Pubdate: Sun, 7 Dec 2008
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Burlington Free Press
Author: Adam Silverman, Free Press Staff Writer
Note: MAP archives articles exactly as published, except that our 
editors may redact the names and addresses of accused persons who 
have not been convicted of a crime, if those named are not otherwise 
public figures or officials.
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)


The Dodge minivan with Quebec license plates came to a stop late last 
month at the Highgate Springs border crossing, traveling south toward 
the stretch of Interstate 89 through Vermont that lay just ahead.

Behind the steering wheel was a short, stocky man with long, thick 
hair and a beard, both graying. Next to him sat his fiancee, a 
taller, blonde-haired woman who had rented the van with her credit 
card the day before.

Montreal residents [redacted], told a U.S. Customs and Border 
Protection agent they were headed to Long Island to visit friends for 
Thanksgiving, according to court papers an investigator would file later.

The agent, though, asked the couple to pull over for an inspection, 
and a police dog named Titan quickly alerted his handler to the 
presence of drugs. Officers searched the van and discovered, in a 
storage console behind the front seats, 200 bags that contained about 
1,000 tablets each of the illegal stimulant and hallucinogen Ecstasy, 
according to authorities.

At a street value of about $20 a pill, the 200,000 tablets would have 
fetched $4 million in New York, where authorities believe the drug was headed.

Law enforcement had just carried out the largest Ecstasy seizure at a 
New England ground crossing along the Canadian border.

Federal agents and prosecutors say the drug bust is the latest -- and 
by far the largest -- example of a troubling trend: The smuggling of 
Ecstasy into the United States from Canada is increasing rapidly and 
spreading along the international boundary from west to east.

"We've made periodic arrests for Ecstasy over the past number of 
years, but nothing with this frequency," said Thomas Anderson, U.S. 
attorney for Vermont. "When we see these kinds of quantities and 
these kinds of seizures, when we see a significant up-tick like this, 
federal law enforcement is obviously concerned."

The Highgate incident Nov. 26 followed three other substantial 
Ecstasy seizures at border crossings in Vermont and New York since 
Oct. 24, according to prosecutors and court records in both states. 
In those cases the government discovered more than 142,000 pills with 
a street value exceeding $2.8 million and arrested five people. Two 
of the seizures occurred in upstate New York, and one was in Vermont.

Grand total: one month, four seizures, 342,000 tablets, at least $6.8 
million street value.

Investigations continue into the four incidents and whether they are 
related, Anderson said last week.

They are only the most recent examples.

The Demand

Ecstasy, known chemically as methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA, 
gives users a sense of euphoria, breaks down inhibitions, reduces 
anxiety, and creates a sense of connectedness and empathy with 
others. But the drug also causes increases in heart rate and body 
temperature, which can shut down vital organs and lead to death.

Risks rise when users drink alcohol and when manufacturers lace 
Ecstasy with methamphetamine or other narcotics, according to various studies.

Despite the risks, interest in the synthetic, potentially addictive 
drug is climbing after years of decline, and trafficking is 
increasing correspondingly.

Ecstasy smuggling into the United States from Canada increased 
tenfold between 2003 and 2006, the most recent year for which 
statistics are available, according to a 2008 report from the White 
House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Federal agents in the 10 northern border states seized about 550,000 
Ecstasy pills in 2003; three years later authorities confiscated 
nearly 5.5 million tablets at the crossings, according to the report.

Increasing domestic demand for Canadian-manufactured Ecstasy traces 
its roots to successful drug-enforcement efforts in the United States 
and Europe, according to a recent report from the U.N. Office on 
Drugs and Crime.

The drug gained popularity in the 1990s at clubs and raves for its 
mind-altering properties but then fell as authorities fought back. 
Use of the drug has been rising since 2005, especially among high 
school students, according to the U.N.'s 128-page global assessment 
of amphetamines and Ecstasy.

Law enforcement has eradicated numerous large-scale production labs 
in the United States, according to the United Nations, while 
increased cooperation between U.S. and European governments has 
"effectively dismantled" importation of Ecstasy from previously 
predominant sources in Belgium and the Netherlands, according to the 
White House.

Canadian suppliers are seeking to fill the void.

"Since 2001," the U.N. report reads, "ecstasy-group manufacture in 
Canada and traffic into the USA has increased dramatically."

The Source

Manufacturing and smuggling has spread from west to east along the 
border as criminals aim to stay ahead of authorities, prosecutors and 
analysts said.

"As you ratchet up enforcement, it's a slow march across Canada," 
said Anderson, the U.S. attorney. "It's inevitable that we're seeing 
it in our area."

A senior agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 
said Ecstasy smuggling is most severe now at border crossings near 
Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit. At the Buffalo-area crossing, Border 
Patrol agents have seized 800,000 tablets since March, the agent said 
- -- or slightly more than twice the amount captured in Vermont and 
northeast New York in four weeks.

Smuggling corridors carry a host of risks along with the popular drug.

"You have an up-tick in violence. You have an up-tick in the health 
problems and hazards from people that take the stuff," said Bruce 
Foucart, special agent in charge of ICE's Office of Investigations, a 
Boston-based unit that covers New England. "I'd like to say we're 
going to see a lot more seizures, and we're going to cut down the 
supply, but I don't know if I can be that optimistic."

