Rises as Club Drug Spreads Out Into the Streets
June 24, 2001
By FOX BUTTERFIELD
New York Times
LOS ANGELES, June 21 It was finding an Israeli drug dealer dead in
a car trunk at Los Angeles International Airport 18 months ago that gave
the authorities here the first hint that the club drug Ecstasy was
becoming a serious problem. He had been killed by two hit men from Israel,
said Drug Enforcement Administration officials.
Then there was the shipment of 2.1 million Ecstasy pills, worth $40
million on the street, that the United States Customs Service seized at
the airport last July. The pills, labeled clothing, arrived on an Air
France flight from Paris, intended for another Israeli dealer here. The
authorities say it was the world's largest Ecstasy bust.
And now law enforcement officials say they have seen another worrisome
development this year. At a number of large all-night dance parties called
raves, drawing thousands of young people to the desert east of Los
Angeles, rival gangs have fought over the sale of Ecstasy. At one rave at
a fairgrounds at Lake Perris in March, 102 people were arrested on charges
of selling Ecstasy, assault or resisting arrest, according to the Drug
What is happening in Los Angeles mirrors what is occurring across much
of the nation, law enforcement officials and drug experts say. Not only is
the use of Ecstasy exploding, more than doubling among 12th graders in the
last two years, but it is also spreading well beyond its origin as a party
drug for affluent white suburban teenagers to virtually every ethnic and
class group, and from big cities like New York and Los Angeles to rural
Vermont and South Dakota.
At the same time, the huge profits to be made a tablet that costs
50 cents to manufacture in underground labs in the Netherlands can be sold
for $25 in the United States have set off increasingly violent turf
wars among Ecstasy dealers.
"With drugs, it's always about the money," said Bridget
Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor for New York City. "And the
dealers are starting to see there is so much money in Ecstasy that more
people are getting involved, and with that comes more violence."
Homicides linked to Ecstasy dealing have occurred in recent months in
Norfolk, Va.; in Elgin, Ill., outside Chicago, and in Valley Stream, N.Y.,
police records show.
This spring, in Bristow, Va., a suburb of Washington, a 21-year-old
college student, Daniel Robert Petrole Jr., was shot 10 times in the head
as he sat in his car outside a new town house he had recently bought.
According to court records, the local police believed Mr. Petrole was
responsible for distributing more than $1.5 million in Ecstasy and
marijuana in Prince William County. Two young dealers who worked with Mr.
Petrole have since been arrested and charged with killing him.
In New York City last month, Salvatore Gravano, the former Gambino
crime family hit man, pleaded guilty to running a multimillion-dollar
Ecstasy ring in Arizona, where he was living under the federal witness
protection program. Court documents showed that Mr. Gravano was accused of
hatching four homicide plots to consolidate his control of the Arizona
drug market, and that his organization was being supplied by Ilan Zarger,
a drug dealer based in Brooklyn who had ties to the Israeli mob.
Most Ecstasy is produced in the Netherlands or Belgium and smuggled
into the United States by Israeli or Russian organized gangs, either flown
in as air cargo or carried on commercial flights by couriers, often
dancers recruited from topless nightclubs, according to drug enforcement
and Customs Service officials.
Some Dominican groups have also become involved recently, using their
own established routes, and now sell Ecstasy along with heroin and cocaine
from drug houses in Washington Heights in Manhattan to buyers who arrive
by car from as far away as Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, the
Because it is sold as pills, Ecstasy is much easier to smuggle than
heroin, cocaine or marijuana, the authorities say. Large imported
shipments, originally flown into New York, Los Angeles or Miami, are then
broken down and sent out by regular overnight delivery services, like
Federal Express, to midlevel dealers in other cities.
Ms. Brennan, the New York narcotics prosecutor, said Ecstasy was also
widely available on the Internet. Last year, her office arrested a man in
Orlando, Fla., who had been selling Ecstasy on a site called House of
Beans to customers in New York.
Seizures of Ecstasy by the Customs Service have jumped sharply, to 9.3
million pills in 2000, up from only 400,000 pills in 1997, said Charles
Winwood, the acting commissioner of the Customs Service.
The law enforcement officials and drug experts do not suggest Ecstasy
will lead to the same levels of violence or social turmoil as crack
cocaine did in the late 1980's, when thousands of teenage dealers armed
themselves with handguns and many mothers neglected their children.
For one thing, Ecstasy does not cause the same dangerous changes in
mood and judgment as crack does. For another, crack gave only a brief
high, driving addicts back to the street repeatedly in search of another
dose and often leading them to rob or steal to support their habit.
Ecstasy instead induces a high of up to six hours, enhancing feelings of
empathy and closeness, its users say.
