How ecstasy empire fell from its high

Lisa Sweetingham, author of "Chemical Cowboys"

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Even though the Obama administration's not using the phrase "the war on drugs," it has just appointed a new drug czar. The police chief out of Seattle, Wash., got the job yesterday. When you think about what he'll be going after, it's probably the biggies that come to mind -- heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine probably. Ecstasy -- probably doesn't. It's a tiny little pill. Easy to transport and easy to consume. It delivers a huge high for users. And even bigger profits for dealers.

Lisa Sweetingham writes about the rise of America's favorite party drug and how the DEA tried to bring it down in her new book. It's called "Chemical Cowboys." Lisa, thanks for coming in.

LISA SWEETINGHAM: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: We have to start, I guess, at the most basic building block of this whole thing. Remind us what ecstasy is.

SWEETINGHAM: Right, it's a pill that has the chemical qualities of mescaline and methamphetamine, but it's not really a hallucinogen. And it creates this sort of euphoric high in the users.

Ryssdal: And those users are?

SWEETINGHAM: Mostly youth. In the mid 90s to late 90s it was really like 18-25 partiers, club goers, ravers.

Ryssdal: Where? Was it all over the country?

SWEETINGHAM: It was in the party triangle.

Ryssdal: A phrase I'm not familiar with.

SWEETINGHAM: It's a very popular phrase among drug enforcement. The party triangle is Miami, New York and Los Angeles because that's where the pills were being brought in by mules and shipped to the different night scenes.

Ryssdal: Where were they coming from these pills? I mean tell us the background of this story.

SWEETINGHAM: Israeli organized crime dominated the trafficking of the pills. But the pills weren't coming from Israel. They were made in the Netherlands, they were made in clandestine labs in Belgium and around the southern part of the Netherlands. Israel ex-pats who were involved in drug trafficking realized that they couldn't infiltrate the cocaine or heroin trade, those were entrenched in the drug cartels of Central and South America. But nobody was looking at ecstasy. Ecstasy among law enforcement was called "kiddie dough." And the demand for ecstasy in American was phenomenal. And these little pills that were maybe anywhere from a nickel or a quarter to make could fetch up to $25 to $50 in a nightclub.

Ryssdal: So when did the DEA really start cracking down on this and how long did it take them to get a handle on this trade?

SWEETINGHAM: I think in 1999 essentially when they found a dead body in the trunk of a Lexus in Brentwood they realized that this was a pretty dangerous drug, and they needed to take a closer look at it.

Ryssdal: Out here on the west side of Los Angeles.

SWEETINGHAM: That's right. And they tried to get a handle on who was in charge and what was going on. And that's when they realized that this one man, Oded Tuito, was responsible for about 80 percent of the entire ecstasy supply in the United States. The agent that I follow in the book, Bob Gagne, he was obsessed with bringing Tuito down. And he really worked a lot with the Dutch police and the Israeli police to try to winnow down his networks. And it took, though, many, many years. And it took law enforcement around the world to come together to do it.

Ryssdal: Whatever happened to Oded Tuito?

SWEETINGHAM: Well, I can tell that he was finally captured. But you'll have to read the book to find out what happens to him. Because it's really part of the ending.

Ryssdal: Is this story though a success story for the DEA and for this effort to crackdown on this drug?

SWEETINGHAM: Well, that's a great question. Is it? And the agents that I spoke to they won't take credit for it, they won't say it, but the former dealers -- and people on both sides of the law really -- that I spoke to pretty much confirmed that Israelis have abandoned the trade. All of these high-profile arrests and all these seizures made it difficult for them. However, you know, how it works. Once one group gets out another group comes in. And so now what we're seeing is Asian drug trafficking organizations that are no longer making the drugs in Amsterdam, but they're making them in Canada. And they're bringing in these precursor chemicals from China, they're shipping them in, and they're actually mixing the drugs with methamphetamine, and if it's got meth in it, and it's like a nice cheap filler, it's easier for them to make, and also it's much more addictive, which means they'll have more customers.

Ryssdal: The book by Lisa Sweetingham about the ecstasy trade is called "Chemical Cowboys." Lisa, thanks a lot.

SWEETINGHAM: Thank you for having me.

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