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Crime, Law & Social Change (2005) 44: 1–18
DOI: 10.1007/s10611-006-9014-8 C
Ecstasy in the city: Synthetic drug markets in Europe
The outcomes of a ﬁeld research
Department of Sociology and Political Science, University of Calabria, Italy
Abstract. How do “new” drug markets develop and operate? Which are the characteristics
of synthetic drug suppliers? How are they organized, owned and managed? This article sum-
marizes the outcomes of a cross-national study which investigated three urban synthetic drug
markets at a different stage of development: Amsterdam, Barcelona and Turin. The study – the
ﬁrst of this type in Europe – outlines a composite picture which clearly indicates the presence
of rather ﬂexible and dynamic actors and a quasi “free” drug economy. Hence, the role played
by more structured, maﬁa-type organizations, even in Italy, needs to be reconceived. The wide
use of primary sources, altogether the adoption of qualitative interpretative tools, contributed
to shed some light on a phenomenon which is still poorly investigated both at national and
Although biases and limitations are an unavoidable component of any research
process, it is worth mentioning that the greatest problem in studying drug
markets – as well as similar businesses – is that they are, by nature, illegal and
mostly hidden activities. Ofﬁcial data sometimes provides only partial and
incomplete information, while qualitative research often relies on just a few
cases representing only a small part of the situation under investigation. In
the case of synthetic drugs supply, the issue has received very little attention
from the international scientiﬁc community.
This article contains the outcomes of a ﬁeld research on synthetic drug
markets in three European cities: Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Barcelona
(Spain) and Turin (Italy).1The general question examined by the research
teams was how the various actors supplying and distributing synthetic drugs
to the illegal urban markets are organized, owned and managed, with special
attention paid to the larger social context in which they operate. From the
outset, it was clear the three markets investigated were at different stages of
development due to the peculiar evolution patterns of the local drug scenes.
being the ﬁrst two cities located within major international trafﬁcking routes
while the third in a more peripheral position. Furthermore, the bulk of studies,
literature and research already in existence on the topic varied signiﬁcantly
from city to city. Finally, a number of sources suggested that the three cities
analyzed played different roles in the geopolitics of both national and inter-
national synthetic drug supplies. Therefore, an attempt was made to ensure
that the research methods adopted a certain degree of ﬂexibility in order to
reﬂect particular dynamics and situations.
The project followed a multifaceted methodology which favored the
use of qualitative research methods based on a wide range of sociologi-
cal, ethnographic and criminological tools and on interviews, focus group
discussions with privileged observers, analysis of judicial and police ﬁles
and, in some cases, participant observation. People familiar with the urban
synthetic drug scene were approached and interviewed through a wide net-
work of “facilitators” mostly composed of key observers, acquaintances and
friends. Participant observation and qualitative interviews were used in or-
der to reconstruct dealing patterns and consumption habits. This approach
helped create a relatively innovative perspective on how synthetic drug mar-
kets emerge, function and develop and also suggest guidelines for developing
informed policies on the phenomenon.
The incredible wealth of information collected during the ﬁeld work shows
that, in spite of the fact that the synthetic drug markets analyzed have devel-
oped in extremely different urban contexts and under the inﬂuence of a broad
range of political, social and cultural circumstances, they exhibit several sim-
ilar trends, altogether with a number of peculiar patterns.
The three cities signiﬁcantly differ not only in size and geographical loca-
tion, but also in their economic, social and cultural characteristics. Barcelona
is the largest city (around 1.5 million inhabitants), followed by Turin (900,000
inhabitants) and Amsterdam (735,000). Both Barcelona and Amsterdam share
the same international atmosphere of the major European capitals, while
Turin – which still keeps the vestiges of its past as former capital – plays
a major role in the national industrial and business scene. As one of the major
poles of the so-called Italian “Industrialized Triangle”, Turin’s economy is
traditionally oriented towards the automobile sector, while both Barcelona
and Amsterdam have more mixed economies which include ﬁnancial and
business services, tourism and trade.
Turin is currently facing an economic crisis related to a difﬁcult phase
of the post-industrialization process, with growing unemployment and social
tensions. In Amsterdam, although unemployment had considerably decreased
during the 1990s, it currently amounts to 9.6%.2Barcelona, after the peaks
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 3
reached by unemployment rates during the 1990s, has an average of 10.9%,
which is slightly more than the national rates (9.2% in 2005).3
A signiﬁcant decrease can be perceived in the number of adolescents and
young adults living in Turin. The population over 65 years currently amounts
to 23% over the total, while young people aged between 15 and 24 were
around 72,000 at the beginning of 2006 (around 8% over the total popula-
tion). In Barcelona almost 11% of the population is aged between 15 and 24
years. However, the role played by Barcelona as major night-life and enter-
tainment place continuously attracts thousands of young people, including
many tourists, who frequent the numerous bars, cafes, discos located in the
city and in the nice villages and towns on the Catalonian coast. Amsterdam,
on the other side, is the one with a stronger presence of young adults: 32.5%
of its population is aged between 18 and 24 years (over 208,000 people).