But interviews with drug experts and with teenage Ecstasy addicts in
treatment programs here show that the drug, known scientifically as MDMA,
both a stimulant and a hallucinogen, can be disruptive and expose them to
"We are dancing with danger here, because the kids and their
parents think of Ecstasy as a benign party drug," said Michele
Leonhart, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement
Administration's Los Angeles office. "They don't see what we see,
that it's a neurotoxin with serious side effects, that people die from
overdoses and that some of the dances in the desert are no longer just
dances, they're like violent crack houses set to music."
Marcos M., a tall Hispanic teenager living in Phoenix Academy, a
residential treatment center for adolescent drug addicts run by Phoenix
House in Lake View Terrace, a suburb in the San Fernando Valley, said he
had always thought of Ecstasy as "the white man's drug." In his
neighborhood, Lincoln Heights "the ghetto," he called it
people usually did crack or heroin. Besides, Ecstasy was too expensive, at
$25 a pill. Marcos, 17, said his attitude toward Ecstasy was, "I'd
rather spend my money on good stuff."
"One day a friend was cleaning out his car and gave me a
pill," Marcos recalled. "So I tried it, and an hour later, I was
rolling relaxed, kicking and chilling."
Now, he sees all ethnic groups using Ecstasy, no longer just whites.
As with other drugs, dealers often fight over Ecstasy, Marcos said. A
dealer who is a friend of his sold a "boat," a package of 1,000
Ecstasy pills, to another dealer, but the second dealer claimed the
delivery was short. So a fight ensued, in which his friend broke into the
other man's house and took the drugs back, and the second dealer then
smashed his friend's car.
The leading survey of teenage use of drugs, known as Monitoring the
Future and done by the University of Michigan, has found that the
proportion of 12th graders who had used Ecstasy in the previous 12 months
more than doubled to 8 percent in 2000, from 3.5 percent in 1998. That is
a very large increase, said Lloyd Johnston, a research scientist who
directs the annual survey. Among 10th graders the percentage who had used
Ecstasy in 2000 rose to 5 percent, from 3 percent in 1998.
"It is definitely continuing to increase, across all parts of the
country, and equally among males and females," Mr. Johnston said.
Ecstasy is still enjoying a honeymoon among young people, just as LSD did
in the 1960's, before its dangers were widely known, he said.
Jessica D., a 17-year-old high school junior who came to Phoenix
Academy from Canoga Park, a Los Angeles suburb, said she started taking
Ecstasy pills at nightclubs and raves. She soon found herself
"rolling" on the drug all the time. "I used to go to school
high," she said, a smile brightening her face at the memory. "It
made school more fun. Class went by faster."
Dr. Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
in Bethesda, Md., said, "Contrary to what a lot of people think, that
Ecstasy is a harmless drug, we are learning more and more scientifically
about its damaging effects."
The bad short-term effects, Dr. Leshner said, are quick increases in
blood pressure, heart rates and body temperature, leading to dehydration
and hypothermia, particular problems for people who have danced in hot,
crowded rooms all night.
In the longer term, Dr. Leshner said, there is now evidence that
repeated use of Ecstasy can damage the brain cells that produce serotonin,
the neurochemical that is critical for preventing depression and sleep
People who have used Ecstasy frequently experience memory loss and
depression when the drug wears off, Dr. Leshner said.
The contest with drug smugglers continues.
Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York announced
the arrest of Oded Tuito, who was said to head the largest
Ecstasy-smuggling organization yet identified.
Mr. Tuito, an Israeli who kept homes in New York, Los Angeles and
Paris, "imported millions of Ecstasy pills" from Paris, Brussels
and Frankfurt into New York, Miami and Los Angeles, the drug
His organization recruited dozens of couriers, typically dancers at
topless nightclubs, who each smuggled in 30,000 to 60,000 pills at a time
and also took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in drug proceeds
back to Europe, the authorities said.
To combat Ecstasy, the federal government and more than half the
states, including New York, New Jersey and Florida, have raised the
penalties for selling the drug in the past few years.
Under new federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect in May, a
person selling 800 pills can now receive a sentence of five years, a much
stiffer standard than the old threshold of 11,000 pills.
New York's law, enacted in 1996, is tougher than the federal standard,
requiring a minimum sentence of three years for mere possession of 100
An Illinois bill, passed by the Legislature last month and awaiting the
governor's signature, would carry the toughest penalties of all an
automatic 6 to 30 years for selling as few as 15 pills.
State Senator Rickey Hendon warned that the Illinois law cast too wide
a net, treating teenage partygoers the same as professional drug
traffickers. But Senator Hendon, a Chicago Democrat, who is black, said
the law might help Illinois legislators understand the racial disparities
of drug laws.
"When you see 14-year-olds going to jail for a mandatory 30 years
and their complexion is no longer black," Senator Hendon said,
"maybe we'll stop and think about what we're doing."