Inside the lucrative world of ecstasy smuggling

Madeleine Scinto, a reporter for the New York Post, wrote a story about a 4-million-dollar ecstasy operation in the North East.

She wore blue eyeshadow, an oversized sweatshirt and Birkenstocks, still looking like the smart undergrad who just two years earlier took a math degree at one of the best colleges in the country. MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, and thousands of dollars of cash were stashed in a cloth backpack hanging over her shoulder.

Ragan was slinging merchandise for one of the biggest MDMA-dealing rings in the Northeast, grossing up to $45,000 a month for a couple of hours worth of work a day. Together she and her bosses, Chad, a floppy-haired rich kid from Texas who worked as a distributor, and Nick, the “connect” to British Columbia, run a $4 million-a-year operation.

Inside the lucrative world of ecstasy smuggling

Image: Shutterstock


  1. ‘Ragan’ should consider work as a drug sales rep. Her attributes and skill set would transfer nicely, and the legal exposure is considerably lower…

    1. Yeah, I don’t know. It kind of bugged me that the article starts off with her bragging about her MDMA-selling prowess. 

      “I’m really good at selling drugs — like really good,” Ragan said right before she climbed up the stairs to do a four-figure deal with one of her Manhattan clients.

      As Chris Rock put it (more or less), you don’t sell drugs, you offer them. No drug dealer ever worries about how they’re going to unload all their drug inventory.

      I’m a dumpy middle-aged guy who might as well be wearing a beauty pageant sash reading “NARC OF THE YEAR,” and I bet I’d “sell” ecstasy like hotcakes too in a target-rich environment like NYU.

      1. Drugs may sell themselves; but that doesn’t settle the battle between my drugs and the other guy’s drugs.

        If the marketing for legal drugs is anything to go by, there is definitely some salesmanship and charm put into moving all but the lousiest product.

      2. Selling drugs requires a certain personality type. If you don’t have that personality type, it’s not going to be easy for you. I think that’s what Ragan meant when she said she was “really good at it.”

        In order to be good at selling drugs, you have to be able to make connections with customers without them being cops or telling the cops about you. This is difficult, because if you only ever sell to people you know very well, you won’t make the volume required to do well as a professional dealer. Therefore, in order to be good at dealing drugs, you have to be a very good judge of a certain kind of character.When you sell drugs, you deal with drug users. Some of them have their shit together and understand the mores of buying and selling. Some of them do not. You need to be able to interact with the ones who do not without pissing them off, both because you want their business and because you don’t want them to rat you out for revenge. This is also a very special kind of charisma that not everyone has.

        When you sell drugs, eventually someone will think that you shorted them, or that what you sold them is not what you said it was. Dealing with this requires a certain type of charisma that not everyone has.

        So, yes, if all that was involved in selling drugs was exchanging them for cash, they would be easy to sell, But it’s not. If you don’t have the right personality and skill set, your career as a drug dealer will be very short. You will either end up in prison; or you will end up having run off all your customers to a different dealer, leaving you sitting on a huge pile of drugs and no one to buy them; or you will somehow end up having sold all your drugs and not recouped your investment in them, because everyone will have wheedled you into selling for less than you should have, or for giving them “free samples” or some such.

        1. Now I have this idea for a sketch where a policeman has to find the dealer in a group of people, so he trolls them about selling drugs being “so easy, even i could do it!” until the real dealer can’t resist the challenge.

        2. There are always territorial disputes further up the chain. You can suddenly find that you are one of the best dealers around that all your customers are happy to do business with and the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time selling the wrong drugs. Total strangers will start offering drugs to be laid on free in undreamt of and unwanted quantities. This Is the time to not lose your cool, tell them to fuck off and suffer the consequences if you are not to find yourself ‘endebted’ to people who chose you, not you them.

  2. This really drives home how daunting the idea of stopping the drugs at the border is.  This guy is moving a paltry 15lbs a month of the stuff and making a quarter million bucks.  There are a lot of places you can hide a mere 15 pounds of malleable powder.  I don’t know what the density of MDMA is, but I assume it’s somewhere in the realm of sugar or flour.  15 pounds is a large bag of sugar.