Moreover, the Dutch city annually gathers huge amounts of young tourists
who, besides taking part in the trendy nightlife and entertainment industry, are
fascinated by its international reputation as “sin city” and its liberal attitude
towards drugs and prostitution.
From a socio-cultural perspective, all three cities have experienced signiﬁ-
cant changes during the past few decades. Amsterdam’s population developed
from predominantly “white” till the 1960s into a multicultural one. Today only
slightly more than half of the population (53%) is ethnic Dutch (themselves
and both parents born in the Netherlands), while people from other Western
European countries (about 10%), the former colony Surinam (10%), and the
Caribbean overseas territories (2%), as well as from Morocco (8%) and Turkey
(5%), compose the largest foreign groups. Although both Barcelona and Turin
have experienced signiﬁcant demographic changes – with respectively 7.6%
and 4% of the population being composed of foreigners –, it seems that mi-
grants often face difﬁculties integrating into the urban social and economic
life. The number of second and third-generation migrants living in Amsterdam
is substantially higher than in Barcelona and Turin.
Drug markets: The decline of the open drug scene
In all three cities cannabis is the most widespread illicit drug. In Turin this
is largely an underground market in private settings and around public places
such as pubs and clubs, although some dealers – mostly foreign migrants – still
operate in the open drug scene. In Barcelona, both hashish and marijuana are
usually sold on the street, particularly in those areas close to clubs, pubs and
other meeting places. In Amsterdam cannabis is predominantly sold in “coffee
shops” and there is hardly any street market. In May 1999 the city had a total
of 294 coffee shops and more than half of them were located in the inner city
(180).4Moreover, both in Amsterdam and Barcelona there are several “smart
shops” – where all kinds of drug paraphernalia (hash-pipes, pill-testing kits
etc. which are also sold in so-called “head shops”) are sold as well as “smart
drugs”, “non traditional” psychotropics, such as magic mushrooms, along
with other legal drugs, including herbal or natural ecstasy products (which do
not contain MDMA). Products related to cannabis, like seeds, resources for
self-cultivation (earth, high-powered lamps, etc.) or clothes made from hemp
are sold in the so-called “Grow Shops”.
Heroin is predominantly associated with the street market. Both in
Amsterdam and Barcelona, it is usually sold in the streets or apartments
of lower class neighborhoods with high unemployment rates (such as the
Zeedijk and Bijlmermeer areas in Amsterdam and the city centre and the
periphery in Barcelona). As a consequence of the harsh police repres-
sion against the open drug scene during the 1990s, street markets have
signiﬁcantly re-shaped in Turin. Traditional retail points in proximity of
squares, parks or meeting places hardly resist. The urban geography of deal-
ing places tends to change very quickly and suddenly adapts to external
In Turin, heroin is mostly sold by foreign dealers – mainly newcomers –
who occupy the riskiest sector of the market – the street – and are highly
exposed to seizures and arrest. Since the mid-1990s, Turin retail drug markets
have been almost entirely operated and managed by foreign dealers. Accord-
ing to the most updated data available, the proportion of foreigners in Turin
referred to judicial authorities because of drug production and dealing in-
creased from 26% in 1988 to 67% in the early 2000s (Ministero dell’Interno,
2001:305). Albanians and North-African are indicated as those mostly in-
volved in the cannabis and heroin markets. The preponderance of these non-
indigenous groups in controlling some drug markets seems, in certain cases,
due to their connections with both producer countries and criminal networks
involved in international drug smuggling. However, data regarding the types
of jobs carried out by foreigners in the management of speciﬁc sectors of
local drug markets shows how they mirror the ofﬁcial economy: aliens usu-
ally perform the lowest tasks, the riskiest activities and substitute locals in
the most dangerous jobs. Italian dealers prefer to supply their old circles of
well-known consumers, although the emergence of some “recreational” use of
heroin, which is increasingly smoked or sniffed, has enhanced the spreading
of retail points close to clubs, pubs and discos. The two markets, however,
are largely separated. In Amsterdam, as well, most of the dealers at street
level belong to speciﬁc ethnic minorities (particularly Surinamese, Antilleans
and Moroccans), while native “white” dealers dominate the recreational retail
market (Blickman et al., 2003).
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 5
In Amsterdam, in particular, the heroin street market is strongly mixed with
crack cocaine which is taking over heroin more and more. Both in Barcelona
and Turin few data were gathered on the availability of crack cocaine in the
local markets, although information collected suggests that it has not become
very popular yet. This might reﬂect a more advanced stage in Amsterdam’s
drugs market development where consumers may beneﬁt from a wider choice
in the availability of different drugs.
As far as the availability of cocaine powder is concerned, the outcomes of
the research pointed out that in all three cities it tends to be commercialized
away from the street market for heroin and, in the case of Amsterdam, crack
cocaine. Usually, it is purchased within networks of friends or acquaintances,
often at private addresses, or through the use of mobile phones which have
increased the popularity of home-delivery services (especially among the
traditional network of elite and “recreational” users). For Amsterdam and
Barcelona, however, the increase in the use of cocaine powder among young
people is most clear, both from quantitative and qualitative studies.
