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So why is it upon us again? Partly because the debate about MDMA's harmfulness has never been resolved. Johns Hopkins neurologist George Ricaurte has concluded in several animal studies and one human study that MDMA can damage a particular group of the brain's nerve cells. But he wants more research. Last week Ricaurte said his work has never shown that the damage to the affected cells has any visible effect on "the vast majority of people who have experimented with MDMA." The debate has now found its way onto the Web, where the old therapist crowd behind MDMA has become active. The sites are populated mostly by young users, however, kids who blindly praise the drug ("Sammy the Bull rules," wrote one last week).
But the most important reason for e's quick and recent spread into places like Denver and Sacramento is that professional criminals have almost completely assumed control of its trade. The life of a typical tablet found in the U.S. begins somewhere along the Dutch-Belgian border, a quiet region of pig farmers. The setting is rural but not far from the Brussels airport. Manufacturers convert abandoned barns or garden sheds into e factories, which can be filthy. "They've been mixing chemicals in dirty cans I wouldn't even use for garbage," says Charles De Winter, director of the drug section of Belgium's national police force. These mills aren't mom-and-pop setups, at least not anymore. "We're seeing more and more hardened criminals," says Cees van Doorn, a Dutch organized-crime specialist. They are drawn by the profits. After setup, the marginal cost of each pill is maybe 10[cents]sold in New York City clubs for $30.
U.S. Customs commissioner Raymond Kelly says professional criminals in this country have brought better management and marketing to the ecstasy trade. Mobsters have the distribution networks to move millions of pills. And most pills now come with a catchy brand name--like the "Candy Canes" taken in Flagstaff (red-and-white capsules) or tablets stamped with corporate logos. Users can ask dealers for a good brand by name. Last year's "Mitsubishis," for instance, were hugely popular because they seemed to have an extra kick of speed. This winter's "AOLS," however, were duds.
What is the future of ecstasy? Officials in the Low Countries are cracking down on e factories but warn that production is cropping up in central Europe and Spain. For good reason: Americans are in love with ecstasy. "New York used to be a meat-and-potatoes drug town--heroin, coke and pot," says John Silbering, a former narcotics prosecutor who works for the Tunnel, a big New York City nightclub. "Today we no longer find coke or heroin among the young. It's always ecstasy."
--With reporting by Edward Barnes/New York, James L. Graff/Brussels, Joseph A. Reaves/Flagstaff and Elaine Shannon/Washington