearly be back to normal, although to get the full effect you may have to abstain for as long as six weeks. Even then, the experience may not be as good as your first one - but that is probably due to being familiar with the effect.(99) Tolerance varies according to the individual, and to the size of dose taken. But as a rough guide, tolerance is noticed by those who take more than one E a week.

The second factor is your state of mind. Although this applies less with MDMA than with many other drugs (particularly LSD), the effect is highly responsive to your mood - in fact one of the drug's effects is to liberate suppressed feelings. You may not even notice that you are uncomfortable about something until the drug takes effect.

The circumstances where you take Ecstasy influences the effect, and it has been suggested that dancing on E may also alter the drug's effect.(32) Expectations also play a surprisingly large role in the effect - people get what they expect. Everyone likes to believe that they won't be fooled, but tests in which LSD and hash were substituted with a placebo show that, with those drugs at least, nearly everyone experiences what they expect.(109) Alexander Shulgin, who wrote a book on the effects of psychedelics(2), describes how he had an emergency operation on his thumb during the war.

Before the operation he was given a glass of orange juice with white powder at the bottom which immediately sent him unconscious - later he was told the powder was sugar!

Nevertheless, the overall quality of Ecstasy has gone down over the years. When Ecstasy first hit England, it was brought by enthusiasticusers from the USA for their friends, and so tended to be pure and strong. Now it comes mainly from illicit factories in Holland and is distributed for profit by entrepreneurs. It may be less good because:

1. It is weaker. Dr. Les King, who is in charge of testing samples of drugs seized by the police, has the impression that the strength of tablets and capsules has gone down by 10-20% over the past couple of years.(54)

2. It is MDA, not MDMA. There is as much MDA seized as MDMA(54), and this produces less of the warm, empathic feelings, although it is so similar to MDMA that much has been sold as Ecstasy without anyone realising. The most obvious distinction is that MDA lasts twice as long, 8 to 12 hours.

3. It is MDEA, not MDMA. MDEA appeared on the market in 1992 and the proportion of street sales of Ecstasy that are actually MDEA is rising.(54) MDEA is quite similar to MDMA but most people who have compared the two drugs do not like it as much, saying that they are not able to communicate as well or that they feel more stoned and less clear-headed. It lasts the same time as MDMA, 3 to 5 hours.

4. It is a mixture of the above drugs. Many people believe that the effects they experience are due to mixtures ("That one had a bit more speed in it") but in fact mixtures involving MDMA-type drugs are rare.(54)

5. It is a cocktail of drugs designed to substitute for MDMA. When MDMA is in short supply, dealers have been known to produce mixtures which they hope will produce similar effects, such as LSD and amphetamine.(54) The effect of this combination lacks all of the warmth and empathy of MDMA and the LSD component lasts for twice as long.

6. It is simply speed. In Holland, 15% of street samples of "Ecstasy" consisted of amphetamine and/or caffeine.(21)

7. It is a fake. About 10% of 'drugs' seized by police turn out to contain no active ingredient at all. This proportion has not changed over the years.(54)

8. It has been contaminated by a poison. This is one of the ideas loved by the tabloid press who have suggested that addictive drugs have been added to pills, a variation of 'the dope peddler who gives the kids free samples to get them addicted' shock horror story. Another variation says that rat poison or broken glass has been found in pills. Lab tests on samples here and abroad have found no such contaminants.(54)

9. The MDMA was badly manufactured and contains chemicals with nasty effects. This is a possibility, but has not been supported by analysis of samples.(54)

Another reason sometimes given is that, in addition to tolerance, the effects of the drug change with repeated use, but this was not found to be the case in trials of MDMA on psychiatrists.(26)

How can you find out what it is? See also under Testing on my site online in both North America and Europe It is not possible to identify MDMA without equipment. Most people judge by the appearance as some 'brands' have a good reputation, but beware of fakes. Lookalike pills can always be distinguished when compared side by side, but its hard to be sure later. Its a good idea to examine each pill very carefully and remember features that are hard to copy such as precise details of the design pressed into the pill. Capsules are obviously far more dodgy, as the same ones may contain different powders which may look similar. The only clue is then taste, and so its a good idea to get to know and remember what good E tastes like.

In Holland, there are several 'safe houses' with which the police have agreed not to interfere, where people can take drugs for analysis.(112) (See Appendix 6 on page 310.) The Dutch government even pays people to buy samples of street drugs and send them in for analysis so that the results can be published(21). However, there is no legal way to have a pill tested in England.