U.N. researchers who compiled the drug report blame organized crime, 
"domestic outlaw motorcycle gangs (principally the Hells Angels)" and 
Asian-controlled outfits in Canada for the expansion of Ecstasy trafficking.

Foucart said Canada-based Asian organized crime especially took 
advantage of the successful clamp-down on European-based smuggling efforts.

Anderson declined comment about the potential source of drugs in the 
four recent incidents but said he had "no reason to disagree" with 
the U.N.'s findings.

[redacted], the Montreal residents, are accused in a criminal 
complaint of trying to ferry a 145-pound load of Ecstasy through 
Vermont and eventually to New York City. The government has yet to 
obtain an indictment against the couple, nor have they entered pleas 
to the accusations.

The complaint says [redacted] made a contact in a Montreal-area bar 
who gave him phone numbers of people in New York. He drove the van -- 
which [redacted] rented because [redacted] had no credit card, 
according to court proceedings last week -- to a parking lot and left 
it unattended for several hours.

A day later, he and [redacted] were on the highway, headed south.

The Destination

Large quantities of Ecstasy, such as those in the four recent 
incidents, almost always continue on through Vermont and other small, 
rural locales in favor of major East Coast cities, Foucart said.

"They're going to the hubs: Atlanta, Boston, New York," the agent 
said. "It's organized crime at its peak."

Dealers either sell the pills on the street at going rates of $13 to 
$24 each, according to the U.N. report, or they repackage and 
redistribute them. The profit margin can be huge. Making a tablet 
typically costs $2 or $3, Foucart said.

Although hazardous, Ecstasy poses a limited threat to Vermont, 
according to local law enforcement.

"We've seen small pockets of the Ecstasy tablets around, but I 
wouldn't say it's that prevalent. It's scattered," said Vermont State 
Police Lt. Leo Bachand, northern commander of the Vermont Drug Task 
Force. "It's pretty dangerous, but it's not taking off like the other 
drugs have."

Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, whose office handles 
the largest number of criminal prosecutions in Vermont, said, "We see 
it, but I haven't seen a dramatic increase."

New York City was the destination for three of the recent shipments: 
both Vermont arrests and one across Lake Champlain. In the fourth the 
objective wasn't disclosed, according to court papers.

The earlier Vermont case occurred Oct. 24 at the port of entry in 
Alburgh, when agents found nearly 60,000 Ecstasy tablets in plastic 
bags hidden in a wheel well of a pickup truck driven by [redacted], 
according to a sworn law-enforcement statement filed in U.S. District 
Court in Burlington.

[redacted] told investigators he was transporting the $1.2 
million-street-value load to New York, where he was to unload it in 
exchange for $170,000 plus an $8,000 fee for the trip, according to 
court papers. [redacted], who later pleaded not guilty to a federal 
drug-importation charge, told authorities he had made similar 
excursions 25 times, the government alleges.

[redacted] told investigators [redacted] were on their fourth such 
drive and had earned $5,000 to $8,000 per trip for their past 
services, according to the complaint.

[redacted] said his contact told him to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge 
in New York, take Exit 6W, pull over and wait for a ride, according 
to the report. He expected to earn $2,000 for his efforts, according 
to court papers. [redacted] told authorities [redacted], had no idea 
what he was doing, but she said she knew something illegal was going 
on, though not precisely what, the investigator wrote.

'A Huge Amount'

In court last week, [redacted]'s attorney described him as a minor 
player with little information.

"My client was nothing more than a low-level courier," said Terence 
Kindlon, a private-practice lawyer from Albany, N.Y. "He did know 
what was in the vehicle, but he had no idea the extent of the quantity."

Chief Judge William Sessions III called the case "an extraordinarily 
serious offense" backed by strong evidence. He ordered [redacted] 
jailed pending further court proceedings, but he released [redacted] 
on conditions, saying he trusted her to return for future hearings.

Prosecutor Barbara Masterson disagreed with that decision, arguing 
the couple had attempted to smuggle "a tremendous quantity of a very 
dangerous drug" into the country. A conviction carries up to 20 years 
in prison and $1 million in fines.

"This is a huge amount of Ecstasy," Masterson said. "There is no 
incentive for them to come back."

While the case proceeds, law enforcement will try to dam the 
southward flow of Ecstasy even as the river seems to be growing stronger.

Foucart, the ICE special agent in charge, and Anderson, the U.S. 
attorney, agreed that authorities need to boost anti-drug efforts at 
the border and in communities, and use education to help reduce the 
desire for Ecstasy, which some users mistakenly believe is less 
serious than cocaine or heroin.

"We're going to have to increase surveillance, increase enforcement 
at the border," Anderson said. "We need to coordinate investigations 
and prosecutions across districts, coordinate between agencies to 
make sure everybody's pulling the oars in the same direction."

Foucart said an increase in Ecstasy seizures is a good sign, not a 
worrisome one.

"If we can stop it from coming in, the supply will go down and 
hopefully so will the demand," he said. "Who knows what we've missed, 
but we'll continue to do our jobs and hopefully shut these organizations down." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake