Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA — Trafficking and supply (EU Drug Markets Report)

Trafficking and supply

Wholesale supply activities

As indicated earlier, most of the amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA consumed in the EU is produced in Europe. However, most countries do not produce significant amounts, so intra-European trafficking occurs, mainly using the road and rail networks. Postal services are increasingly used to traffic all types of drugs not just at retail level, but at wholesale level also.

The role of organised crime

Dutch, German, British and Belgian OCGs traffic large consignments of amphetamine and MDMA to the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and other countries with large consumer markets. Generally, OCGs tend to cooperate with each other and use their common capacities for drug production and share supply channels. EU-based OCGs with strong links to Lithuania are involved in the trafficking of methamphetamine to the Nordic states, Ireland, the United Kingdom and neighbouring states, including Estonia, Latvia and Poland. Lithuanian OCGs cooperate with domestic OCGs and criminals in these countries to traffic their product to these markets. Norway is emerging as a particularly significant market for methamphetamine thought to originate from Lithuania, although information on production in Lithuania is limited.

OCGs from the Baltic states and OMCGs appear to dominate the wholesale distribution of synthetic drugs in Nordic countries, while Vietnamese groups are of rising importance in methamphetamine trafficking.
OMCGs maintain chapters across Europe and are involved in polydrug trafficking, especially in the Nordic countries, where it is likely that OMCGs are involved in the distribution of methamphetamine procured from OCGs involved in trafficking, such as Lithuanian OCGs, and then distributing the drugs in their domestic markets. The OMCGs most frequently mentioned in relation to drug trafficking are the Bandidos MC and the Hells Angels MC. Satudarah MC, infamous for threats of violence if debts are not paid, seems to play a significant role in the Netherlands where members are believed to source drugs for distribution in the Nordic countries. Germany seems to be an important strategic ‘in-between’ point, where meetings take place to arrange drug deals. In addition, some OMCG members also have contacts and travel regularly to South American countries (i.e. Venezuela and Argentina), suggesting links to the cocaine trade.

Vietnamese OCGs, as well playing a prominent role in the production and distribution of methamphetamine in the Czech Republic, are involved in the trafficking and distribution of methamphetamine in several Member States as well as a range of other criminal activities, including cannabis production, the facilitation of illegal immigration and human trafficking. Their trafficking activities often rely on links between the Vietnamese groups in the main countries of production and contacts among the Vietnamese diaspora communities in consumer countries. For instance, criminals of Vietnamese origin in France have been found to be involved in the smuggling of methamphetamine from the Czech Republic to France, where the drug is distributed among the Vietnamese and Philippine diaspora communities. Vietnamese groups have also been found to be involved in the trade in methamphetamine in Poland, Slovakia and the Nordic countries. In addition, OCGs in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have also started collaborating with Bulgarian and Vietnamese nationals in the distribution of cannabis and methamphetamine (Czech Republic:
Reitox, 2015).

The number of groups dealing exclusively with synthetic drugs is small. In most cases, OCGs have diversified their activities to include other drugs, such as cocaine and cannabis, and to a lesser extent heroin. There is also evidence of wider diversification, for example an exchange of precursors for amphetamines between Poland and the Netherlands. Other illicit goods may also be involved; it is reported that a Polish OCG smuggling cigarettes to the United Kingdom collects amphetamine in the Netherlands on the return journey.

The EU as a transit region

With respect to synthetic drugs, Europe appears to be evolving from a producer and consumer region only, to one of transit and export also. This globalisation of the drugs market has been facilitated by the exploitation of the EU logistical infrastructure by international criminal syndicates. The reason is clear: synthetic drugs are highly profitable. As an example, the production cost of MDMA is between EUR 0.25 and 0.40 per tablet, but the cost to the European consumer is normally between EUR 5 and 10 per tablet. The price depends on location, but, in principle, the further from the production location, the more expensive the tablets become.

Some methamphetamine transits Europe en route from Africa, mainly West Africa, to other markets, notably Japan (UNODC, 2015a). However, while West Africa is the most prominent region of origin of methamphetamine trafficked via Europe, EU Member States have also intercepted couriers departing from other regions in Africa, including East Africa (Kenya) and South Africa. Nigerian OCGs are probably among the most prolific groups involved in the trafficking of methamphetamine on a global scale. These groups often rely on the recruitment and use of non-Nigerian couriers in order to avoid checks based on risk profiles. Over the past years, Europol has consistently noted an increase in the number of methamphetamine couriers originating from the EU arrested in lucrative destination markets, particularly Japan.

