Sociological evidence on the effects of PMMA is limited by the fact that there is no evident consumer market for this drug in Europe. In those cases where PMMA has appeared on the European market, it has always been consumed with PMA, as part of a tablet which was believed to be ‘ecstasy’ (15). Thus, this chapter is limited to a few brief sociological observations on the following:
• The social aspects of, and items of concern regarding, the content of ‘ecstasy’ tablets.
• Some Internet illustrations of the retail market for new synthetic drugs.
• Some implications for the media and policy-makers.
Europol has contributed evidence on the wholesale production and distribution of PMMA.
Social consequences: the fear of health risks and the development of knowledge
Recent deaths that have occurred from PMMA/PMA in four northern European Member States, together with media reports of dangerous new synthetic drugs, have fuelled growing concerns about dangerous products on the ‘ecstasy’ market. Fears of adulteration are not supported in substantial numerical terms by forensic analysis.
Nevertheless, there is evidence of an active and growing commercial market in ‘ecstasy’ testing kits (e.g. ‘E-Ztest’, ‘DanceSafe’, ‘Pro-test’). The existence of this commercial market implies that there is a demand for scientific knowledge about pill contents, albeit that this demand may come from the dealers/consumers of ‘ecstasy’. Drug user orientated Internet web sites and drug newsgroups are also becoming an increasingly important source of rapid information about the risks and benefits of new synthetic drugs.
Research shows that for many ‘ecstasy’ users, knowledge of the range of brands, a perceived ability to distinguish between brands, to link nomenclature to differing effects, and to have favourite brands, were all part of a broader process of demonstrating maturity and familiarity with the drugs scene (McElrath and McEvoy, 2001). The social importance of demonstrating knowledge is illustrated in ethnographic research and Internet newsgroups. For example, in a recent Internet newsgroup discussion, a participant made the observation that the deaths that have occurred from PMA were among people who took large doses of PMA (over 100 mg), expecting to experience MDMA effects. He/she added that, in their personal experience, ‘30 mg of PMA mixed with 50 mg MDMA feels like 150–200 mg MDMA.
Do not throw this pill away…MDMA + PMA is an excellent mix, may well be one of the best pills you ever have!’ (‘alt.drugs ecstasy’ newsgroup, August 2001).
Another newsgroup participant observes that the effects of PMA are particularly good when mixed with MDMA but that ‘PMA when taken by itself is quite horrible’ (‘alt.drugs ecstasy’ newsgroup, July 2001).
The presence of ‘ecstasy’ as an integral part of the music and dance scene has created a ‘platform of acceptability’ among substantial numbers of young people who may now be willing to experiment with all manner of drugs to serve fashionable recreational purposes (Shapiro, 1999).
The retail market
Criminological evidence about the wholesale production and distribution of PMMA and PMA is covered in Europol’s contribution (below). Internet newsgroups also provide some insights into consumer demands and the retail market. Interest in health issues and avoiding harm from new synthetic drugs is evident in Internet discussions. Newsgroups suggest that criminal suppliers are, in general, careful not to distribute drugs that will prove unpopular because of health risks.
A regular participant in the ‘alt.drugs ecstasy’ newsgroup recently provided the following description of the retail market in ‘ecstasy’ pills:
As soon as a pill is known in the scene as bad, no one can sell that kind anymore, and every dealer then calls their dealer, and gives them back … So in about 8 hours time, the pills go all the way down the chain, and all the way back … the dude at the top takes unsellable pills back, which all the ones I’ve ever heard of do … Once you get a reputation from those who ‘know you’ that you sell bunk/bogus pills people stop buying from you … I know one person who has been sitting on roughly 2 000 yellow bananas for the past three months and can’t get rid of them (Golaszewski, 2000).
The consequences of prohibition and law enforcement activity are other aspects of new synthetic drug supply addressed in Internet discussion groups. For example, in relation to PMA, some postings have observed that restricting sales of MDMA precursors has prompted underground chemists to produce PMA to ease availability (‘alt.drugs psychedelics’ newsgroup, 2001; ‘alt.drugs ecstasy’ newsgroup, 2001).