The emergence of a new drug marketplace
Both in Barcelona and Amsterdam ecstasy consumption started to take off
during the ﬁrst half and mid-1980s (Gamella and Alvarez, 1999; Adelaars,
1991) while in Turin it spread some years later, between the end of the 1980s
and the summer of 1991 (Bagozzi, 1996). Ecstasy arrived in Barcelona imme-
diately after having boomed in Ibiza – one of the major pole of the dance and
techno-music culture during the 1980s –, while in Amsterdam its diffusion
was promoted by alternative circles and trend-setting globetrotters who had
their ﬁrst experiences in Goa or Ibiza5and the consequent “Summer of love”6
in the United Kingdom. In this respect, both Barcelona and Amsterdam ap-
pear to have been among the early starters, while Turin, can be deﬁned as a
During the second half of the 1980s, ecstasy consumption became in-
creasingly popular – both in Amsterdam and in Barcelona – while the market
started to expand accordingly. In Amsterdam, the ﬁrst large scale house parties
– which are allegedly associated with ecstasy use – were organized during the
late summer of 1988. The ﬁrst generation of ecstasy-dealers – mainly com-
posed of users and/or people who used to sell to friends and acquaintances –
gradually grew and organized themselves, while some of them started to make
contacts with the traditional amphetamine cookers in the south of the coun-
try (Blickman et al., 2003). During those years, Amsterdam became one of
the main ecstasy distribution and international trafﬁcking centres in Europe.
On the other side, from the beginning of the 1990s onward, the ﬁrst news
concerning ecstasy home production appeared in the Spanish press, while the
activities of some international trafﬁcking networks operating in the country
were dismantled by the police (Monta˜nes et al., 2003).
In all three cities analyzed, ecstasy became relatively widely available in
the local market during the early 1990s.
However, from the very beginning, this new drug market seemed to differ
a lot from the traditional ones. Firstly because it was more “hidden” and well
entrenched into wider social and cultural environments. The embeddedness
of drugs use in peculiar settings, life styles and social contexts has deeply in-
ﬂuenced the ways in which these substances are commercialized. The strong
links existing between synthetic drugs consumption, dance and techno-music
nightlife settings – increasingly frequented by growing numbers of main-
stream young people – enhanced the emergence of a new social type of drug
consumers. “Recreational” drug users are mainly found among the young,
employed and studious who participated in the dance-scene culture, and not
among the marginalized and socially deprived.7
On the other side, the dynamics which allow the exchange money-drug
to take place have changed accordingly. Ecstasy, amphetamines, and other
“dance drugs” for the recreational market can be predominantly found at pri-
vate addresses among relatives, friends and acquaintances. Here, both the
dealer and the user operate in a safer environment, transaction costs are lower
as well as the stress associated with the open drug scene. In Turin, for ex-
ample, it clearly emerges that suppliers are often people who join together
on the basis of extra-economic social ties (i.e. friendship, neighborhood, be-
longing to the same cultural and social contexts). They belong to all social,
economic and cultural strata and their involvement into the drug business is
often occasional or discontinued and cannot be interpreted with reference to
their supposed social exclusion (as it happened, particularly in the past, for
other drug markets). Most of them are ecstasy users themselves. Like the de-
mand side of the market (inhabited mostly by a wide array of people from all
social levels and cultural backgrounds), the supply side is mostly managed
by people who have not experienced any marginalization process. For them,
dealing drugs merely represents a “normal” everyday activity. They attach no
“criminal” label to their job as drug dealers and in most cases are very cautious
in avoiding the risk of being detained and booked as “pushers”. Hence, the
preference for closed and semi-open settings (i.e. ﬂats, houses, hotels, clubs,
etc.) where money-drug exchanges can safely take place.
Ecstasy has not become a typical “street drug”, neither in terms of supply
structure, nor in terms of status. Ecstasy street dealing almost does not exist if
we except those selling points ﬂourishing in proximity of clubs, discos, pubs,
as well as at raves. Even in these semi-open drug scenes trust and a certain
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 7
knowledge of the various informal “codes” and interaction rules represent
important resources for carrying out good businesses. Because of the increase
of entry controls, it has become more difﬁcult to buy pills at discos and clubs.
Dealers usually prefer to stop in the parking areas close to these places, while
several consumers try to get “sorted” before going to dance.
Growing evidences on the spreading of the so-called “delivery” or “order
by phone” system have been collected in all the three cities during the ﬁeld
work. This system usually foresees the delivery of the pills directly at home
or in a agreed meeting place. The customer should only have a contact, i.e.
a name and a telephone number, make a phone call and explain his/her re-
quest, sometime using metaphorical language and passwords. Although the
retail market predominantly remains a “disorganized” and highly “informal”
market, inhabited by a myriad of individuals, small groups and loosely orga-
nized networks, the diffusion of more structured selling modalities might be
interpreted as a signal of increasing professionalization of the business.