There is a laboratory reagent called Marquis that consists of sulphuric acid and formaldehyde which I have seen used in Amsterdam for testing drugs brought in by dealers (wrongly described in MixMag as a machine for testing Ecstasy). It shows a dark colour with MDA, MDMA and MDEA, but also turns dark with many prescription drugs and even some paper, so is not a reliable test, especially when used by inexperienced people. However, regular users of Marquis claim to be able to acquire the skill to distinguish between several drugs including amphetamine, which shows orange, from MDMA which shows a darker colour, or brown/black-purple.(54)

A drug testing kit is marketed by British Drug Houses and Merck (product code 321761, price about #35). This consists of 40 ampoules of Marquis; to use it you break off the neck of an ampoule and drop in a tiny bit of the drug. The instructions say that within a minute the Marquis turns violet with opiates and 'yellow/orange/brown' with amphetamines and MDMA-type drugs. Absence of colour indicates none of these drugs are present, and this is what it is used for - as a quick way to check whether a suspect tablet does not contain an illicit drug.

Laboratory analysis The method used to detect MDMA (and other drugs) is called chromatography. The principle is akin to the coloured rings around a drop of ink as it spreads out on a piece of paper: under controlled conditions, different drugs form characteristic rings. Equipment is set up to test for various drugs by seeing whether characteristic bands are produced, and the method can be used to test samples of pills and to detect the presence of drugs like MDMA in blood and urine. At the National Poisons Unit there is a fair sized laboratory equipped with chromatography testing machines of various types. Each machine is dedicated to looking for a particular drug or poison. Some drugs, like cannabis, can be detected up to "five weeks after a single reefer", while LSD is very hard to detect. MDMA can be detected the day after it is taken and sometimes longer.(30)

Physical properties Pure MDMA is a white crystalline solid. When the crystals are too small to see it looks like a fine powder, but they are often large enough to sparkle and its possible to grow giant crystals up to a gram. The powder tends to stick to a dry finger but without forming lumps. It is chemically stable so that is does not decompose in air, light or heat - i.e. it has a long shelf life, unlike LSD.(141) It dissolves in water but does not absorb dampness from the air. MDMA has a distinct, strong and rather bitter, taste.

Manufacture For an interview with manufacturers and review of recipe books , see my site online in both North America and Europe There is very little MDMA manufactured for medical use(169), so that (unlike amphetamine) what is sold on the black market is also manufactured illicitly.

Most of what is sold as Ecstasy in Britain comes from Holland. The reason is simple: the sentences for supplying drugs in Holland are lower than other countries and the prisons are more comfortable. It is far less risky to smuggle drugs into England than to set up manufacturing facilities here. The trend is towards manufacture in Eastern countries where the materials and equipment are more easily available and bribes will avoid imprisonment. However, the methods are well known(2, 163, 189) and there are small scale manufacturers everywhere.

One group told me about the problems of manufacturing from their point of view.(167) Far from being an easy way to make money, it sounded like a nightmare of problems from explosions to paranoia. Suppliers are meant to inform police, so materials had to be bought at inflated prices for 'cash and no questions', but this always left them open to blackmail. The synthesis produced poisonous fumes and sometimes they had to evacuate when things got out of control, returning to find their valuable product dripping from the ceiling. Sometimes fumes billowed out in white clouds and could be smelled miles away. Even selling it was a problem carrying far more risks - and less money - than they had expected.

I have spoken to two people who have visited clandestine factories in Holland.(21, 112) One described a small operation producing MDMA in a private home: the equipment was ex-industrial, consisting of an autoclave and a 14,000 rpm mixer. Neither of the two operatives were chemists, although one had worked in a hospital laboratory. They had no previous experience, they simply taught themselves from books and papers in public libraries. They were cautious about buying the materials, so ordered them separately from suppliers in different countries. The cost of setting up the factory - about #70,000 - came from a criminal who wanted to get into the drug business. It took the operatives six weeks to make a batch, with many failures, but they said they could have done it in far more easily with the right equipment.

Very few clandestine factories have been discovered in Britain. One, in a shed in a garden centre, was found to be producing a batch of 20 kgs - enough for 200,000 tablets - every 24-36 hours.(89)

The manufacturing process produces a raw substance of which between 80% and 95% is MDMA. Incomplete synthesis results in a brownish colour.(110) A filler, composed of an inactive compound such as china clay, is then added to bind the pills and to make them bigger. Pills typically weigh between 200 mg and 600 mg each, of which only 100 mg is MDMA.(54) Sometimes a colour is added. Speckled effects are produced by mixing different colours of filler, giving the false impression that the pill contains several active ingredients.

