Chapter 6: Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA (EU Drug Markets Report)

Chapter 6: Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA — key issues

The European market for synthetic stimulants

The market for stimulant drugs is dynamic and complex, with interactions found between the main synthetic stimulants, amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA, as well as with the market for cocaine and some new psychoactive substances (NPS), particularly the synthetic cathinones. Availability, price and perceived quality influence consumer choices, with these drugs appealing to both recreational and chronic and marginalised drug users. The market for these drugs is estimated to be at least EUR 1.8 billion per year (range EUR 1.2 to 2.5 billion) in the case of amphetamines and EUR 0.67 billion (range EUR 0.61 to 0.72 billion) for ecstasy.

Problems associated with use

The availability of high-dose products constitutes an emerging threat and a challenge for public health and safety. There are growing concerns about high-dose MDMA products and the increased use of methamphetamine, and changes in routes of administration, such as injecting and smoking. Stimulant drugs are also becoming more important in the chronic drug problem in some countries, and have displaced opioids in some locations while being associated with higher rates of both drug and sexual risk behaviours. A negative impact on public safety may also arise from drugged driving and elevated levels of aggressive and even violent behaviour.

Production areas

The Netherlands and Belgium are the most important areas for MDMA and amphetamine production in Europe, although amphetamine production also takes place in Poland, the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Germany. Methamphetamine production in the EU has traditionally been limited to central European countries, principally the Czech Republic. However, small-scale production also occurs in countries bordering the Czech Republic, and some recent evidence suggests significant production capacity exists in the Netherlands.

Changing business models

Production business models are becoming more sophisticated, as is evident in the sourcing and innovation in precursors; the use of a decentralised, on-demand model and customised equipment; automated production; and the increased scale of production batches. Increasing diversity in synthetic drug production methods may increase the risk of consumers being exposed to harmful impurities or by-products or other more harmful substances. Aggressive marketing and branding is becoming more apparent in the ecstasy market. An increasing variety of tablets with novel shapes, colours and logos have been introduced, suggesting competition between suppliers and more active targeting of specific groups of users.

Production and precursors

Precursor chemicals are essential for the production of synthetic drugs. A large number of different routes and chemicals are now used, with new methods emerging in response to control measures, increasing the resilience of the market. This makes precursor control more challenging and, overall, purity and availability data support the assertion that precursors and essential chemicals are relatively accessible to producers. Ephedrine/pseudoephedrine are precursors for methamphetamine that can be extracted from over-the-counter medicines or diverted in bulk from legitimate sources. National restrictions on the purchasing of these products have been imposed in some countries; however, these measures are not consistent across the EU.

Environmental impact

The disposal of hazardous and toxic waste from synthetic drug production poses substantial health risks and causes environmental damage, and the costs associated with the decontamination of dumping sites can be considerable. This is becoming more of an issue as a result of the diversification and increasing capacity of production methods as well as diffusion to previously unaffected countries.

Trafficking

Most synthetic drugs consumed in the EU are produced in the region, resulting in considerable intra-European trafficking. Some synthetic drugs produced in the EU are also exported to other regions, such as the Americas and Australia. The EU is also an important transit zone for methamphetamine produced in West Africa and Iran and occasionally elsewhere, with the potential threat that drugs in transit are diverted to European markets.

OCGs exploit opportunities provided by the global infrastructure that supports public transportation and commercial trade. Postal and parcel courier services are especially relevant to synthetic drug trafficking, as is the on-going development of online retail markets.

Organised crime and changing business models

Well-established Dutch, Belgian, German and British OCGs are particularly important for both MDMA and amphetamine trafficking for large consumer markets in western Europe. OMCGs remain important for synthetic drug trafficking and distribution to Nordic countries. In addition, OCGs operating from the Baltic Sea area, particularly from Lithuania and Poland, are important for the production and supply of amphetamine and methamphetamine in the Nordic countries.

OCGs trafficking synthetic drugs are often involved with the supply of other substances, and it is important to recognise the crossover with other drugs. For example, groups supplying MDMA and amphetamine produced in the Netherlands and Belgium are involved in the cannabis and cocaine market, while Vietnamese OCGs in the Czech Republic diversified from producing cannabis to methamphetamine production.