During the late 1990s the ecstasy markets of both Amsterdam and
Barcelona reached the stage of stabilization – in terms of number of consumers
– and saturation. In Amsterdam, both qualitative and quantitative research in-
dicates an increase in powder cocaine consumption among trend setting club-
bers and ravers, although ecstasy is still popular (Nabben and Korf, 1999;
Korf et al., 2002; quoted in Blickman et al., 2003). In Barcelona, the decline
of ecstasy consumption has been accompanied by an increase in cannabis
and cocaine use (D´ıaz et al., 2000, 2001 quoted in Monta˜nes et al., 2003). Al-
though ecstasy is still very much linked with speciﬁc night-life settings – such
as those where techno music is particularly appreciated –, a decline in the qual-
ity of pills available in the local market has been reported by several users.
In Turin, on the other side, data available suggest that ecstasy consumption
is still popular, although the growing use of smoked and sniffed heroin and
cocaine among young consumers represents an emerging trend which might
deserve more attention.
Although the use of ecstasy is rather common among groups of club-
bers and ravers, data from surveys among the general population – as far as
available – make very clear that the vast majority of young people have never
tried ecstasy, while in all three cities combined use of both licit (i.e. alco-
hol, mixed drinks, cocktails) and illicit substances and various kinds of illicit
drugs (the so-called poly-drug consumption) has been increasingly reported
(Blickman et al., 2003; Monta˜nes et al., 2003; Massari et al., 2003).
In Amsterdam, in particular, the ecstasy market has recently become more
“reliable” (at beginning of the 2000s pills contained an average of 90 mg
of MDMA), while the retail price has dropped very signiﬁcantly (one pill
currently costs from around 4–5 to 2.5 ). Ecstasy sold in Barcelona’s
street market costs around 6–7 per pill and have an average purity between
70 and 90 mg of MDMA per tablet, while in Turin ecstasy is still relatively
expensive (between 7 and 15 per pill), although the purity level is
almost the same. Both in Amsterdam and Turin, information gathered during
the ﬁeld work indicates that pills bought at parties or in clubs are generally
more expensive than at private addresses.
Marketing chains and distribution styles
The drug distribution system has often been portrayed as a “mysterious” pro-
cess, organized on the basis of uncertain principles and managed by unknown
entities. This belief (mostly based on press accounts rather than sound sci-
entiﬁc research) has been demystiﬁed since the early 1970s by a number
of empirical studies on the organization of local drug markets which have
shown that many characteristics surprisingly resemble those of their legal
“counterparts” (Preble and Casey, 1969; Moore, 1970; Reuter and Haaga,
1989). As in other markets, the drug industry has price structures, mar-
ket procedures, systems of rules, people who perform various tasks, and
Similarities between legal and illegal markets, however, should not over-
shadow the existence of speciﬁc peculiarities in the latter (such as, inter alia,
the illegality of the goods traded, the risks of interception and the absence
of a formal apparatus aimed at enforcing the rules of fair bargaining) which
signiﬁcantly increase transaction costs and subject drug suppliers to powerful
constraints. In the case of synthetic drug markets, the results of the research
suggest that the pharmacological characteristics of the drugs purchased, the
consumption patterns associated with them and the embeddedness of drug
use in particular subcultures and social contexts, all deeply inﬂuence the ways
these substances are made available to ﬁnal users.
Based on the ﬁndings of several in-depth studies of urban drug markets,
much research in the drug supply ﬁeld often refers to the six-level distribution
chain identiﬁed in the late 1960s and mid-1970s and composed of the follow-
ing: importers, distributors, large-scale wholesalers, small-scale wholesalers,
street distributors or user-sellers, and end-users (Preble and Casey, 1969;
Moore, 1977; Lewis, 1994). However, this ideal-typical organization is often
subject to profound changes since drug distribution systems are very ﬂexible
and usually display a high adaptability to speciﬁc market conditions.
The trend towards a growing “break up” of drug markets (especially on
the retail level) is particularly evident in the case of the three synthetic drug
supply systems analyzed where the distribution chain is incredibly short; two
or at most three transactions are enough to link the importer to the ﬁnal users.