In addition to West Africa, Iran is also a region of origin for methamphetamine smuggled via Europe to the East. In 2011, Bulgarian law enforcement intercepted a large quantity of methamphetamine routed from Iran via Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania and which was destined for Japan. Mexico is a major producer of methamphetamine, and it is likely that some trafficking occurs from Latin America on a regular basis via the EU to destination markets in Asia and Australia. Germany has reported the interception of a courier attempting to smuggle a significant quantity of methamphetamine via Argentina and Germany to Japan. The methamphetamine, which was of high purity (96.9 %), is thought to have originated in Mexico. However, seizures at airports indicate this to be a much less significant phenomenon than the trafficking of methamphetamine originating in West Africa or Iran.

Trends in synthetic drug seizures

Seizures of drugs can occur at many different stages of the supply chain and can vary enormously in size. Large seizures are often made at borders when large shipments are intercepted or a large laboratory is dismantled. At the other end of the chain, action against street dealers and users may result in a large number of small seizures. This variability, and the lack of data from key countries such as the Netherlands and Poland, complicates the interpretation of the data although, clearly, both the number of seizures and the amount seized give an indication of the importance of the market for that drug in countries reporting data.

A further complication is that amphetamine and methamphetamine are not separately identified in some datasets. Of the two drugs, amphetamine has historically been much more common in Europe, and this is reflected in the seizures data. Seizures of amphetamine in the EU have remained relatively stable for a number of years, in terms of both the number of seizures (approximately 30 000–35 000 seizures per year) and the amount seized (around 6–8 tonnes per year). However, three significant countries — France, the Netherlands and Poland — do not report the number of seizures, which limits this analysis. In 2014, EU Member States reported 36 000 seizures of amphetamine, totalling 7.1 tonnes. The quantity seized was slightly higher than in the immediately preceding years, and Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom accounted for more than half of the total.

In contrast, total seizures of methamphetamine in the EU increased between 2006 and 2012 but since then appear to be stabilising, at around 7 000 seizures and 0.5 tonnes seized per year. In 2014, Germany reported 3 900 seizures, and, as in the Czech Republic, France, and Poland, although fluctuating from year to year the quantities of methamphetamine seized have tended to increase over the last few years. In contrast, in some other Member States, such as Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland, quantities of seized methamphetamine have generally declined. Norway also seizes significant amounts of methamphetamine; between 2008 and 2013, methamphetamine was seized more frequently than amphetamine; however, this trend reversed in 2014 when the number of methamphetamine seizures reduced from 4 200 seizures in 2013 to 2 700, while seizures of amphetamine increased from 3 000 to 5 400 (Figure 6.9).

Figure 6.9

Seizures of amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA reported in Europe, 2006–14

Note: Some data for 2014 is not available and the most recent data has been used instead.

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

Determining recent trends in MDMA seizures is difficult because of the absence of data from some countries that are likely to make important contributions to this total. The information available (contents of tablets sold as ecstasy; number of seizures and quantities of MDMA seized; and number of production facilities dismantled) suggests that MDMA availability dropped sharply in Europe in 2008, reaching a low point in 2009. At this time, MDMA virtually disappeared from some markets and tablets sold as ecstasy often contained other synthetic substances. It seems likely that the relative ‘drought’ of MDMA on European markets in 2008–09 was caused by successful international cooperation and law enforcement efforts in both Europe and Asia that targeted the suppliers of the main ecstasy precursor, PMK. Indicators now suggest that this trend has reversed, and that MDMA availability, since 2010, has increased again, and has almost reached pre-shortage levels (Figure 6.9). No data at all are available from the Netherlands for 2013 and 2014, and the number of seizures for that year is not available for France or Poland. Assuming that the Netherlands seized the same amount of MDMA in 2014 as in 2012, it can be estimated that 6.1 million MDMA tablets were seized in the EU in that year. Seizure data suggest that Turkey, which was a strong market for amphetamine in the mid-2000s, with 4 tonnes seized in 2006, is now more focused on other stimulants, particularly MDMA; 3.6 million MDMA tablets were seized in Turkey in 2014 (Turkey: Reitox, 2015). It has been reported that ecstasy is trafficked to Turkey by the same criminal groups that are trafficking heroin from Turkey to western Europe, and by the same routes, mainly using motor vehicles, the couriers being of Bulgarian, Turkish and Dutch origins (Bulgaria: Reitox, 2014).

A recent upturn is also evident in trends of MDMA-related offences. Among those countries reporting consistently, trends also point to increases in MDMA content since 2010, and the availability of high-MDMA-content products prompted joint alerts from Europol and the EMCDDA in 2014. Taken together, these indicators of the MDMA market all point to recovery from a low reached about 6 years ago.

Retail supply

The way in which consumers obtain amphetamines and ecstasy reflects the largely recreational nature of most use, and there is evidence of a significant amount of sharing. In a web survey in six European countries, 17 % of users said that they were usually given amphetamines by someone else for free and 42 % reported that they sometimes bought and were sometimes given amphetamines. In the case of ecstasy, 9 % of respondents said their supply was usually free, while 33 % said they sometimes bought it and were sometimes given it.

