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Chemical Cowboys: The DEA's Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin
by Lisa Sweetingham
Ballantine Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 11/3/2010

I remember the first time a professor introduced me to the concept of the social relations of a commodity chain. The idea is to look at something, like a cup of coffee. Now consider all of the social and environmental relations that went into making it. The farmer, living in poverty, growing the beans. Factory workers cranking out fertilizers. The environmental and health effects of those fertilizers. Scores of people devoted to manufacturing and operating the transportation vehicles used to get the beans to you. The extraction and distribution of fuels used for those vehicles. The ceramics warehouse that produced the cup. The low pay of your local baristas, etc.

It hit me that on the one hand this was a generally ignored and devastatingly important way to think. Every aspect of our society conspires to hide these truths from us while we focus on an end object like a Lowfat Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino. But it also struck me as the ultimate bummer—if you actually knew everything behind the scenes about everything, wouldn’t this render you unable to feel happy about a single material object around you?

Now apply this to an illegal drug like MDMA. Sure, MDMA can make you feel good but did it make everybody else associated with the whole process of getting those chemicals into your brain feel good? Not likely, especially when organized crime is involved. And it usually is, unless you’re one of the lucky few with a friendly amateur chemist pal.

Chemical Cowboys helps elucidate some of this hidden chain that ends with that serotonin kick flowing through you. Not much here on the production side, and virtually nothing on consumption; the book focuses on distribution. And the distributors described appear, with some exceptions, to be working for amoral and even psychopathological criminals. By “crime” I’m not talking about the distribution of MDMA itself, which (depending on your point of view) in some contexts could be considered more of a public service than any kind of moral hazard. The problem here is the unethical and sometimes violent conduct of the people who work for and run these networks. That’s what the average club kid, raver, or even educated drug geek doesn’t generally realize until they start to explore the murky worlds described in books like this. Your friendly club dealer might be a nice guy, but he’s probably working for people who aren’t.

The distributors who star in Sweetingham’s well-researched if psychologically empty account actually seem fairly benign compared to say Pablo Escobar, but the fact remains they are motivated by greed, not MDMA evangelism. The markup on MDMA is astronomical, a pill retailing for $20 costs a few cents to produce. Made mainly in the Netherlands, where its hastily dumped toxic waste byproducts poison the countryside, these distributors’ drugs were smuggled into the United States by mules solicited largely through Israeli expats with backgrounds in gambling, extortion, human smuggling, and other unsavory activities. Mules went quietly to jail for their bosses; occasionally hitmen rubbed out competitors or snitches.

Chemical Cowboys shows us how these networks operated, and how the DEA working with Israeli and myriad other law enforcement agencies around the world used wiretaps, shared intelligence, and pressured suspects to turn informant to crack and bust the rings. On the way, Sweetingham covers some familiar ground—the Clubland episodes and the roles of Club Kid-turned-killer Michael Alig, and Limelight and Tunnel owner Peter Gatien. Unfortunately, we don’t really get much depth in the characters portrayed, except for the main DEA agent on the case and a few of the minor distributors. The music and broader cultural and sociological aspects of MDMA and rave culture are almost completely ignored. We do learn details of callous mercenary cruelty by people involved in the scene, like clubs with the water taps switched off so clubbers are forced to buy $7 bottles of water, and occasionally die when they can’t afford to hydrate. We don’t learn about those whose lives were touched for the better by their MDMA experiences.

Overall, and perhaps unintentionally, Chemical Cowboys reminds us of the stupidity and tragic effects of the war on drugs. It is not MDMA the molecule that led to a hit on an ecstasy dealer in LA, or that makes young Hasidic Jews face stiff jail sentences for smuggling; it is the result of numerous human drives—toward intoxication, vast riches, excitement, escape, the emotional bonding and spiritual possibilities of MDMA—combined with prohibition. Mix in gangsters with nicknames like “the Fat Man” and “Wolf”, and the result isn’t pretty. The pages on MDMA adulteration, fake pills, and their sometimes fatal consequences make that point all too well. It is hard to imagine that the Israeli and American mobsters behind the MDMA trafficking scenes would ever have customers’ best interests at heart any more than Al Capone did during Prohibition. But until an enlightened age of harm reduction and medicalized legalization ensues, we might want to pay attention to just exactly how drugs are made and distributed, and by whom, and what the consequences of that are. Just because the drug warriors have been saying this for years (and just because they lie about almost everything else) doesn’t make it completely wrong.

It is understandable to suppose that those who manufacture and make available certain illegal substances are romantic outlaws, and they oftentimes are. But the breed described here are not Owsley or the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, even if they’re not the unfathomable mass murderers of the Mexican cartels either. In the last instance, of course, the drug warriors have essentially created this situation themselves in large part, and their hypocrisy in ignoring their own role can be hard to stomach. But so are latex gloves stuffed with “Tweety Bird” ecstasy pills swallowed by naive and coerced young human mules.

A more complete history of MDMA has yet to be written, from its benevolent therapeutic use in the early 1980s to the “Are You On 1 Matey?” era of UK rave culture and its spread throughout the world, to today’s combination of “who knows what research chemical this really is?” knockoffs and finally legitimated MAPS-driven research agendas. Chemical Cowboys is one minor but nevertheless notable chapter.

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