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 9
In most cases analyzed, the organization is rather ﬂexible since the group may
create new businesses, split up or come back together again depending on the
The supply: Loosely organized networks and “informal” drug market
In terms of production and trafﬁcking patterns, Amsterdam certainly plays a
more important role than the two other cities – even if the Netherlands might
not play the very dominant role that is often suggested. As Blickman points out
in a recent overview on the global ecstasy market, although The Netherlands
has often been pinpointed as the main producer country – with US Drug En-
forcement Administration reports stating that 80 percent of world’s ecstasy is
produced in clandestine laboratories located in The Netherlands and, to a lesser
extent, in Belgium (DEA 2001) – its importance might be less than is gener-
ally assumed (2004:3).8Independent scientiﬁc research on the phenomenon as
well as comparable data are lacking, while statistics often rely on fragmentary
information based on speciﬁc law enforcement operations. Moreover, what is
going on elsewhere, such as in the booming market and potential production
areas emerged in South-East Asia and Eastern Europe, is still poorly inves-
tigated, although the main international organizations concerned with drugs
issue – such as the United Nations Ofﬁce on Drugs and Crime – have recently
started to report the increase in ecstasy production in East and South East Asia,
the decline occurred in Europe and the more or less stable number of laborato-
ries seized in the United States (UNODC 2003; UNODC 2005). However, the
closeness of Amsterdam to production facilities as well as the presence of a set
of favorable circumstances, such as the availability of a large industrial sector –
facilities in the industrial zone around the city also function as areas where ec-
stasy production facilities are established and are difﬁcult to survey (Blickman
et al., 2003) – and the availability of expertise in transport and industrial logis-
tics and services as well as a well-developed ﬁnancial sector have signiﬁcantly
inﬂuenced the development of the local ecstasy market (Blickman, 2004:10).
As far as ecstasy production is concerned, data gathered on Amsterdam’s
market suggest that the groups involved are mostly composed of few people,
have a network structure and rely on the services provided by outsiders, such
as professional chemists or technicians that can set up and run small labs,
people involved in the trade of legal or illegal precursors, and people who
can provide a location to set up the lab. While in the Netherlands ecstasy
production has gone through a growing professionalization and scaling up, in
Spain it seems that it is still at the so-called amateur stage, i.e. kitchen-labs
for the manufacture of relatively small amounts of pills mostly earmarked for
10 MONICA MASSARI
Although Amsterdam’s role in the international ecstasy market has been
recognized by most of the sources consulted, it should be noticed that this is
only partly due to the activities carried out by Dutch criminal organizations.
Ecstasy trafﬁcking attracts people from various nationalities and ethnic back-
grounds, and inter-ethnic transactions – as well as poly-drug activities – are
becoming increasingly popular. Amsterdam is a very good place to buy and
sell ecstasy, not only because the city attracts many foreign customers but also
because they can go unnoticed with their activities. Similarly, the ﬁeld work
carried out in Turin and Barcelona conﬁrmed that several local dealers usually
prefer to go to Amsterdam (but also to other Dutch cities) to buy large or small
quantities of pills, because it is easy to ﬁnd contacts and links for setting up
trafﬁcking lines, without being disturbed by border controls in the European
Union. The wholesale distributor in the Netherlands is usually approached
through a network of contacts and/or acquaintances active on the local drug
scene who act as facilitators. Once the buyer has been personally introduced
into the “environment” and successfully undertaken the ﬁrst business trans-
action, he/she tends to continue to use the same supply source for subsequent
transactions as well. Usually a phone call indicating the desired quantity of
drugs and a meeting place is enough to set up the deal.
However, interviews with some consumer-dealers emphasized that even
without a “connection” with a supplier in the Netherlands, “contacts” can
be established just making the rounds of meeting places in the major cities.
Dutch suppliers usually deliver the required quantities of pills directly in
the Netherlands, while often foreign dealers take the risk on themselves of
importing the drugs back into their country. Depending on the amount of
pills being trafﬁcked, dealers may transport the drugs either by car, often
hidden inside the vehicle chassis, or train, concealed in their bags or specially
designed luggage. In most of the Italian cases studied, the total quantity of
drugs imported each time never exceeded a few thousand pills thus making
their concealment much easier. Importer-users usually prefer frequent trips to
the Netherlands for small amounts of pills over the risk of interception with
larger quantities of the drug (Massari et al., 2003).
The disappearance of maﬁa-type groups from the drug business
The three drug markets analyzed are mostly populated by agile, loosely struc-
tured, open and highly adaptable networks which successfully manage the
entire process: from synthetic drugs importation and/or wholesale level distri-
bution to further commercialization and ﬁnal sale to end-users. No indication
was collected on the presence of criminal groups able to dominate, the market
from a monopolistic position.
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 11
Particularly in the case of Turin this was a quite unexpected outcome
of the ﬁeld work. Piedmont (the area where Turin is located), as well as
other Central-Northern regions in Italy, was one of the main areas where
traditional Maﬁa-type organizations settled between the end of the 1960s
and beginning of the 1970s.9Southern Italian Maﬁa “families” (belonging
particularly to the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and Sicilian Cosa Nostra) moved to
these “non-traditional” areas following a wave of court orders which forced
some members of well-known Maﬁa families (in a sort of “internal exile”) to
live far away from their own territories.10 These measures were believed to
help cut their contacts with associates and interrupt their criminal businesses.