Pill-making is an art in itself: if the pills are too solid, they may be shitted out whole; if they are too soft, they may fall apart in the mouth - the pressure and filler have to be well controlled. Commercial drug manufacturers use a small piston which forces the ingredients against a die at high pressure, producing a hard, smooth tablet. The die is engraved with a logo or name and can be changed according to the type of pill. Like the big drug companies, clandestine manufacturers use a die to identify their 'brand'. Word soon gets round that a particular brand is good, but before long fake lookalikes are sold and the brand loses its reputation. Brands therefore typically have a life of only three to six months.(54) A single factory will produce different brands for export so as to reduce the risk of being traced.(112)

Because many Ecstasy pills are badly made, pills such as aspirin are sometimes rubbed down to remove their markings and give them the look of illicit manufacture before being sold as fake Ecstasy.(113) Some Ecstasy is also sold as a loose powder or in capsules; this probably comes from small manufacturers who do not have the pill-making equipment.

As much MDA and ???MDEA is sold in Britain as MDMA. MDA is easier to make since it is a half-way stage in one method of manufacturing MDMA, and requires fewer controlled precursors than MDMA. The reason so much MDEA was produced in Holland is because it was legal until 30th July 1993.(160) Police action to prevent manufacture in Britain follows the principle of encouraging the suppliers of precursor chemicals to inform the police of suspicious orders. A new law making it illegal to manufacture or supply precursor chemicals means the suppliers could also be prosecuted.(114) Illicit laboratories raided to date have all been discovered by tip-offs from informants.(14)

Distribution According to the police(89), the typical drug dealer nowadays is a middle-aged criminal who has been in prison many times and probably committed armed robberies when he was younger. Police say that the pattern has changed, and that this kind of person never used to get involved in the drugs trade. The Mafia and other gangs of organised criminals are not suspected. This view is supported in a book called Traffickers by Nicholas Dorn.(115) Dorn says that, far from fitting the popular image of organised crime under the direction of "Mr Big", in Britain there are no drug barons and relatively little corruption. Drug dealing is, in fact, 'disorganised crime'.

According to Dorn, there are seven distinct types of dealer, but the situation is fluid; individuals change their method of operation, making it very difficult for the police who, he says, are less flexible in their methods.

At the top end are those who will organise production, such as the criminals who put up #70,000 to set up a factory in Holland. Then there are wholesalers, criminals who buy by the kilo for #20,000 or so (#2 per dose). They sell on to the middle men who buy a thousand Es at a time for #3 to #5 each and re-sell by the hundred at about #8 per E to the dealers who sell to the public at about #15 each, though often these are bought in batches of ten or so at a small discount (such as one or two 'free' tablets). Recently I've had reports of street prices as low as #814 and #9.(79) The price of illicit drugs does not bear the same relation to the cost of production as does the price of legal drugs. Instead, prices seem to start as high as the market will bear but then stay at that figure, defying inflation, or actually falling over time.(40)

A large proportion of the retail trade is conducted by people buying for their friends without making a profit, although usually gaining a few free tablets for their own consumption. Then there are the dealers who are trusted as connoisseurs of the drug, and will describe the subtle qualities of the particular batch from personal experience. This type of dealer never sells to the public but only to regular clients who respect them, so the dealer cannot afford to provide poor quality.

Another variation, more common among working class men, is for friends to arrange a meeting place, usually a pub, before a rave. One person knows of a supply and collects money on behalf of the others, then returns with the drugs which cost each person less than if they had bought separately.(40) This method carries more risk, either of losing your money or of getting poor quality. The person buying for the others also runs the risk of far greater penalties, see chapter 7.

A more commercial form of supply is by individuals who buy 100 or so and are either 'known' at certain clubs, or go around offering them for sale. They may be honest, especially if they are known, but they may also be selling fake Es. A new trend is for 'retail specialists' to sell in a club or at a rave. These are organised gangs, but probably not part of a large syndicate. They cooperate with security staff or the promoters of raves and clubs, and occasionally, so I have been told, with the police. The club or rave organisers put on a show of heavy security, searching people on their way in so as to exclude dealers. This leaves the way open for the gang to sell inside. Some members go around asking people if they want to buy drugs without carrying stock themselves so that, if arrested, they will not be accused of 'supply' and may get off with a fine. The stock and money is carried by members who are well protected by body guards, and lookouts warn of police activity inside and outside the venue. They have contingency plans worked out in case of a surprise raid, for example members who are free of drugs might cause a fight so as to attract the attention of the police while those carrying drugs and money escape.

Regular ravers tell me that such an operation frequently exists when there is tight security on entry and can easily be observed, yet the police hardly ever attempt to arrest such gangs. I am told that drugs sold this way are generally low quality and are sometimes fake.

A report by Dr. Newcombe of Manchester University suggests that "It would be unrealistic to expect any strategy to substantially reduce the use of drugs at raves", but he does suggest that police attention should be directed towards such gangs. He also believes the gangs are responsible for selling bad quality drugs.(33)