Implications for the media and policy-makers
Newspapers and television play a major role in providing information for the general public about drugs and in shaping public opinion (Farrell, 1989; Coomber, 2000). When a new synthetic drug is reported in the press, journalists tend to use ‘ecstasy’ as a reference substance, describing the new drug in terms of its relative potency compared with ‘ecstasy’. In view of the growing disenchantment with ‘ecstasy’ that has been reported in the EU among frequent and heavy users, journalistic references to ‘extra strong’, ‘more potent’ forms of ‘ecstasy’ may promote an image of the new drug that makes it desirable for particular groups of drug users. Promoting a desirable image is counterproductive for policy-makers concerned with preventing drug use. Careless press reports of the relative safety of PMMA, with regard to long-term neurotoxicity, may also be counterproductive, for the same reasons.
Theories about diffusion of innovation suggest that ‘opinion leaders’ play a significant role in influencing the development of new drug trends (EMCDDA, 1999). In the field of new synthetic drugs, Alexander Shulgin may be viewed as a significant opinion leader for potential consumers. It is worth noting that in his answer to an Internet question about the danger of PMA, he replied that:
PMA is a rather dangerous drug in the rave scene. At 60 or so milligrams orally it is a stimulant and modest turn on. At a two-pill dose, twice this dosage, it becomes a strong stimulant and is a threat to the cardiovascular system. But people at raves can be seen taking six pills at a time, and with PMA this puts them in a dangerous place, one that can be lethal. Be careful — this is a potentially damaging drug (http://www.alchemind.org/shulgin).
With regard to PMMA, in his book, ‘Pihkal’, Shulgin concluded that human experimentation should be discouraged adding that, ‘I tried it and I didn’t like it’ (Shulgin and Shulgin, 1991).
Recent social research on the prevention of ‘ecstasy’ use concludes that information should be accurate and up to date, with a focus on relevance. Researchers also advocate that detailed information should be specifically targeted and made available through appropriate means. For example, when information is for ‘ecstasy’ users, it should be provided in dance venues and provided by peer educators. Research also concludes that dance and music venues should also be appropriately designed, managed and staffed (McElrath and McEvoy, 1999; Malberg and Seiden, 1998).
Wholesale production and distribution (16)
Involvement of international organised crime
Contributions of Member States’ law enforcement agencies
Europol twice requested the Europol national units to supply information on
• In May 2001, in order to draft the ‘Joint EMCDDA–Europol progress report on the joint action on new synthetic drugs’, as requested by the horizontal working party on drugs.
• In September 2001, following the decision of the horizontal working party on drugs to request the EMCDDA to carry out a risk assessment as provided for under Article 4 of the joint action on new synthetic drugs.
Information provided by the Member States enabled Europol to report on seizures of tablets that contained:
• PMA, and in some cases other active substances, but not PMMA.
• PMMA but not PMA (no such seizures were reported).
• Both PMA and PMMA and, in some cases, other active substances.
Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have reported that their law enforcement agencies did not seize PMA, nor do they have any information on the production, distribution and trafficking of the substance or on the role of organised crime in these activities. In Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK, small seizures of tablets containing PMA occurred; in the Netherlands, there were five seizures totalling 5 374 tablets of PMA. These seizures are summarised in Table 7.
No Member State has seized tablets that contained only PMMA as an active substance.
In Belgium, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Finland and the UK, no seizures of PMMA/PMA tablets occurred, nor is there information on the production, distribution and trafficking of these substances or on the role of organised crime in these activities.
The Europol national units of four Member States (Denmark, Germany, Austria and Sweden) have reported seizures of PMA/PMMA tablets to Europol. The seizures are mentioned in Table 7. In all but one case, these tablets had the ‘Mitsubishi’ or ‘E’ logo. In one case, 337 tablets with the ‘Jumbo’ logo and containing PMA/PMMA were seized in Germany.
The Austrian Europol national unit reported the seizures of 4 478 tablets with the ‘Mitsubishi’ logo and active substances PMA and PMMA. The tablets were part of a 5 000 tablet shipment, which was obtained from a Polish citizen. A further, 10 000 tablet shipment was planned for September 2000. On 17 October 2000, a Polish citizen was arrested after supplying 10 000 tablets with the ‘E’ logo and the active substances PMA and PMMA. These tablets were smuggled by car from Poland to Austria.
The Belgian Europol national unit has no information on production, trafficking and distribution of PMMA in the country. However, in 2001, four people died due to overdoses of PMA.
The Danish Europol national unit reported 13 seizures of tablets with PMA/PMMA in 2000 and 2001, varying between 1 and 843 tablets. Danish Police suspect that all seizures probably relate to a single importation of some 18 000 tablets, in June 2000, by a Danish suspect who, through an associate who was arrested in Austria, had contacts with Polish criminals.
The German BKA reported two seizures of tablets with PMA as the active substance and another six seizures of tablets containing PMA and PMMA. Four seizures were made after a person died of the abuse of one or more tablets and one victim died after taking five tablets. Follow-up investigations led to the arrest of a supplier in possession of 18 tablets containing PMA and MDMA, in addition to a further 974 ‘ecstasy’ tablets, 100 LSD trips, 10 g of amphetamine and 7 g of herbal cannabis. The 18 tablets seized were part of a delivery of 1 000 tablets with the logo ‘Mitsubishi’. In December 2000, two German nationals were arrested for possession of 337 tablets with the ‘Jumbo’ logo and another 224 tablets with the ‘Mitsubishi’ logo. The tablets contained PMA and PMMA and were obtained in the Netherlands. The BKA also received information from the French OFDT (Observatoire Français des drogues et des toxicomanies) relating to the analyses of seven samples (five tablets with the logo ‘Superman’ and two powders) from seven investigations. PMA was detected in all samples.
The Dutch Unit for Synthetic Drugs reported the seizure of 119 tablets containing PMA, on 25 October 2000, with the logo ‘Elephant’. After an exchange of information with the German authorities, Dutch law enforcement agencies seized a further 5 000 tablets with the ‘Elephant’ logo and containing PMA and MDMA, in January 2001. According to the German BKA, there was no forensic link between the seized tablets with the ‘Elephant’ logo and the ‘Mitsubishi’ tablets.
The Swedish Europol national unit reported a total seizure in 2000, in nine incidents, of 1 819 tablets that contained both PMA and PMMA. Amphetamine and/or methamphetamine were present in seven of these tablets. Another three tablets only contained PMA. In eight of the cases, seized quantities varied between 1 and 19 tablets. During a house search in Stockholm, 1 782 PMA/PMMA tablets were seized following surveillance of members of a criminal group of Polish origin. There are no indications for production of PMA and/or PMMA in Sweden.
Investigations by the BKA, including forensic analysis in the framework of their CAPE (Chemical analysis programme ‘ecstasy’) system, have established a connection between seizures of PMA/PMMA tablets in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and the USA. In December 2000, Polish authorities raided two illicit laboratories resulting in the arrest of four persons. Inside these laboratories equipment, including tableting machines and chemicals, were found. According to the Polish authorities, production of PMA and/or PMMA continues to take place in other laboratories in the country and in the Ukraine.
• Distribution of PMA has taken place in six Member States: Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. This relates to the seizure of some 5 480 tablets in 19 incidents.
• Trafficking and distribution of PMMA has taken place in four Member States: Denmark, Germany, Austria and Sweden.
• In all cases where PMMA was seized (18 870 tablets in 29 incidents), the tablets also contained PMA and had either the ‘Mitsubishi’ logo or the ‘E’ logo, with the exception of 337 tablets with the ‘Jumbo’ logo.
• The total amount of seized PMA and PMA/PMMA tablets in the Member States in 2000 is relatively small when compared to overall ‘ecstasy’ seizures in the EU (17 426 531 tablets in 2000).
• Large-scale production of PMA or PMMA does not occur in any Member State.
• Three Member States, Denmark, Austria and Sweden, have information on the role of organised crime in the trafficking of PMA/PMMA. This relates to criminal groups from Poland. These findings, combined with links established by the BKA, and the fact that the Polish authorities seized two illicit laboratories for the production of PMA and PMMA, lead to the conclusion that PMA/PMMA tablets seized in the Member States, Canada and the USA, are likely to have originated in Poland.
• Since seizures of PMA/PMMA tablets in 2001 in the Member States probably relate to importation in 2000, production of PMA/PMMA tablets may have stopped, at least temporarily, following the dismantling of two illicit PMA/PMMA laboratories in Poland in December 2000.
Money laundering aspects
No reliable data are available on the volume of money laundering in relation to the production and trafficking of PMA/PMMA.
Violence in connection with wholesale production and distribution
The Member States did not provide data on violence in connection with production and distribution and trafficking of PMA/PMMA.
15) The term ‘ecstasy’ is synonymous with MDMA because, in general, MDMA is the drug that is most often found in tablets sold as ‘ecstasy’.
(16) Europol’s contribution to the risk assessment.