In addition Piedmont was one of the main destinations for thousands of
Southern Italian immigrants who moved there in search of jobs in the numer-
ous factories based in that area. Most of them came from the three Italian
regions (Calabria, Sicily and Campania) with the longest and most structured
“Maﬁa tradition”.11 Although it would be incorrect to consider as “Maﬁosi”
the many honest Southern Italian immigrants who moved there to ﬁnd a regu-
lar job, numerous studies have pointed out that, once settled in the destination
area, they contributed to creating a social and cultural context which facilitated
the consolidation of the Maﬁa power structure (Commissione Parlamentare
Antimaﬁa, 1994; Smuraglia, 1994; Portanova et al., 1996; Sciarrone, 1998;
Massari, 2001). In particular, the possibility of relying on the potential local
support of a large community which could be easily dominated – because of
the well known reputation of some Maﬁosi – and the frequent use of patronage
relationships in order to solve disputes and settle agreements represented some
important facilitating factors. While most immigrants employed in factories
found an important means of social integration in trade-unions and workers
movements, those employed in the construction industry and other less secure
sectors were forced to accept the working conditions imposed by the busi-
ness owners (who were often Maﬁosi themselves). The control exercised by
these entrepreneurs over the so-called “mercato delle braccia” (loosely the
“strong arm market”) facilitated the emergence of a wide network of interests
and power which many Southern migrants looking for work were forced to
accept. Finally, the wealth and economic development of the region attracted
several Maﬁa groups seeking to launder criminal money into legitimate busi-
nesses and invest capital into expanding economic sectors (particularly in the
building and food industries).
Two facts should be considered to fully understand the major role played
by Turin as one of the most important non-traditional areas of Maﬁa settle-
ment. In 1983, a judge in the Turin Prosecutor’s Ofﬁce (Bruno Caccia) was
killed by members of a ‘Ndrangheta family operating in the city. This was
the ﬁrst of the so-called “omicidi eccellenti” (i.e. “excellent killings”, the
12 MONICA MASSARI
murder of politicians or members of government institutions) outside tradi-
tional Southern Maﬁa regions. Furthermore, Bardonecchia, a small city in the
province of Turin, was the ﬁrst city in Northern Italy to have its city council
dissolved because of Maﬁa inﬁltration (Sciarrone, 1998; Massari, 2001).
The drug trade was one of the major illicit businesses for traditional Maﬁa
groups that had settled in Piedmont. The ﬁrst local organized crime group
implicated in drug trafﬁcking operations was discovered in Turin at the end of
1978 (Sciarrone, 1998:208). All seven Maﬁa families active in Turin during
the 1990s (ﬁve from the ‘Ndrangheta and two from the Cosa Nostra) operated
in the drug sector, particularly the wholesale cocaine market, thanks to the
contacts existing with several Colombian trafﬁcking networks.
Presently, traditional Maﬁa-type groups based in Turin, following
“policies” implemented by the families still residing in Southern Italy, tend to
adopt low proﬁle strategies aimed at dissimulating their presence within the
wider socio-economic context. Their main areas of activity are now mostly
legitimate and most of them have acquired respectful and well-known repu-
tations as businessmen.
As far as the synthetic drugs market is concerned, both the analysis of
criminal proceedings and the results of interviews conﬁrm that traditional,
well-structured criminal groups play either a non-existent or, if any, almost
unknown role in the Turin market. The greater part of this speciﬁc drug trade
is carried out by a large number of autonomous dealers who rely on very
small, temporary organizations (mostly composed of friends and acquain-
tances) that perform ad-hoc tasks and display a high level of adaptability.
The abundance of distributors, retailers and street dealers who inhabit the
Turin market seem to operate individually without any co-ordination among
Law enforcement ofﬁcers interviewed have argued that although the results
of investigations in Turin and the surrounding area in the mid-1990s some-
times showed the existence of sporadic links between synthetic drug dealers
and members of more structured organized crime groups, the role of the lat-
ter should not be overemphasized. In most cases analyzed, the relationships
existing with afﬁliates of Maﬁa-type groups (in particular the ‘Ndrangheta)
were occasional and no structured form of co-operation between the criminal
organization as such and synthetic drug dealing enterprises could be proven.
Most likely, some members of traditional crime “families” (called “cosche”)
may act individually as ﬁnancial backers of synthetic drug deals but their role
would be conﬁned to the ﬁnancial aspect of the transaction with no further
involvement in distribution itself. Unfortunately, available data regarding this
is fragmented and outdated. Further evidence of any Maﬁa involvement in the
synthetic drug market must still be collected.
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 13
Results of research carried out in Turin conﬁrm that the synthetic drug
market represents a “separate” marketplace which shares very few charac-
teristics with more “traditional” drug markets and includes the presence of
different types of actors. Compared to heroin, cocaine or even hashish deal-
ing, the synthetic drug market seems to be more “disorganized” and open.
