Countering the Spread of Synthetic Drugs - MDMA/Ecstasy

MDMA/Ecstasy Use is Increasing in the United States

Although perhaps thought by many as a problem associated with the “rave scene” from about a decade ago, the use of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, also known as Ecstasy) is again on the increase in the United States, and the consequences are troubling.  According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, past-month use of MDMA/Ecstasy increased by 37 percent between 2008 and 2009.  In addition, new data released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that Ecstasy-related emergency room visits rose from 10,220 in 2004 to 17,865 visits in 2008 – a 74.8 percent increase.  Families and communities need to be aware of the threat that MDMA/Ecstasy poses to young people and take steps to prevent its use.  ONDCP actively supports these efforts through a comprehensive approach to prevention that includes support to drug-free community coalitions.

MDMA Defined

Commonly referred to as Ecstasy or XTC, MDMA is a psychoactive substance with both stimulant and mild hallucinogenic properties. MDMA is most often found in tablet form, although it is occasionally distributed as a crystalline powder. Taken orally, the health risks include severe hyperthermia, dehydration, and long term learning impairment. MDMA is manufactured in illicit laboratories located in Western Europe and Canada. During the past decade, Western Europe has diminished as a source of Ecstasy to the United States; today, Canada is the primary source of MDMA on American streets.

Past Successes and Current Challenges

In the late 1990s synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and MDMA emerged as one of the most urgent drug threats to the health and safety of Americans due to increases in use and the attendant public health consequences. MDMA produced in Europe could easily be shipped or couriered to the United States, where it became a popular “club drug.” In large part due to extensive cooperation with the Netherlands, the primary producer of MDMA, U.S. seizures of MDMA tablets from abroad declined by 80 percent between 2001 and 2004 and the rate of past-year use among young people declined by nearly 50 percent between 2002 and 2006. However, as noted above, the increase in the smuggling of MDMA into the United States from Canada has contributed to the reversal of this trend. According to the 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment, the amount of MDMA seized at or between border ports of entry on the Norhtern border increased 594 percent (from 312,389 to 2,167,238 dosage units) from 2004 to 2009. Although MDMA is a dangerous drug in and of itself, the Canadian-produced MDMA has frequently been found to include methamphetamine or other dangerous substances.  Thus, a young person who consumes a pill sold as MDMA may actually be consuming an even more potent and addictive illegal substance. Law enforcement officials from both sides of the border are focusing on countering this dangerous threat.

The Northern Border

The 5,000 mile Northern border has been exploited by drug traffickers operating in both countries. MDMA/Ecstasy, along with marijuana, are trafficked from Canada into the United States, while cocaine, bulk currency, and weapons are trafficked from the United States into Canada. Gang members, traffickers, and couriers move back and forth between both countries. The scale of synthetic drug trafficking across the United States-Canada border is a serious concern for both governments.

 The United States benefits from a close, long-standing, and productive working relationship with Canadian law enforcement agencies Canadian authorities and United States law enforcement agencies are already partnering through Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs) which identify, investigate, and interdict persons and organizations that pose a security threat or are engaged in other organized criminal activity. The Department of Homeland Security leads United States participation in the IBETs, partnering with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canada Border Services Agency. Joint initiatives such as the IBETs, along with the Border Enforcement Security Task Forces and the “Shiprider” pilot program between the RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard, will remain vital to our efforts to counter cross-border drug flows in the months and years ahead. 

What ONDCP is Doing

U.S.law enforcement agencies will continue to focus on joint operations with Canadian agencies to target and disrupt MDMA production and trafficking. Canada has been working to enhance the penalties for synthetic drug production and to combat the smuggling of MDMA precursor chemicals from Asia. To ensure a coordinated and comprehensive approach to our counterdrug efforts on the Northern border, ONDCP is engaging in close consultation with the Government of Canada, as well as with Federal, state, local, and tribal partners, on the development of a National Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy.  Domestically, ONDCP and partner agencies are working to get the word out to our communities about the risks of MDMA/Ecstasy use. 

Related Resources

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website provides detailed health information related to drug abuse.