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Ecstasy - News Day Article Series July 2001

An Article By Terence T. Gorski
GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
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Published On: <DATE>          Updated On: December 03, 2007
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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News Day Series On Ecstasy
Part 1:  Awash in Ecstasy
January 14, 2001

Club drug from overseas increasingly found in local schools

It takes two minutes to find a student on a Long Island high-school campus who knows all about ecstasy.

Ten minutes and a promise of anonymity can lead to a teenage user who can flip open a cell phone and get the illegal pills as easily as ordering a pizza.

"If you can get pot, you can get E,” one Cold Spring Harbor athlete said.

"Weed and X go well together, like milk and cookies,” said a student at SUNY-Stony Brook.

In random interviews over several weeks, young Long Islanders and New Yorkers agreed that the brain-altering, feel-good stimulant known as "ecstasy,” "E” or "X” is no longer confined to nightclubs, where it became a hit more than a decade ago. It has slithered out of the thumping music, clandestine rave-club scene and into the general population.

"It's not just limited to the club scene or these dance marathons,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. "The kids are using it at house parties and weekend parties.”

Ecstasy, a neurotoxin whose chemical name is MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), comes primarily from the Netherlands, where it is mass-produced, and from Belgium, in part because its component chemicals are not as tightly controlled in those countries. According to U.S., European and Israeli law-enforcement officials, it often is trafficked to the United States through a circuit dominated by Israeli criminals, often using couriers who, until recently, fell outside of police suspicion: Hasidic Jews.

With its easy manufacture, relatively benign reputation and huge markup (it costs about 25 to 50 cents to make one pill, which can sell for $15 to $40, with an average price of $20), the ecstasy business has proved irresistible to many not otherwise involved in drugs. Confiscations of "X” pills by U.S. Customs last year were 12 times higher than they were just two years ago.

"There are a thousand Jimmy Pampinellas here on Long Island,” said a Long Island source, referring to Giacomo (Jimmy) Pampinella of Franklin Square, a major ecstasy dealer recently sentenced to 70 months in prison. "The fact of the matter is that this drug is a way of life here.”

"It's Long Island. It's here, you're bored. Most people do whatever's around,” said a class of 2000 graduate of Valley Stream Central High.

"E” is a small pill often stamped with a manufacturer's logo. It lowers inhibitions. It produces euphoria and heightened sensual awareness, with few immediate side effects other than potentially dangerous dehydration evidenced by overheating and a terrific thirst. In the 1970s, some psychiatrists used it to get patients to loosen up, but it was outlawed in 1985 after it started appearing in nightclubs.

Many kids, rarely hearing reports of death or serious overdoses from MDMA alone, think the drug is harmless.

"People think it's not as addictive as crack or heroin, so they do it,” said a 22-year-old former ecstasy dealer from Hauppauge.

"It has every drug in it ... but I never heard of anything bad happening” to anyone, said a female Walt Whitman High student, 16, who tried ecstasy about five times.

Regardless of the perception, a drug being sold as ecstasy killed at least six people in Florida this summer. A 19-year-old woman who died there in August had a temperature of 104 degrees five hours after she died.

And the use of ecstasy or ecstasy mixed with other drugs is thought to have led to at least two deaths in New York City and Long Island, including that of James Lyons, 18, of Sound Beach, in 1999.

"It's a neurotoxin, brain poison,” said Terry Horton, a doctor and vice president of Phoenix House, a rehabilitiation center in Ronkonkoma. "They take it because they hear about it from their friends. But what does a 14-year-old know?”

Scientists aren't as cavalier as youth about the possible long-term impact of ecstasy, warning of memory loss and other negative effects on the brain.

Law-enforcement and drug-treatment specialists say "E” is a gateway drug to harder drugs. And everyone agrees that pills sold as ecstasy often contain other drugs as well, so the buyers have no idea what they are taking.

"Basically, I could say that ecstasy led me to a lot of other drugs,” said a 22-year-old woman from Sheepshead Bay who started using ecstasy when she was 14 and moved on to heroin. "When you use ecstasy a lot, it starts getting played out. The kick started lasting half an hour, 20 minutes, so that I would have to take more. At a party, I would take five or six pills two hours apart.”

A survey released in November by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America noted that marijuana use dropped for the third consecutive year, while ecstasy use has doubled since 1995. One in 10 teens reported that they had experimented with the drug, the survey found. The annual survey questioned 7,290 seventh- through 12th-graders nationwide.

Teenagers' experimental use of ecstasy is now on par with that of cocaine, crack and LSD, outpacing experimental heroin use, the study found.