There are few barriers to access and anyone can get involved with small
entrepreneurial resources and a familiarity with certain social and cultural
A similar trend has been recorded in Amsterdam and Barcelona, where
a multitude of individuals, often in formations of crews or groups, have
been shown to enter and exit the scene with great ease, thus leading talk
about a “free” drug economy and an “informal” drug market. From the de-
scription of the market outlined before comes the idea of a “disorganized”
drug scene, inhabited by a myriad of indivirduals, small groups and loosely
organized networks who often cooperate and establish partnerships among
Although the three cities show a different stage of development of the
ecstasy market, all of them seem to have gone through a similar process. At
the beginning, pills were mostly supplied by friends and acquaintances with
the same social and cultural background who shared the experience with their
clients. Nowadays, this “idealist” type of dealer seems to have been surpassed
by more business-oriented distributors who have previous experience in other
drug markets and are there just for the money (Blickman et al., 2003). This
trend is particularly evident in Amsterdam, while Barcelona and Turin are still
experiencing a sort of “transition” phase with a relatively parallel presence of
both types of dealers.
One of the major competitive advantage of these people is that they tend
to establish close contacts with mainstream youth in the circuit of parties,
discos and raves, where pills consumption largely takes place. Hence, most
of ecstasy dealers met are not foreigners – such as in the case of other drug
markets. In Turin, for example, as well as in Barcelona, the ecstasy retail
market is almost totally run by local people, since foreign migrants – heavily
involved into cannabis and heroin markets – are perceived as “outsiders”.
Foreign people are still considered as “aliens” not only in many legal sectors
of the economy, but also in several illegal ones. In the case of Turin, it seems
that foreigners do not posses the right amount of “social capital” necessary for
successfully undertaking the business, which includes a network of friends
and acquaintances to whom they can start selling pills, a deep knowledge of
the city’s night life and the various dance clubs, bars and other public places
they can go easily without attracting the attention of owners and bouncers,12 a
familiarity with speciﬁc cultural and social contexts (such as rave parties and
14 MONICA MASSARI
other unauthorized music events) and so on. Even in Amsterdam, for instance,
ecstasy dealers are “whiter” than those who deal with cocaine.
Law enforcement and policy
Signiﬁcant differences emerged among drugs policies and law enforcement
strategies implemented into the three contexts analyzed.
While Dutch drug policy is based on harm reduction and a public health
approach, both the Italian and Spanish legislation tend de facto to criminalize
synthetic drugs consumption through administrative sanctions and/or ﬁnes.
However, both in the Netherlands and Spain more or less structured systems
which allow to monitor the quality of the pills available in the local market
are currently in place. Institutional pill-testing programs, for example, were
established in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 1990s, while in Spain
this service is mainly provided by NGOs working in nightlife settings. These
systems allow to monitor and, at the same time, regulate the illicit market, since
consumers can control the quality of the pills and avoid harmful substances.
In this regard, it should be mentioned that as far as Italy is concerned the issue
of pill-testing has not even been seriously addressed in any public forum so
far. Most consumers have to buy pill-test kits abroad, since pill testing is
Both in Netherlands and in Spain ad hoc law enforcement units expressly
targeting synthetic drugs investigations have been created, while in Italy there
is no specialized agency dealing with this type of operations. Hence, com-
munication within the police system often does not work, while information
exchange is sometime limited and incomplete.
The focus of Dutch drug law enforcement mostly remains on large scale
organized trafﬁcking, while both in Barcelona and Turin the main target is
represented by middle and low level trafﬁcking organizations. Obviously,
the amount of resources allocated to particular operations often depends on
the input received politically. Particularly after some tragic events, such as the
death of young people who had allegedly used ecstasy or other synthetic drugs,
law enforcement action is usually stronger even against the retail market itself.
The role of mass media in raising the alarm toward the ecstasy phenomenon
has been emphasized in all the three cities, as well as the consequent waves
of repression activities driven by increased levels of social concern.
The different position occupied by the three cities in the geopolitics of
ecstasy trafﬁcking and distribution clearly inﬂuences the way in which law
enforcement’s priorities are identiﬁed and pursued. The major role played by
the United States and other European partners in attaching to the Netherlands
the “label” of major ecstasy producer has been often recalled by the Dutch
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 15
research group. Ironically, the paradox of successful law enforcement would
be that it triggers stigmatization: the more it is seized in Netherlands, the more
the country appears to be the source of the problem (Blickman et al., 2003).
At city level, most of drug enforcement action focuses on maintaining
public order and preventing nuisance related to drug use and dealing. Police
action within clubs, discos and raves – although not uncommon – is usually
avoided because of the tensions that it can cause with the people who manage
the entertainment industry. Meetings and agreements between the police and
discos’ owners are usually preferred, as emphasized both in Amsterdam and
Turin. However, cooperation between public institutions and disco’s staff often
depends on various local circumstances and discos entrepreneurs prefer to rely
on the surveillance carried out by doorkeepers, private security guards and
Beside the contribution that, in our view, this study has given to the knowledge
of a still under-investigated drug market, the research carried out in this ﬁeld
has lead to the identiﬁcation of a number of issues which can contribute – if
adequately dealt with – to develop more informed policies in the ﬁeld of
Firstly, there is the need to widen the level of knowledge concerning syn-
thetic drugs markets both at national and at international levels. Synthetic
drug related research is still underdeveloped in several European countries,
while cross-country comparative studies are very few. The allocation of more
resources aimed at promoting and supporting the implementation of studies
in this ﬁeld is highly recommended.