    1. Precursor for MDMA is _NOT_ easy to come by, in pretty much any country. There’s alot more to this than meets the eye. The connect working out of Dallas… perhaps a beverage industry insider since he’s in Dallas… & sassafras oil is used in flavoring cola in quantities enough for manufacture…

      1. Depends on your definition of ‘precursor’ and ‘easy’, I suppose. First of all, while safrole *is* on the DEA watchlist because of its use as an MDMA precursor (via the classic Shulgin synthesis), it is still possible to buy sub-kilo quantities for any individual. Obviously, given the scale of their operation, these guys are doing something different (maybe they created a front company like Root Beer Aroma LLC  in order to facilitate diversion :-P ).
        Second of all, you can dig up sassafras roots and extract the essential oil from the root bark, if you’re determined (it’s ~75% safrole).
        But the thing is, at these scales, it doesn’t matter. If the safrole were utterly unobtainable they could try some alternate route, methylenation of 3,4-dihydroxyphenylpropanoids, whatever. At $5K per pound and so many pounds per month, they could afford some decent gear and a lot of labor to dick around with different synthetic routes.

  3. Article claims “Medical studies show that ecstasy can cause long-term brain damage”, but this claim has never been substantiated in any study I’ve seen, and I’ve done a lot of reading and searching on the subject.

    1. So can alcohol, but policing alcohol doesn’t keep a multi-billion-tax-dollar-sucking bureaucracy and prison-industrial complex in business, provide windfall profits to criminal cartels, their distribution networks, their dealers and their collection enforcers, and give willfully ignorant suburbanite parents a false sense of security. We live in a police state that treats its citizens like children, meanwhile California tries to outlaw transfats, and still people wonder why our country is fucked the fuck up. We can’t get decent healthcare, but we’ll sure as shit run everything else into the ground to join it in hell.

    2. Purely anecdotally, but back in the mid-nineties I sat in maths class next to the local drug dealer. He had a huge party for New Years and apparently overdid the E quite significantly… He definitely came back with severe problems with short-term/long-term memory transition that hadn’t cleared up by the time we all graduated from high-school.

      I ended up having to give him a lot of help that year in maths, and got him hooked up with the school district’s support for Learning Disabled students (being one myself). He was fried by something, and it did lasting damage.

      1. “So like, I knew this guy, and he did this drug, and now he’s TOTALLY FRIED, man!”

        Or, maybe he already had a learning disability? And you just didn’t notice? It’s not as if you guys were best pals.

        1. Maybe not best friends, but someone who sits next to you for a year, notices large sudden changes in your behavior, regularly gives you support in your studies and then helps you to find professional support would count as some sort of friend in my book.

          Sure it’s just an anecdote, but why the rush to dismiss it out of hand?

          1. Because this isn’t D.A.R.E. and we don’t rely on hyperbole, random anecdotes, and confirmation bias.

            And how do we know something else didn’t happen to cause a change? Somehow, “he partied too hard one night, man” just doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

            Besides, alcohol can cause brain damage, too — and overdose.  Pretty easily, actually, if you overdo it one night or over a long weekend…

            Shall we do prohibition over again or have we learned our lesson?

      2. It is a safe bet that your drug dealer friend did far more than MDMA.  “Ecstasy” tablet are often a drug dealer party mix.  If you are lucky, it is MDMA and some speed.  If you are unlucky it could be cut with all manner of things both intentionally from people shaving a few more bucks off the top, and unintentionally from a botched batch of something with a pile of nasty organics.

        Knowing a little organic chemistry lab technique and how badly and easily you can fuck it up and make something toxic has made me completely uninterested in stuff that comes in a tablet from a mystery lab / dudes basement.  

        It is sad, because the largest harm you have from a lot of these drugs, especially the non-addictive kind, is the fact that the maker can fuck it up or cut it.  Add on top of that the fact that it is impossible to dose out properly, and, well, you have a number of hurt or dead people.

        I really wish SOME nation would try just full on outright legalization of anything that isn’t chemically addictive and isn’t overtly toxic.  If a company could make this stuff in a clean and well regulated lab and dose it out properly, most of the issues with these drugs would vanish.  Give them good labels to describe what sort of effects to expect and the known and unknown dangers of long term damage on a nice color scale, and people could make informed decisions.

        In fact, if companies could research drugs and know that they could sell them, you might simply “solve” the drug problem by making a “perfect” drug that isn’t addictive, a good time, and doesn’t leave damage.

        1. Wait, “isn’t chemically addictive”?

          Would your hypothetical country ban my sweet delicious coffee, then?

    3. Long term?  Hell, it’s like immediate term.  I’ve seen people on ex, and they are dumb as hell.  Not only that, taking these drugs in combination with drinking, partying, other drugs, etc. is very physically dangerous.  Also, there’s no way to tell the quality of the ex you’re getting, it could be laced with any number of poisonous chemicals.  Also, it very much mentally impairs you.  I know people who have crashed while driving while under the influence of ex.

