Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA — Production and precursors (EU Drug Markets Report)

Production and precursors

Synthetic drugs can be produced using a number of different production techniques, involving a range of different chemical precursor substances. The precursors needed to make amphetamine and methamphetamine overlap significantly, but are distinct from the precursors used to make MDMA. In Europe, and indeed globally, amphetamine is most frequently synthesised from benzyl methyl ketone (BMK) (). To make methamphetamine, although BMK may also be used, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are more common. MDMA is primarily produced from piperonyl methyl ketone (PMK), which can also be produced from safrole (or oils rich in safrole) and piperonal (see Figure 6.2).

Several methods can be used to produce each drug, and these may vary depending on precursor availability. Precursors are evidently a precious commodity; the fact that no excess precursors are seized during raids on illicit production sites suggests that the exact volumes of precursors required are provided ‘on demand’ for each production batch (EMCDDA, 2016b). All methods also involve the use of additional chemicals and processes that are inherently dangerous. Furthermore, the waste generated by the production process is often disposed of unsafely, causing environmental harm (see box ‘Environmental impact’) and risk to public health and safety. For example, in August 2015, four children were taken to hospital with chemical burns after cycling through a pool of liquid caustic waste from a synthetic drug production site in Belgium (media report () and Belgian Federal Police, personal communication).

FIGURE 6.2

The synthetic drugs production proces

Note: This illustration is intended to provide an indicative schematic overview of selected stages of a production process. It must be noted that alternative methods, chemicals and procedures may be used.

Source: EMCDDA. 

Production can be undertaken in facilities ranging in size from small-scale ‘kitchen labs’ to sophisticated industrial-scale operations. As well as being flexible in the use of different precursors and production methods, laboratories can be set up quickly to fulfil a specific order and dismantled rapidly to avoid detection and transported easily to an alternative location. This variability and flexibility challenges efforts to reduce production (Figure 6.4).

A now well-established feature of synthetic drug production that demonstrates the innovation and ingenuity of the producers is the production of internationally controlled precursors using so-called ‘pre-precursor’ chemicals that are not subject to such strict controls. This situation parallels the cat-and-mouse game observed in the NPS field (see Chapter 7), and several examples are given below.

Environmental impact

Hazardous waste is generated when synthetic drugs are produced, which takes place on a fairly large scale in the EU, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands. The chemicals used include solvents (acetone, ether, methanol, etc.), precursors and a range of other substances such as formamide, methylamine, acids, etc. It is estimated that production of 1 kg of MDMA by reductive amination results in 6–10 kg of toxic waste while the manufacture of 1 kg of amphetamine by Leuckart synthesis produces 20–30 kg of waste. To illustrate the scale of the phenomenon in Europe, it can be very roughly calculated that the production of the 6.7 tonnes of amphetamine reported seized in the EU in 2013 would have generated between 134 and 201 tonnes of toxic waste. This waste is disposed of in environmentally harmful ways, such as poured down the sink or toilet, although this is a risky option. Containers of the waste product may be dumped in a forest or field, or left in an abandoned apartment, or loaded in stolen vehicles, especially vans and lorry trailers (that are sometimes set on fire), as well as buried underground. Alternative elaborate methods include the use of a specially fitted van equipped with barrels, pumps and a hose through which the waste is drained on the road as the vehicle is moving (making detection difficult). There are also reports of synthetic drugs production waste being mixed with industrial waste and disposed of at sea. In the Netherlands, where 157 dump sites were found by the authorities in 2014, the average quantity of waste dumped at each site in 2013 was 800 kg (see Figure 6.3).

FIGURE 6.3

Dump sites of waste from synthetic drugs production in the Netherlands and Belgium, 2013–14

Map showing dump sites in Netherlands and Belgium

Note: Data reported to Europol by national authorities using the ERISSP (European Reporting Instrument on Sites related to Synthetic Production) tool. 

Source: Europol. 

The extent and nature of production in Europe

It is currently believed that the amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA consumed in the EU is almost exclusively produced in the EU (UNODC, 2015a). While Europe is a main global production centre of MDMA, the amphetamine and methamphetamine manufactured in Europe are primarily for domestic use, although some is exported, principally to the Middle East, the Far East and Australia. Europe also seems to be an important transit hub for methamphetamine being trafficked from Africa and Iran, again to the Far East and Australia.

A large proportion of EU Member States note only very limited or no production of synthetic drugs on their territories. Data available indicate that in Europe MDMA production is centred around the Netherlands and Belgium and, although large-scale amphetamine production also takes place in these countries, amphetamine is also made in Poland, the Baltic states, Bulgaria and, to a lesser extent, Germany and Turkey (see Figure 6.5).

Methamphetamine production is concentrated in central Europe, particularly the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and occasionally the Netherlands; Bulgaria is also reporting an increase in the number of laboratories detected. Two recent large seizures of synthetic drugs trafficked from Europe to Australia indicate that significant export capacity exists. One case resulted in the seizure of more than 800 kg of methamphetamine and almost 2 tonnes of MDMA, while in the other over 100 kg of MDMA was seized (see box below).

Production methods depend considerably on the availability of precursors and the know-how of the producers. According to data reported to Europol, in 2013–14 BMK was the precursor used in 77 % (48 out of 62 cases) of amphetamine production sites where the synthetic route was known, of which 32 were in the Netherlands and eight were in Poland.

The Czech Republic accounts for most of the methamphetamine production laboratories in Europe where ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is the precursor used, normally extracted from medicines. Although there is no clear EU-wide trend to indicate a notable spread of methamphetamine production, some Member States, including Germany and Austria, are experiencing an increase in the number of seizures, the quantities seized and the number of small-scale ‘kitchen’ methamphetamine laboratories. Although the scale and production potential is not routinely reported, between 2009 and 2013 a significant number of laboratories manufacturing methamphetamine were dismantled in the EU, most notably in the Czech Republic (1 483), Germany (61) and Austria (21) (UNODC, 2014b, 2015). It is also worth noting that in Bulgaria, 53 small-scale production facilities were detected between 2011 and 2013, with 35 of these dismantled in 2013. The synthetic route was reported for 17 of the laboratories found in 2013–14: 14 were based on ephedrine/pseudoephedrine and three used BMK.

Some of the methamphetamine produced in the Czech Republic is in the form of crystals of high-purity methamphetamine (‘crystal meth’). The quantities produced have typically been low, the output of ‘kitchen-type’ laboratories; however, although there has been a gradual decrease in the number of laboratories detected, there has been a noticeable trend towards increasing production volumes within a single production cycle of the laboratories being dismantled (Czech Republic: Reitox, 2015). This is achieved by connecting several smaller reaction vessels in parallel to increase production output. The use of novel uncontrolled precursors is another innovation.

Figure 6.5

The production of MDMA tablets

Photos © Dutch National Police/LFO 

In the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, the professionalism of production facilities is continuously improving. For example, production volumes have been rising and, in some MDMA production sites, custom-built reaction vessels with a capacity of 750 litres have been found (EMCDDA, 2016b). Some facilities feature a level of automation that allows the producer to leave the site once the synthesis process has been initiated and to return only upon completion of the production cycle. Dedicated tableting sites are also becoming more sophisticated, with brightly coloured pre-mixed excipients supplied ready to be combined with the MDMA and pressed into tablets in high-output industrial machines. The tablets themselves are now increasingly produced with novel shapes, colours and logos, suggesting competition among suppliers and more active targeting of specific groups of users. Some designs are even produced for individual events, for example music festivals (see Figure 6.6).

Figure 6.4

Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA production sites in the EU, 2013–15

Note: Data reported to Europol by national authorities using the ERISSP tool. 

Source: Europol. 

Certain production stages also seem to be increasingly spread over various locations. Several countries, including Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Norway, have reported amphetamine base oil from the Netherlands being converted to amphetamine sulphate on their territories, and this activity is associated with risks of fire, explosion, intoxication and waste dumping (NCA, 2015c). The Netherlands is one, but probably not the only, source of amphetamine base oil. In 2013, Estonian law enforcement dismantled a laboratory where amphetamine powder was being produced from base oil from Russia (Estonia: Reitox, 2015). A problem with this development (and the use of pre-precursors) is the increased potential for the production of unwanted by-products and impurities resulting from the use of inexperienced ‘cooks’ or poor-quality chemicals, or from unfinished chemical reactions. This hypothesis is supported by analytical data pointing to greater levels of impurities found in MDMA tablets, obtained from a pill-testing programme in 2014 (EMCDDA, 2016b) and the forensic analysis of seized amphetamine (Power et al., 2014).

Dutch and Belgian criminal groups remain the most important producers and traffickers of synthetic drugs in the EU. The large-scale production of synthetic drugs appears to be linked to a small number of interconnected OCGs, which share and exchange knowledge, resources and expertise. Dutch and Belgian criminal organisations possess the most advanced production capabilities. Investigations have shown that prominent criminal groups are involved in the production of several drugs, typically MDMA, amphetamine and, less frequently, methamphetamine. Since 2000, OCGs have been active in the Belgian–Dutch border region, setting up synthetic laboratories, sometimes combined with cannabis cultivation (Belgium: Reitox, 2015, quoting Smet et al., 2013). Some of the Dutch OCGs producing synthetic drugs have also established themselves as important suppliers on the online market. The methamphetamine produced by Dutch OCGs is mainly intended for export to Australia and New Zealand. MDMA is also trafficked in large quantities to these destinations. Furthermore, it is known that Dutch OCGs have provided expertise on methamphetamine synthesis to OCGs in India.

The involvement of Dutch OCGs is also evident in the production of synthetic drugs in other countries, often making use of the services of local criminals. For example, Dutch and Belgian OCGs often rely on Polish criminals, and/or legitimate businesses based mainly in Poland, for the provision of essential chemicals and pre-precursors for synthetic drug production. It has also been noted that the pre-precursor alpha-phenylacetoacetonitrile (APAAN) is often converted into BMK in Poland, because the chemicals needed for this conversion are easily obtained there. In addition, Lithuanian OCGs are suspected of producing methamphetamine for domestic consumption as well as for export to other Member States. Members of Lithuanian OCGs, known to be involved in the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs, travel on a regular basis to Scandinavian countries. It is suspected that they may be involved in the conversion of amphetamine oil into the final product in these countries.

FIGURE 6.6

MDMA tablets made for specific music events

Photo © DIMS, Trimbos Institute, the Netherlands. 

Precursors

Clearly, synthetic drugs cannot be produced without precursors; hence the restriction of access to precursors is critical to efforts to control illicit production. The main precursors are under international control and are listed in Table I of the 1988 United Nations Convention; however, the current reality is characterised by the emergence of novel precursors and pre-precursors that challenge the global control regime. Scientific investigation is the key to understanding these developments, and critical information about precursors and production methods comes from forensic profiling of seizures and samples from dismantled production sites. For example, specific markers have been identified that show when amphetamine has been made with BMK produced from APAAN (Power et al., 2014). Such forensic methods are an extremely useful, but perhaps underutilised, tool for understanding changes in synthetic drug production.

Precursors for amphetamine and methamphetamine

BMK and its pre-precursors

Seizures of BMK decreased steadily from 2010 to 2013. In response to strict controls preventing the diversion of BMK, resourceful producers have, for a number of years, been making BMK from other substances — the so-called ‘pre-precursors’. Despite these developments, there are recent indications that BMK may be re-emerging as a significant precursor in its own right. China reported the seizure of almost 5 500 litres of BMK in 2013, despite it having been absent from the market for some years previously, and it is believed that the BMK seized was destined for Spain (INCB, 2015a). In addition, at the end of March 2015, Polish law enforcement authorities discovered 7 000 litres of BMK in Warsaw which had been shipped from China to Poland via Germany, with the declared destination being a company in the Czech Republic. In the subsequent investigation, links with an amphetamine production site in the Netherlands were established (Europol, 2015e).

BMK can be made from other chemicals, e.g. from phenylacetic acid (PAA) and either acetic acid or acetic anhydride (Krawczyk et al., 2009), and by the so-called ‘nitropropene route’, using benzaldehyde and nitroethane (Krawczyk, 2005); and in the past large quantities of a white powder known as ‘BMK bisulphite adduct’, sourced from Russia, have been seized (Europol, 2009).

One of the most important developments in the story of BMK was the discovery that it can be produced from alpha-phenylacetoacetonitrile (APAAN), an innovation that was probably driven by erratic availability of other precursors. Since this development was first identified in 2009, APAAN has become an increasingly important pre-precursor and is imported into Europe primarily from China (on some occasions misdeclared as other products or substances) and converted into BMK using large quantities of acids, often in dedicated conversion laboratories. In 2013, large seizures of APAAN were made in Europe, notably 36 tonnes in the Netherlands and 5.4 tonnes in Belgium. In Poland, a laboratory for the conversion of APAAN to BMK was found and 1.4 tonnes of APAAN was seized (INCB, 2015a). In December 2013, APAAN was scheduled as a precursor under European legislation, and international control followed in October 2014. Despite these control measures, APAAN continues to be seized; in March 2014, Bulgarian authorities seized almost 1 tonne of APAAN that had arrived on a truck from Turkey, misdeclared as ‘soluble dyes’ (INCB, 2015a). Seizure data suggest that large quantities of APAAN were stockpiled in Europe prior to controls being introduced and, consequently, BMK made from APAAN continues to be used by OCGs for the large-scale production of amphetamines (see Figure 6.7).