Secondly, as far as law enforcement activities are concerned, the project
singled out – particularly in Barcelona and Turin – the prevalence of police
activities targeting the retail level of the market, the one which is mostly ex-
posed to risks of interception. The de facto criminalization of synthetic drugs
consumers – although the national law does not expressly punish drug con-
sumption but only possession over a certain amount – should be avoided, as
well as those activities which can contribute to throw consumers into crim-
inal circuits. These strategies push the market in “close settings” instead of
reducing it. The study has shown that attempts to combat synthetic drugs by
means of law enforcement – in line with conventional supply side drug control
approach – have often proved unsuccessful. Ecstasy use – according to most
of the people and privileged observers interviewed – is “unproblematic” for
users and society at large, when good information and a set of harm reduction
guidelines are available. Most incidents related to ecstasy use are often the
16 MONICA MASSARI
consequence of the conditions in which consumption takes place (crowded
places, low supply of water, etc.), rather than of the substance itself.
Finally, the promotion of more adequate policies based on harm reduc-
tion measures, i.e. aimed at reducing the health risks related to ecstasy
consumption (often due to the bad quality of the pills available), through the
dissemination of information and the availability of pill-testing facilities close
to night-life settings and places, is highly recommended. As well as improving
the conditions during events where ecstasy is used, through a set of guidelines
on the availability of First Aid, “chill out” facilities, a sufﬁcient water supply,
good ventilation, etc. In this regard, it is advisable that awareness raising and
prevention campaigns are based on the outcomes of sound scientiﬁc research
on the dynamics of drug markets’ development rather than on recurrent waves
of social alarm and exaggerated concerns driven by misinformed press and
1. In order to analyze the evolution and dynamics of synthetic drugs market in these European
cities, Gruppo Abele, a major Italian NGO and research centre, was entrusted, in coopera-
tion with the Transnational Institute (TNI – The Netherlands) and the Instituto de Estudios
sobre Conﬂictos y Acci´
on Humanitaria (IECAH – Spain), with a research project by the
European Commission, DG Justice and Home Affairs (project JAI/B5831/2001/004). The
entire study was coordinated by Monica Massari who also lead the ﬁeld-work in Turin.
The research group there was composed of Manuela Mareso, Paola Monzini and Maurizio
Veglio. The Amsterdam group was coordinated by Tom Blickman and included Dirk J.
Korf, Dina Siegel and Dami´an Zaitch. In Barcelona, Mila Barruti, Jos´e Luis Dom´ınguez
and Joan Pallar´es made up the group supervised by Virginia Monta˜n´es. To all these people
and institutions goes my gratitude for their valuable work. I am also indebted to their
research and papers which have been used and quoted throughout this article, although the
opinions expressed hereinafter are the responsibility of the author. For more information
and the publications produced during the project see: http//www.narcomaﬁe.it/emet.
2. See: http://www.os.amsterdam.nl/pdf/2005 yearbook labourandincome.pdf.
3. See: http://www.bcn.es/estadistica/angles/dades/anuari/cap10/C1004020.htm.
4. There was a total of 805 coffee shops in the Netherlands in 2001. This number had declined
from 1,179 over four years (Amsterdam City Council, 2000; Nationale Drugmonitor,
5. As emphasised in some studies on ecstasy users, spirituality was one of the major motivat-
ing themes behind MDMA consumption, especially at the beginning (Beck et al., 1989;
Beck, Rosenbaum, 1994).
6. The expression “Summer of Love” refers to the late 1960s cultural movement which
brought to the emergence – especially in the UK – of new music and cultural styles such
as those known as “Flower Power” and “Hippies”.
7. However, according to the EMCDDA, the association between ecstasy use and speciﬁc
type of music or events may be weakening, while the drug may become less important in
identifying speciﬁc groups (2004).
ECSTASY IN THE CITY 17
8. As emphasised by Blickman: “Belgium, Germany and, increasingly, Poland are becoming
more important production countries in Europe. (...) Outside Europe, the Dutch position
is challenged by increased production in China, South East Asia and the Paciﬁc, often
with a link to Chinese networks and, sometimes, Dutch expertise” (2004, 9).
9. The expression “traditional Maﬁa-type organisations” usually refers to the three main
Italian criminal associations (Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra) which originated
during the second half of the 19th century. However, at the beginning of the 1990s, the
Sacra Corona Unita – a criminal association based in Puglia – was added to the list of
so-called traditional Maﬁa-type organisations by the Antimaﬁa Parliamentary Committee
10. Between 1961 and 1972, 288 members of Maﬁa-type organisations (the so-called “sog-
giornanti obbligati”) were sent to Piedmont because of court orders. Among these, 54
were sent to the city of Turin (Sciarrone, 1998: 211).
11. According to the national census, there were 430,000 people from Calabria, Campania
and Sicily who lived in Piedmont in 1981 (Sciarrone, 1998: 212).
12. Some of those interviewed in Turin reported that North Africans and Albanians are not
even allowed inside certain discos or dance clubs.
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