      1. “Also, there’s no way to tell the quality of the ex you’re getting”

        Incorrect! There is a very good way to tell exactly what you’re getting. There are various websites you anonymously mail a pill and some money, and they post an analysis online. There are also test kits you can buy that allow you to do a test right there in the field.

      2.  ‘there’s no way to tell the quality of the ex you’re getting, it could be laced with any number of poisonous chemicals.’

        Kind of like alcohol during Prohibition, in other words.

      3. Most drugs make you “dumb as hell”. Three shots of vodka in a row is enough to make me stupid. There is nothing wrong with that. You just need to plan ahead for the fact that you are going to be dumb. You don’t drive to a place where you are going to drink yourself dumb. You don’t do hallucinogens in a place where you are uncomfortable and you keep a sober kid around in case there are issues. Ecstasy is going to impair your judgement and leave you pretty helpless, so you should do in a safe place where there are folks that can look after you.

        It isn’t rocket science. You can enjoy many drugs safely if you just expend a smidgen of forethought. The real danger of most drugs has to do with their illegality. Because they are illegal, it is much harder to ensure quality. If you have problems, you generally can’t go to the authorities. Make them legal and the vast majority of the danger of most drugs drops to near zero.

        As far as the stupid stuff that people do on drugs, that is just people being stupid. You can do dumb shit on alcohol. You can do dumb shit on cough syrup if that really gets your rocks off. Most people who do stupid things are drugs are just stupid people to begin with. Drugs, be they alcohol or ecstasy are just are just an excuse.

      4. ” I know people who have crashed while driving while under the influence of ex.”

        Wow. You don’t say. They were impaired, then made the CHOICE to drive while very impaired, and crashed? NO WAY!

        Dude, as someone who has partied her share, you do not lose all ability to think while on X. They made the dumb choice to DRIVE WHILE INTOXICATED. That’s always dumb, no matter the drug.

        Also, if you find a really great dealer and/or can test your stuff, then the chances of you finding “poison” are very, very slim. And, you don’t have to get pills; you can get “molly” (powder) which is harder to lace.

      5. I haven’t noticed any particular cognitive impairments in people who are on pure MDMA.  It’s possible that the people you’re talking about took some kind of ecstasy that was cut with something really nasty.

        But it’s far more likely that the people you’re talking about were simply drunk in addition to being on x and that being drunk is what caused them to act stupidly and crash cars.

        I get the sense that you haven’t taken any yourself and so I’m definitely not going to trust your judgments on the effects.  But if you tried some MDMA I bet you’d be surprised how clear-thinking and lucid you are through the whole thing.

      1. I suppose I couldn’t say… but the article is asserting that MDMA causes brain damage, NOT that a myriad of other chemicals do so. The latter, as a vague statement, I take for granted. The former is sloppy unsupported propaganda masquerading as journalism.

    4. At recreational doses taken regularly, MDMA can cause long-term and even permanent serotonin receptor downregulation. That would qualify as brain damage in most physician’s books. In general, any agonist taken at sufficient dose for a sufficient length of time can cause long-term downregulation of its targeted receptors. That said, research in the Netherlands (if my memory is correct, it might’ve been Finland) suggests that MDMA does have a therapeutic dose for certain disorders (PTSD, social anxiety, major depression). If true, then it would meet the criteria for Schedule II here in the States (known medical use, high abuse potential). But that will never happen for the simple reason that it isn’t patentable, which is why pharmaceutical companies are researching MDMA analogs instead.

    5. Some light reading:
      References 27 through 31 are the ones usually pointed to by those who claim that ‘ecstacy causes brain damage’. Now, because of the source and the incentives, I am inclined to take these particular studies with a huge grain of salt; but I am surprised that someone who has ‘done a lot of reading and searching’ wouldn’t have seen these.

      1. With the government leading the charge on the disastrous “war on drugs”, I frankly don’t see how one could take anything they put out about drugs with any confidence.  These are people who would have you believe that marijuana has no legitimate medical purposes, for f’s sake.  

    6. “Medical studies show that ecstasy can cause long-term brain damage.”
      This attitude perpetuated by the press toward drug use is one of the pillars of the unending drug war.

      It gets thrown around, source-less, matter of factly, in countless “articles” on the subject and overall makes the rest of the piece suspect.

  4. Would have been nice to know what the profit margin in Vancouver is.  Seems like a strange omission.

    1. You mean bulk sale price minus cost of materials and rent and paying a lookout? Yes, I imagine it’s a pretty decent profit.

    2. Not so strange.  I’m no MDMA manufacturing insider, but I’m pretty sure standard business practices in that industry don’t include press kits and public quarterly financial statements.  It’s remarkable they got as many people to talk to them as they did.

    3. If they are selling for $5,000/lb and sell at least 20 lbs/month per the infographic that is $100,000/month minus whatever overhead they have. Seems like there would still be a decent profit in there.

      1. It’s unlikely that they only have one sales channel which also happens to be the most dangerous one (because of border-crossing). I bet you can duplicate that number, at the very least.

  5. The infographic is the best argument yet I’ve seen for ditching my paltry corporate desk job and becoming a drug dealer. $40,000 a MONTH? On the LOW end? I know that the risks are huge but shit that’s a lot of money.

      1. Well today I learned a phrase. I actually know a runner, he’s been doing it for years and he’s fine, still. Just waiting for the day when I hear otherwise, though. It’s for another, more popular, but cheaper, drug- I guess that makes less money. I wonder if these jobs would pay less if everything was legalized. Is part of the cost from the risk that people are taking by doing something illegal?

        1. “I wonder if these jobs would pay less if everything was legalized.”

          In a word, yes. For instance, it is reported that oxycodone is far more expensive on the black market than in the primary market.

          1. True story. While awaiting some major spinal surgery due to injuries I got during Desert Storm, I was on OxyContin. My prescription cost me around $50 a month for 120 pills and I could have sold them for $15 each with no problems whatsoever. This was five years ago but I imagine that it hasn’t changed significantly since then. If I hadn’t been in so much pain, (spinal cord was being squeezed out the side of my vertebrae for about four months), I would have made a buttload of money. Instead, I took my drugs like a good boy and stayed high and relatively pain free until the surgery was completed…three times…sigh.

        2. “I wonder if these jobs would pay less if everything was legalized.”

          Do you really? Try carrying that thought to its conclusion.

  6. “Nick arranged meet-ups with Ragan at random locations in the tri-state area. ”
    Nick? Whatever HEINZ!

  7. The article just doesn’t ring true for me. While there is a mention of some gangs, it makes it sound like Nick, Chad, and Ragan just choose not to do business with them. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Breaking Bad, but I doubt young entrepreneurs in organized crime have that much freedom.

    1. If your understanding of drugs comes from Breaking Bad, yes. You have no clue what you’re talking about.

    2. Think about the sorts of people you’d expect Harvard students to buy their drugs from.  Not exactly Tuco or Gus, right?

  8. “Those Vietnamese gangs are a different thing. What we do is not organized crime because we are not Vietnamese. Hold on I gotta take a call from my Boss”

  9. Walter White for one salutes these young people for getting X to the paying public (just as long as they don’t try to encroach on his turf.)
    As for harm caused by X, this is from the Wiikipedia article
    “. . . David Nutt, a former chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, stated in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in January 2009 that ecstasy use compared favorably with horse riding in terms of risk, with ecstasy leading to around 30 deaths a year in the UK compared to about 10 from horse riding, and “acute harm to person” occurring in approximately 1 in 10,000 episodes of ecstasy use compared to about 1 in 350 episodes of horse riding.[87] Dr. Nutt notes the lack of a balanced risk assessment in public discussions of MDMA:[87]

    ‘The general public, especially the younger generation, are disillusioned with the lack of balanced political debate about drugs. This lack of rational debate can undermine the trust in government in relation to drug misuse and thereby undermining the government’s message in public information campaigns. The media in general seem to have an interest in scare stories about illicit drugs, though there are some exceptions (Horizon, 2008).[88] A telling review of 10-year media reporting of drug deaths in Scotland illustrates the distorted media perspective very well (Forsyth, 2001).[89] During this decade, the likelihood of a newspaper reporting a death from paracetamol was in [sic] per 250 deaths, for diazepam it was 1 in 50, whereas for amphetamine it was 1 in 3 and for ecstasy every associated death was reported.’
    . .The most carefully designed study so far was published in February 2011[52] in the journal Addiction, comparing the effect on cognitive skills in 52 ecstasy users against 59 very closely matched non-users. The study, performed by the group of Prof. Halpern of Harvard Medical School, eliminated potential confounding factors like the use of other drugs and history of drug-use. The study found no short- or long-term differences in cognitive skills in the test group (users) versus the control group (non-users).. . .

  10. “safrole hard to get because of a drought in Canada?”. They don’t mean a “lack of water” drought. They mean a “customs cracking down on sassafras / camphor oil imports from China” sort of drought.

Comments are closed.