"I've known 12-year-olds to ask me about it,' said Jenna Pollock, 17, who was an honors student from East Islip who used to deal ecstasy after school. "The last two or three years, I can't believe the amount of people doing it at school. Everybody basically knows you're carrying around this big jug of water and you're grinding your teeth.”

U.S. Customs confiscated at least 9.3 million ecstasy pills in the last year, far more than ever before.

Despite those seizures, the supply is at record levels: About 2 million pills are trafficked through New York airports every week, about 750,000 of which are sold in the metropolitan area, the DEA estimates.

The young consumers of those pills know that ecstasy can make a user feel euphoric. Adolescents say they like it because it erases inhibitions. They forget their zits, weight, self-consciousness or what others think of them. It makes a person want to touch and be touched (hence the nickname "the hug drug”). Reminisce. Apologize. Have sex. The kids also know that rappers such as Eminem, Lil Kim, DMX and the late Notorious B.I.G. have praised it.

Local youth can rattle off the price ranges, brand names of ecstasy and tell which supersensory effects a pill gives by the colors and emblems stamped on them. And they know where to get it.

"It's everywhere. It's really easy. All you got to do is know a phone number,” said the 14-year-old girl from a middle-class area of Staten Island. Her father is a chef in a Russian restaurant. She entered rehab at age 12.

"You feel, like, all good about yourself. You illusionize, you feel like you're on top of the world,” she said. I just started wasting all my money on it. I just didn't care about anything anymore. All I wanted to do was just get more.”

She and her friends would pool their money for ecstasy, somtimes paying for two or three tablets a day each.

The Suffolk narcotics division had only nine ecstasy cases in 1997 compared to 61 last year, said Insp. Mark White, commander of the narcotics division. Nassau's narcotics division had 54 ecstasy-related cases in 1999 compared to about four dozen in the first eight months of 2000. The city is seeing significant increases as law-enforcement agencies focus on local airports, which they suspect are traffickers' favorite entry points in the United States.

"We've seen in the last six months to a year an increase in ecstasy use among adolescents in the more affluent communities,” said Avery Mehlman, narcotics-bureau chief for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. "It's definitely part of the whole club-culture scene. From my experience talking to kids in the region, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids are experimenting with ecstasy. The immediate source is peers, but the importation is coming from very highly organized criminal enterprises.”

Jenna Pollock was never caught selling the pills. Now recovering from alcoholism, she wound up in several rehabilitation programs after the courts stepped in to see why she missed so much school last year.

She and Sean, a North Babylon High graduate who asked that his real name not be used, recently reminisced on the deck at the Phoenix House rehabilitation center in Ronkonkoma about an ecstasy pill called "the pigeon” that made several of their friends sick during the summer of 1999. "People were just puking and puking. It was probably too much heroin, too much MDMA,” Sean said with a shrug.

"Ecstasy has so much stuff in it, it opens your eyes to other things. Some kids will say, ‘I did that and it had coke in it, so why don't I just do coke,'” Jenna said. "Kids need to know from other kids what can happen. They need to hear things out raw. Like they can die.”

Rolling, as the ecstasy high is called, to all-night tingling sensations could end up being a short-cut to the emergency room. Extreme cases of ecstasy-induced dehydration can lead to seizures or convulsions, doctors say.

Nationwide, emergency-room visits linked to ecstasy use rocketed from 253 in 1994 to 2,850 in 1999, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. There were nine ecstasy related deaths in 1999, up from one in 1994, the organization reported.

Mark Howard, counselor at Phoenix House, believes the ecstasy craze is no different from any past drug phases.

Teenagers have taken acid, sniffed glue, sniffed "Special K” (a cat tranquilizer known as ketamine) inhaled laughing gas and sucked on aerosol cans to have fun or escape the weirdness of adolescence. They take whatever drugs they can get their hands on, and today, it happens to be ecstasy, Howard said.

"Kids do drugs. Period. That's what people don't see,” Howard said, adding that many kids who go to rehab have used ecstasy but very rarely are they admitted for ecstasy use alone. Those who end up in rehab are "garbage heads,” or those who have used a smorgasbord of drugs.

Five years ago, relatively few kids at the center had used ecstasy; now, a majority have likely used it, he said.

But not all of the area's communities are heavily into ecstasy.

On Wednesday afternoons from about noon until 2 p.m., the Stony Brook Student Union is packed for what is called "Campus Life.” It's a time designated for activities when vendors peddle cheap jewelry and posters, peer health educators pass out condoms and fraternities and sororities gather en masse.

During a recent session, four black students, all men ranging in age from 19 to 24, were eating chicken and pasta when a student dropped a flier for a spring break ski trip on their lunch table.

