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Published: 15 November 2011

Diversifying the supply of precursors for synthetic drug production in Europe

Synthetic drugs, including ecstasy (MDMA, MDEA, MDA) and amphetamine, are manufactured illegally in Europe from imported precursor chemicals. In response to the increased efficiency of international control efforts, some illicit manufacturers now synthesise, rather than purchase, precursors from so-called ‘pre-precursors’. In addition, manufacturers are masking traditional precursors as other non-controlled chemicals before importation (Europol, 2007, INCB, 2011a).

Recent fluctuations in the European market for ecstasy illustrate such phenomena. Following successful measures to limit diversion to the illicit market of the MDMA precursor PMK (1), it now appears that a range of pre- precursors including safrole are being used as starting materials in the synthesis of MDMA.

PMK is under international control, both under the UN Convention of 1988 and European legislation. Licit international trade in PMK is small and restricted to a few countries. Safrole is obtained from safrole-rich essential oils extracted from several plant species from South America and south-east Asia (TNI, 2009). While safrole is a scheduled chemical, trade in safrole-rich oils is not controlled. Safrole is also widely used internationally in the manufacture of perfumes and insecticides, which may diminish the impact of international control efforts.

Reports from the Netherlands, the country most closely associated with ecstasy production, suggest that many manufacturers of the drug have used safrole rather than PMK as the starting material. About 40 legitimate shipments of safrole totalling 101 840 litres were reported to the International Narcotic Control Board between November 2009 and October 2010. However, reports of suspicious shipments remain low compared to the estimated amount of ecstasy produced (INCB, 2011a). Some 1 050 litres of safrole and safrole-rich oils were seized in 2009/10, mostly in Lithuania, while neighbouring Latvia reported confiscating 1 841 litres in 2008 (INCB, 2011a).

(1) 3,4-Methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone.

Europol (2007), Amphetamine-type stimulants in the European Union 1998-2007, Europol contribution to the Expert Consultations for the UNGASS assessment.

INCB (2011a), Precursors and chemicals frequently used in the illicit manufacture of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, United Nations, New York.

TNI (2009), Withdrawal symptoms in the Golden Triangle: a drugs market in disarray, Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. 

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