FIGURE 6.7

European seizures of controlled precursors used in the production of amphetamine and methamphetamine (2005–13), and of APAAN (2010–14)


Note: APAAN was scheduled as a precursor in the EU in December 2013 and at international level in October 2014.

Sources: INCB Precursors reports (controlled precursors) and European Commission (APAAN). 

The control of APAAN, however, has prompted further chemical innovations in the precursor market. The finding of 3-oxo-2-phenylbutanamide, a substance that can be readily converted to APAAN, in a Dutch amphetamine laboratory in 2013, indicates that criminal groups have managed to circumvent controls on APAAN. This would appear to be the first example of a substance used to make a synthetic drug pre-precursor. In addition, in the first half of 2015, more than 600 kg of alpha-phenylacetoacetamide (APAA, closely related to APAAN) was seized in Poland and Germany. This substance is reported to be easily sourced online and may be converted to BMK using methods similar to those using APAAN.

Pseudoephedrine and ephedrine

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are produced and traded globally for legitimate ends and therefore are easily targeted for diversion, whereas BMK has few legitimate applications. Global seizures of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in bulk and pharmaceutical preparations peaked at almost 97 tonnes in 2009, when special international operations were mounted (INCB, 2015a). Since then, seizures have consistently been significantly lower, with West Africa, Iran and South-East Asia identified as areas of concern. The 1988 UN Convention does not require countries to monitor trade in the ephedra plant, although it is the raw material for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine which may constitute a weak point for diversion. The last seizures of ephedra reported to the INCB were in 2011; however, Chinese authorities report ‘a continuously worsening situation’, despite strict controls.

Pseudoephedrine and ephedrine are the main precursors used for production of methamphetamine in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany and a number of other EU Member States. They can be extracted from medicines sold over the counter in pharmacies, but also may be trafficked in bulk powder form. Against a background of gradually decreasing amounts of BMK, the amount of bulk ephedrine and pseudoephedrine seized in 2012 indicates an increased demand around that time. In 2013, although the amount of ephedrine preparations seized increased, the amount of bulk material decreased significantly, perhaps indicating problems with the supply chain.

Ephedrine- and pseudoephedrine-containing medicines are trafficked within Europe to producing countries, particularly the Czech Republic, notably from Poland and Turkey. Bulgarian criminal groups are known to be involved in these trafficking operations, and Bulgarian authorities have been seizing considerable quantities of these medicines. In addition, Vietnamese OCGs also use their networks to procure medicines containing pseudoephedrine for the production of methamphetamine. Associates of Vietnamese OCGs buy the medicines in multiple pharmacies in Member States not typically associated with methamphetamine production and traffic them back to the Czech Republic, on occasion exploiting legitimate business structures, such as pharmacies, for this purpose.

Currently, the size and numbers of the packages of medicines containing pseudoephedrine sold in a single transaction are not regulated by EU legislation. Some EU Member States, such as the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Germany, have implemented national restrictions on their sale, limiting purchases to small packet sizes and only under the supervision of a pharmacist. However, since sales are not restricted in all Member States, trafficking of such medicines takes place from Member States with less restrictive regimes to countries where methamphetamine is produced. Internationally, some countries, such as Australia, China and Russia, have also amended their legislations to monitor this more closely (UNODC, 2014e).

Precursors for MDMA

PMK and its pre-precursors

MDMA is produced primarily from PMK, which itself can be produced from piperonal and safrole (and safrole-rich oils). The global licit trade in PMK is almost non-existent, whereas legitimate trade of piperonal is significant, amounting to almost 2 400 tonnes in 2013. The licit trade in safrole/safrole-rich oils is considerably less, at approximately 4 500 litres per annum (INCB, 2015a).