One of the guys nodded his head at the flier. "It'll be there,” he said, referring to ecstasy. "About two years ago, it was at the out-of-reach level for black people, but it's slowly increasing. At something like that [ski trip] of spring break, you'll hear about it.”

While an increasing number of black and Hispanic youth are trying the drug, ecstasy use in those communities lags far behind use in white communities, according to experts and students from communities such as Hempstead and Central Islip.

Phoenix House officials say the difference in kids' drug choice is mostly economic. The sentiment among minority youth who come from poorer comminuties is, ‘Why buy a $20 pill that will last four hours and is made of a mystery mix of drugs when a person could get two $10 "dime” bags of marijuana? Money is a factor, but youth say drug choice is also cultural.

"Black kids will do a lot of crazy things, but they won't put their life on the line messing with something like ecstasy,” said sophomore Joy Botting of Hempstead High. "With weed, they grow it, they bake it, they smoke it. You never hear ... people say, ‘Oh, they died from weed.'”

Rich, 19, a private-school graduate who goes to Nassau Community College, said he doesn't take ecstasy with his Hispanic friends. "They say, ‘You did what? You're white, aren't you?'”

The medical dangers associated with MDMA do not apply to every ecstasy pill, because a hit of ecstasy is basically a mystery pill until its examined, police say. Any given pill could contain MDMA, other drugs, baking soda or a lethal combination of "filler” ingredients meant to give it a desired color, texture or sensation. And there's no way to tell whether or not a pill was pressed in a laboratory setting or in some teenager's basement.

The chemical makeup of the pills presents a problem for police, said Det. Lt. Hall Coleman of the Suffolk Police narcotics division.

"Often, the pills fall outside the legal chemical definition of MDMA; that means it's not illegal,” Coleman said.

In New York, the sale of more than 125 milligrams or possession of more than 625 milligrams is a felony punishable by a prison sentence of as much as 8 years to life. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of as much as 30 years for anyone caught trafficking large quantities.

Police involved in buy-and-bust stings have netted ecstasy pills that contained cough medicine and caffeine. So far, they haven't found the LSD, heroin or cocaine that teens believe are in some pills, Suffolk crime lab chemists said.

Police, however, are not lulled into thinking they know the scope of the problem. "We could be getting everybody who's selling or one-hundredth,” said Det. Lt. John Wolff of Nassau police.

"There's no way to know.”

News Day Series On Ecstasy
Part 2:  The Israeli Connection
January 15, 2001

Smuggling ecstasy the hot new industry

Jerusalem -- Taking advantage of age-old diamond-smuggling routes, groups of Israeli criminals have become dominant in the illegal international trade of a newer commodity: the drug ecstasy.

From Tel Aviv to Antwerp and Amsterdam, to New York and Miami, Israeli smugglers have gained particular prominence within the growing ecstasy trade thanks to their familiarity with the route, the techniques for smuggling small objects and the tight communities that Israeli criminals tend to form in Israel and overseas, according to Israeli, Dutch and American law-enforcement officials and convicted Israeli ecstasy smugglers.

"Israelis form a very close-knit group in Belgium. People have connections,” said Amos, 23, a smuggler who was caught at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv in April last year with 10,000 ecstasy pills in a false-bottomed suitcase that he had brought from Antwerp. Speaking on condition that his real name would not published because he fears reprisals for telling his story, he is serving a 5-year sentence in Israel's medium-security Ashmoret prison.

Although many Americans, Belgians, Dutch and others are also involved in the ecstasy trade, which is growing exponentially every year, Israeli organized criminals have been especially quick to take the opportunities for generating vast profits out of ecstasy.

Law-enforcement officials say these suppliers and smugglers do not tend to be killers or mafia-types; rather, they are less prominent criminals who appear apparently out of nowhere to become significant players in supplying America's and Israel's growing ecstasy habit. Nearly all of them operate out of the Netherlands and Belgium, where most of the world's ecstasy is produced, using connections in New York and Israel to distribute millions of pills. Contributing to the prevalence of Israeli involvement in the trade is demography: Amsterdam, Antwerp and New York all have large Israeli communities, noted U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly, former New York Police commissioner.

"Israeli guys always prefer to work together with other Israelis,” said Yaffa Mizrahi, a senior officer in the drugs and serious-crime section of the Israeli police. "They all know each other from the scouts or the army or the neighborhoods. It's a small country. Every time two Israelis meet overseas, they can always find a connection.”

Internet programer Yaish Malka, 48, made his connection when he moved to the United States five years ago and met up with an old friend, Oshri Amar, from the Israeli town of Bet Shemesh. Malka was living with his pregnant wife and child in the Oakland Gardens section of Queens, apparently a normal and quiet couple.

But Malka had become an ecstasy smuggler.

