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

Introduction

Amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, often known as ‘ecstasy’) are the most popular synthetic drugs in a crowded stimulant market in Europe, competing with cocaine and a range of new psychoactive substances (NPSs). Although they have their own distinct patterns of use and profiles of users, they share a common chemistry, with the phenethylamine scaffold at their core (see Figure 6.1). The market is dominated by large producers with the ability to access the precursor chemicals, specialist equipment and, above all, the technical expertise needed to make these drugs. The market in these drugs is complex and volatile, with the availability of precursor chemicals being a key factor. In recent years, the gap between the supply and demand for these controlled synthetic stimulants created the opportunity for some new drugs, such as mephedrone and MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone), to become established in some countries.

There are many similarities and overlaps with amphetamine and methamphetamine so they are sometimes grouped together as ‘amphetamines’ and therefore can be difficult to differentiate in some datasets. MDMA is normally reported separately from these. All three drugs can be produced relatively simply and exist in two chemical forms: base and salt. The pure bases are clear, colourless, volatile oils, insoluble in water, which can be readily converted into the most common salt forms: amphetamine sulphate, methamphetamine hydrochloride and MDMA hydrochloride.

Amphetamine and MDMA are much more common in Europe than methamphetamine, which is more popular in other regions of the world, although there are signs that methamphetamine use is gradually increasing. Europe is a producing region for these three drugs for the domestic market, but also for export of MDMA and methamphetamine; Europe also acts as a transit point for global trafficking, particularly of methamphetamine made outside Europe.

In the north of Europe, amphetamine and methamphetamine are the stimulants of choice, whereas cocaine dominates in the south, and in some other countries, such as the United Kingdom. Methamphetamine use, which was once restricted to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, has been slowly spreading in recent times to neighbouring countries. This is an important and concerning development because some modes of methamphetamine use, such as injection, or the smoking of the crystalline form, present greater risks in terms of public health and societal harm. Pockets of high-risk methamphetamine use among some subpopulations, e.g. men who have sex with men, is also threatening the progress made in Europe in tackling the spread of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and infectious diseases.

While most users of amphetamine and methamphetamine take the drug only occasionally and experience few, if any, problems, a proportion may develop problematic patterns of use. Adverse health effects that may be associated with use of amphetamines include cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological and mental health problems, and injection is associated with the risk of infectious disease. Although deaths associated with stimulant use can be difficult to identify, a few amphetamine-related deaths are recorded annually. In contrast, it is much less common for MDMA users to develop a pattern of problematic use.

Common forms

Amphetamine sulphate is a white or off-white powder that is soluble in water. Illicit products mostly consist of powders, usually mixed with other ingredients, such as lactose, dextrose or caffeine, but tablets containing amphetamine are also available and may carry logos similar to those seen on ‘ecstasy’ tablets. Captagon tablets containing amphetamine are produced and consumed in large numbers in south-eastern Europe. Amphetamine sulphate may be ingested, snorted and, less commonly, injected. Unlike the hydrochloride salt of methamphetamine, amphetamine sulphate is insufficiently volatile to be smoked.

Methamphetamine hydrochloride is a crystalline solid that is soluble in water. In illicit methamphetamine powder, as is the case of amphetamine sulphate, finely ground crystals are usually mixed with other ingredients, such as lactose, dextrose or caffeine. Large white or translucent crystals of methamphetamine hydrochloride suitable for smoking, known as ‘ice’ or ‘crystal meth’, can be produced from a starting material that has a high concentration of methamphetamine (base or salt). Methamphetamine hydrochloride may also be found as an ingredient of tablets sold as ecstasy or yaba in some regions of South-East Asia.

MDMA hydrochloride is a crystalline solid, soluble in water. Until recently, it was normally found in ecstasy tablets for oral consumption. Nowadays, as well as the tablet form, it is also found in crystal or crystalline powder form, also for taking orally.

Figure 6.1

Synthetic drugs with phenethylamine at their core 

Amphetamines molecular structures

Note: The phenethylamine scaffold comprises a 6-carbon ring separated from a nitrogen atom (N) by a further 2 carbon atoms. ‘O’ represents oxygen and ‘CH3’ represents a carbon bonded to 3 hydrogen atoms (a methyl group).

Source: EMCDDA. 

 

Table 6.1a: Amphetamines in Europe at a glance

Notes:

European estimates are computed from national estimates weighted by the population of the relevant age group in each country. They are based on surveys conducted between 2004 and 2014/15 and therefore do not refer to a single year.

Drug users entering treatment for amphetamine or methamphetamine problems. Units coverage may vary across countries. Trend data is given for amphetamine and methamphetamine combined as separated data only available for the last two years.

The 2014 figures should be considered as estimates; where not available, most recent data were used in place of 2014 data.

All trend lines shown in this table cover a 5-year period, 2010–14. All trends reflect absolute numbers except for trends on price and on potency which reflect aver- ages of mean values. In the case of treatment, price and purity, trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have consistently submitted data since 2010.

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points.

Table 6.1b: Ecstasy in Europe at a glance

Notes:

European estimates are computed from national estimates weighted by the population of the relevant age group in each country. They are based on surveys conducted between 2004 and 2014/15 and therefore do not refer to a single year.

Drug users entering treatment for amphetamine or methamphetamine problems. Units coverage may vary across countries. Trend data is given for amphetamine and methamphetamine combined as separated data only available for the last two years.

The 2014 figures should be considered as estimates; where not available, most recent data were used in place of 2014 data. An additional 220 kg of ecstasy were seized in the EU, in 2014.

All trend lines shown in this table cover a 5-year period, 2010–14. All trends reflect absolute numbers except for trends on price and on potency which reflect aver- ages of mean values. In the case of treatment, price and purity, trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have consistently submitted data since 2010.

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points.

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