According to the INCB, in 2013, five countries reported seizures of PMK: Austria, Belgium, China, the Netherlands and Slovenia. China would appear to be a source country, with two of the three Belgian seizures as well as the Slovenian seizure originating there. Spain accounted for 1 400 kg of the 1 405 kg of seized piperonal reported to the INCB from Europe in 2013 (INCB, 2015a). Seizures of safrole/safrole-rich oils decreased considerably between 2008 and 2012, a period that coincided with the reduced availability of MDMA in Europe. This was followed by a dramatic increase in seizures in 2013, with 13 838 litres seized, mostly in the Netherlands, once again underlining Europe’s global importance as a producer of MDMA (see Figure 6.8).

However, analogous to the situation for APAAN, PMK may be produced from other chemicals, such as PMK glycidate/PMK glycidide, and their salts. Seizures of such chemicals were first reported in 2013, perhaps as a result of the poor availability of safrole in the preceding years. Seizures of safrole decreased again in 2014 whilst seizures of piperonal and PMK glycidate/PMK glycidide and their salts steadily increased, perhaps indicating that PMK itself is in short supply. Thus, it seems that most MDMA production in Europe now includes a step in which PMK is produced from other substances.

FIGURE 6.8

European seizures of controlled precursors used in the production of MDMA (2004–13) 

Note: Other ecstasy drugs, e.g. MDA and MDEA may also be produced using these precursors; however, MDMA is the most common at present.

Sources: INCB Precursors reports (controlled precursors) and European Commission (derivatives of PMK glycidic acid). 

In 2014, during a survey by the INCB on the use of pre-precursor materials, several governments mentioned a substance called ‘Helional’ (2-methyl-3-(3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl)propanal), a novel precursor for MDA and possibly MDMA. In May 2014, Dutch authorities reported a seizure of 800 litres of Helional at a ‘clandestine warehouse’; more than 500 kg of APAAN was also seized from the same site (INCB, 2015a), indicating that precursor developments continue to evolve and must be carefully and continuously monitored.

Other chemicals of interest

Other chemicals play a role in the production of amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA depending on the process, and disrupting the supply of these may have an impact on production. Formamide is an important chemical used in the synthesis of amphetamine from BMK by the Leuckart synthesis method. In 2013, over 15 tonnes of formamide was seized in the EU in the Netherlands (over 14 tonnes) and Poland (846 kg). As formamide is to the production of amphetamine, (mono)methylamine is a key chemical for the manufacture of methamphetamine from BMK and MDMA from PMK (as well as some of the new synthetic cathinones). Notably, in 2013, 46 tonnes of (mono)methylamine was seized in Belgium, in the container port of Antwerp from a ship that had originated in China and routed via Guatemala (INCB, 2015a). The Netherlands also reported seizing 1.2 tonnes, and Germany reported having stopped two shipments with a total quantity of almost 1.2 tonnes. Another chemical worthy of attention is red phosphorus, which is used in the production of methamphetamine by the method commonly used in so-called kitchen laboratories in the Czech Republic.

Recent experience has shown that producers of amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA are resourceful and resilient, and likely to innovate and identify additional precursors and production methods if the traditional precursors become unavailable or prohibitively expensive. As will be discussed later, they appear, now also be experimenting with the production of new psychoactive substances. A growing European methamphetamine market or increased demand for synthetic drugs from outside the EU, particularly for MDMA, may prompt OCGs to increase their outputs and is also likely to further stimulate innovation in the production process.

Europe as a global supplier of synthetic drugs

In March 2013, the Australian Federal Police arrested a 32-year-old woman in Melbourne and a 38-year- old man in Sydney, seizing 117 kg of MDMA base and dismantling an international organised crime syndicate spanning Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. The complex 18-month investigation resulted in three arrests

in Australia and one in the United Kingdom. It was estimated that the amount of seized MDMA base was sufficient to manufacture up to 1.37 million ecstasy tablets with a potential street value of up to EUR 41 million (AUD 52 million).

Source: http://www.afp.gov.au/policing/drug-crime/mdma 

Footnotes: 

(26) BMK is also known as also known as 1-phenyl-2-propanone (P-2-P), or phenylacetone, and PMK is also known as also known as 3,4-methylene- dioxyphenyl-2-propanone (MDP-2-P).

(27) http://www.demorgen.be/binnenland/drugslabo-gedumpt-in-lim- burgs-bos-4-fietsende-kinderen-zwaargewond-a2419039/