Overall, the most commonly reported usual place of purchase of amphetamines was the seller’s home or someone else’s home (mentioned by about one-quarter of respondents), with the street or park mentioned by more than 1 in 10 respondents. The responses obtained for the usual place of purchase of ecstasy were similar, although in addition about 1 in 10 respondents said that they usually bought their ecstasy at an ‘other place of entertainment’. Purchase through the internet was mentioned by only 1 % of respondents for both amphetamines and ecstasy. The majority of respondents said that the reason for choosing to buy from their usual location was related to purchase from personal contacts (Frijns and van Laar, 2013).

These drugs appear to be quite readily available. About half of the ecstasy and amphetamine users in the survey said that they were able to obtain these drugs within an hour, although times to obtain the drugs were slightly longer in Sweden than in the other countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom). In all countries except the Netherlands, over one-third of ecstasy and amphetamine users said that there had been times when they had been unable to buy any of these drugs even though they had the cash to do so. The most commonly cited reasons for not being able to do so was that sellers were not available or had no supplies (Frijn and van Laar, 2013).

Although data on price and purity are not collected consistently across the EU, particularly in the case of methamphetamine, some broad comparisons between amphetamine and methamphetamine can be made. In general, the average purity of methamphetamine is higher than that of amphetamine, probably because the purity of crystal meth tends to be high, bringing the average up. Interestingly, it would appear that crystal meth adulterated with piracetam or dimethylsulphone (see box below) is present in the Czech Republic (Institute of Criminalistics, Prague, personal communication, July 2015). Despite recent increases in the purity of amphetamine (Figure 6.10), in 2014 the interquartile range (IQR) of mean amphetamine purities reported to EMCDDA was 12–27 %, compared with 28–67 % for methamphetamine (Table 6.1).

Figure 6.10

Trends in amphetamine purity and retail price in the EU, 2010–14 

Note: Trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have submitted data consistently since 2010. Trends are not available for methamphetamine. 

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

The reported price of amphetamine has been stable or increasing slightly over the last few years (Figure 6.10), although after adjusting for inflation is likely to be stable or decreasing in real terms. In general, amphetamine tends to be cheaper than methamphetamine; in 2014, the IQR of the average amphetamine prices reported to EMCDDA was EUR 10–25 per gram while that for methamphetamine was EUR 15–66 per gram (Table 6.1).

EMCDDA data collection suggests the typical MDMA content of tablets in 2014 was between 68 and 95 mg (Table 6.1). Trend data based on a smaller group of countries that regularly submit data and which excludes several key countries indicates that after a period in which the majority of ecstasy tablets sold in Europe contained low concentrations of MDMA or alternative substances, such as new psychoactive substances, more recently purity has been increasing (Figure 6.11).

FIGURE 6.11

Trends in MDMA tablet content and retail price in the EU, 2010–14 

Note: Trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have submitted data consistently since 2010.

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

Large numbers of users take MDMA but relatively few seek treatment; 0.3 % of treatment admissions in the EU are related to ecstasy. Most of the harms associated with the use of ecstasy are the result of dangerously high levels of MDMA in a tablet or the presence of something other than MDMA, such as para-methoxymethamphetamine (PMMA). The latter is thought to be related to the use of certain precursors, as the adulteration of PMK with 4-methoxy-BMK gives rise to the subsequent production of MDMA adulterated with PMMA (EMCDDA, 2016b). The Dutch Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS) has detected the harmful substance PMMA in an increasing number of tablets sold as ecstasy, rising from less than 30 in 2011 and 2012 (1.3 and 1.4 % of ecstasy tablets tested in those years) to 47 tablets (2.5 % of tablets) in 2013 and 40 tablets (1.9 %) in 2014 (Netherlands: Reitox, 2016). MDMA, in addition to being found in ecstasy tablets, is available in powder and crystal forms, although injecting and smoking have rarely been reported. The emergence of the crystalline form is possibly a reaction of the market to the low quality of ecstasy tablets that have been available.

Another trend to emerge recently has been an increase in the MDMA content of tablets. In 2014, the Dutch Reitox national focal point reported that the average MDMA content of tablets sold as ecstasy was at an all-time high. The highest MDMA content recorded that year was 366 mg, compared with an average content of 66 mg in 2009, suggesting that the shortage of MDMA precursors had been resolved. Indeed in 2014, over half (11 out of 17) of the countries that provided data reported maximum MDMA contents of greater than 200 mg. In March 2014, the EMCDDA and Europol released an early-warning notification that tablets containing dangerously high levels of MDMA had been found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Data from the DIMS of the Trimbos Institute show this trend to be continuing, with more than half of all MDMA tablets tested in 2015 containing more than 140 mg (Figure 6.12). The Swiss NGO SaferParty which runs a pill-testing scheme, advises users that the maximum safe dose is 1.5 mg/kg for a man and 1.3 mg/kg for a woman. In the EU, the average adult male weight is around 80 kg and the average female weight is 65 kg (), so tablets containing more than 140 mg of MDMA present a risk to many users, but particularly women. Anecdotal reports indicate that MDMA mortality rates have been slowly increasing; however, the time taken to report death data in national statistics makes this difficult to quantify.