Malka, investigators say, had met up with Amar in New York, and Amar had tempted Malka into joining his smuggling business. Like many Israel-run smuggling rings, it dealt with hundreds of thousands of pills but was not connected to recognized organized-crime gangs.

Police came to his house one evening in February while Malka was feeding his baby and charged him with ecstasy smuggling, said his wife, Yara.

"They were independent entrepreneurs,” said one New York investigator involved in the case. "They were looking to make an easy buck.”

Quick money is the driving force behind the trade, Israeli police say. In Israel, as in the United States, the appetite for ecstasy has grown enormously. At a recent rave in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea, young Israelis danced to pounding electronic music until the pale sun came up over the mountains of Jordan, across the saline waters of the lowest place on Earth. Many ravers acknowledged that ecstasy, which stimulates feelings of happiness, affection and energy, was fueling their dancing.

Israeli police were out in force at the rave, however, and this was part of a conscious effort to clamp down on ecstasy's distribution and use.

"We planted agents in the schools,” said Susie Ben Baruch, head of the youth department of the Israeli police force. "They look like the maintenance guy, or students. We've used two girls who have finished military service and have baby faces.”

Within the past two years, Ben Baruch also has been given many more police officers to help in her department's struggle against drugs. While they do prosecute users and lower-level dealers, they ultimately want to use information they gather from the ground up to "catch the whales, not the little fish.”

They caught a few whales last year in a huge international operation between Israeli, Dutch and Belgian police, with a final assist from the New York Police Department.

Amos, the young courier now in Ashmoret prison to the north of Tel Aviv, worked close to the heart of this ring, said by police to be one of the largest ever exposed.

Wearing a dark-brown prison uniform that drooped off his lean frame, Amos explained how he had spent many of his teenage years living with his father, Gabriel Elimelech, in Antwerp, where there is a large Israeli population. Estranged from his wife, Gabriel Elimelech is a career criminal, according to Israeli police, but he still claims to be a businessman who owns restaurants, a construction business and other legitimate concerns in Belgium.

One day about three years ago, Elimelech and his son Amos were working on renovating a clothing store in Antwerp with other Israelis when a new face appeared looking for work. This was Meir Maloul, who would soon become a senior figure in the ecstasy ring with yet another Israeli, the Amsterdam-based Eddy Sasson.

Elimelech gave Maloul a job, and Amos helped him find a place to live.

"We stayed friends, and we were doing other things on the side -- smuggling cigarettes, black-market stuff,” Amos said. "From that money, he got more money.” With some of that money, Maloul got into the ecstasy business. The Elimelech family joined Maloul in the new and highly lucrative trade.

With his father's encouragement, Amos agreed to smuggle 100,000 pills into Israel in a false-bottomed suitcase that was manufactured by a connection at a luggage shop in Antwerp. This time, Amos sailed through customs and delivered his shipment to a woman he didn't know in the Israeli town of Ra'anana.

"My father said it was completely risk-free and the worst that could happen to me would be they might arrest me for a few days,” said Amos, whose intelligent eyes and own criminal history do not aid his claims of naivete. He casually tells stories of drug deals and sheltering guns for Maloul, crimes for which he has not been charged.

On April 13, 1999, Amos, at the behest of his father, made a second trip to Israel with a false-bottomed suitcase.

Amos is convinced that his father, whom he now hates, tipped off the authorities to Amos' arrival at Ben Gurion airport. But Nissim Cohen, the police inspector in charge of Amos' father's case, said Amos was caught by chance alone.

"He was almost released, but one guy at customs really knew something was not kosher in that suitcase, and it was only because he was very stubborn that we caught him,” said Cohen, who can't help liking the intelligent and charming Amos. "His colleague said Amos had been checked, but this guy noticed little round things at the bottom of the suitcase in the X-ray.”

Amos was arrested and soon began to tell investigators about his father, who fled to New York shortly after Amos' arrest. Outraged that Elimelech would send his own son on a smuggling trip, the Israeli police decided to seek his extradition.

"We think he is important,” Cohen said. "He did something we did not agree with -- to ask his son to import pills to Israel.”

The New York Police Department caught Elimelech, 49, on Oct. 31. He is serving a 2-year, 3-month prison sentence in Israel for drug smuggling. Maloul and Sasson are in prison in Europe, as are many other couriers and connections involved in the ring.

Cohen, who is now working on another big Israeli smuggling case, is not surprised at Israeli criminal involvement in the trade. He expects to see many more cases in the coming months and years.

"Diamonds have been replaced by pills,” he said. "Criminals know it. Twenty years ago, they would go to Antwerp for diamonds. Now they go for pills.”

 

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