FIGURE 6.12

MDMA content of tablets tested in a pill testing scheme the Netherlands, 2005–15

Note: Tested by the Drug identification and Monitoring System of the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands.

Source: DIMS, Trimbos Institute, the Netherlands.

It would appear that some consumers of MDMA may not favour the higher-strength MDMA tablets or the crystal substance, and as a result the use of alternative substances, such as 4-FA, has emerged (Linsen et al., 2015). A danger with a high-purity crystalline product is the difficulty in estimating the dose, which may lead to users taking more than the desired amount of MDMA. This has led to awareness campaigns such as ‘crush–dab–wait’ in the United Kingdom, designed to minimise harm when MDMA is used in this way.

Other synthetic drugs of importance

The focus of this chapter has been on the main synthetic stimulant drugs used in the EU, but there are other drugs that, although they appeal to a smaller number of users, are worthy of note.

Ketamine, which is not currently controlled internationally, is a drug used in veterinary medicine and in human medicine, mostly in anaesthesia, in some 62 countries worldwide. It has been misused by some subgroups of users for many years because of its dissociative properties. Almost all Member States have reported seizures of ketamine through the EU Early Warning System on new psychoactive substances, and an EU-level risk assessment was carried out in 2001. There is growing recognition of ketamine-related non-acute health effects, such as bladder and urinary tract symptoms, among chronic or heavy users. Since 2009, around 2 000 seizures have been reported each year; however, in 2014, this figure fell to less than 1 000, perhaps as a result of the emergence of alternative new psychoactive substances with similar effects, such as methoxetamine, which was marketed as a ‘bladder-friendly’ alternative to ketamine. Seizure data suggest that Spain and the United Kingdom are particularly affected, together reporting more than 90 % of the total quantity of ketamine seized in 2014.

In 2014, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence of the World Health Organization recommended that gamma-hyroxybutyrate (GHB) be moved into Schedule II of the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971, on the basis that its abuse liability was substantial whereas its therapeutic usefulness was little to moderate. GHB and its precursor, gamma-butyrolactone (GBL), sometimes called ‘liquid ecstasy’ or simply ‘G’, are used by certain subgroups of users in the EU, mainly in recreational environments. GHB has a steep dose–response curve, meaning that even a small increase in dose can cause serious toxic effects, including impaired consciousness and coma. According to recent data collected by the EMCDDA and Europol, Belgium and Norway appear to be particularly affected, with both countries reporting in excess of 400 seizures of GHB/GBL, while large-scale production appears to be concentrated in the Netherlands, occasionally occurring in the same place as the production of other synthetic drugs such as amphetamine and MDMA.

The prevalence of the hallucinogenic semisynthetic drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is described as low and stable, as few people are interested in the type of effects it provides. Seizures of LSD reached a low point in the early 2000s, and remained fairly stable at below 1 000 seizures per year until 2012, when seizures started to show modest increases. In 2014, just under 1 900 seizures were reported in the EU and Norway, with Germany, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom all reporting more than 100 seizures in 2014, as did Finland in 2013 (). A significant overlap between the LSD market and the market for new psychoactive substances emerged in 2012 during the risk assessment for the psychoactive substance 25I-NBOMe. It was found that 25I-NBOMe was being sold on the illicit drug market as LSD, in the form of ‘blotters’, and was also touted online as a legal replacement for LSD. Although they share some hallucinogenic properties, 25I-NBOMe is associated with some severe adverse health effects, probably attributable to its fundamental chemistry — like amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA, it belongs to the phenethylamine family and has stimulant properties.

Adulteration of crystal meth

Many believe that crystal meth is always a pure form of the drug, and often it is. However, it is possible that those large seemingly pure crystals
of methamphetamine are in fact adulterated with a substance called methylsulphonylmethane (MSM), also known as methylsulphone or dimethylsulphone. Pure MSM is an odourless, white, crystalline powder that is highly soluble and mixes readily with most substances without leaving a residue. It is usually added to methamphetamine during the final stages of production. This substance is ideally suited for cutting crystal meth because, after the chemicals are combined and the mixture cools, the MSM and meth recrystallise, resembling pure methamphetamine.

Source: http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs1/1837/index.htm 

Short title: 
Trafficking and supply
Footnotes: 

(28) Based on surveys in Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Wales). 

(29) Final data on number of seizures in Finland in 2014 were not available at the time of writing.