A Brief History of the Netherlands' Love Affair With Ecstasy

MDMA taught Dutch people how to dance and share their feelings.
Tim Fraanje
Amsterdam, NL
MDMA pills laid out in a colourful pattern.
Photo: Shutterstock/Couperfield

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Ecstasy – or MDMA – was invented by German pharmaceutical company Merck KGaA as a blood thinner in 1912. Of course, its side effects turned out to be much more fun than its intended purpose.


In the Netherlands, those side effects drove both a house music boom and a thriving drug trade. Today, the country remains one of the largest producers and exporters of MDMA worldwide, and has seen an increase in organised crime-related violence in recent years.

So much of what’s been written about the drug focuses on crime, but freelance journalists Philippus Zandstra and Wietse Pottjewijd think it’s high time we talk about ecstasy’s cultural legacy. Their book (published in Dutch), XTC – a Biography, traces the history of MDMA in the Netherlands from pharmaceutical drug to a cornerstone of the Dutch rave scene.

VICE: Hi Philippus and Wietse. Why does ecstasy deserve its own biography?
Wietse: I think it’s an incredible cultural phenomenon, and no one has written about it yet. How did ecstasy become so Dutch? Why hasn’t it gone out of style yet? We felt it was important.

Any chance you guys were high when you got the idea? 
Philippus: Almost. We went surfing once and we were crushing it. The waves were only 20cm high, but we didn’t care. We were on a natural high, it felt like we were on MDMA, and we thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone ever written a book about that?’


You wrote about people who invented weird stuff related to ecstasy, like condoms. Can you talk more about that? 
Philippus: Yeah, that was the first lab to be dismantled in the Netherlands. This guy was trying to produce ecstasy-infused condoms at a tourist campsite. He thought that if you could feel MDMA in your nether regions, you’d have mind-blowing sex. He ended up not being prosecuted, because he didn’t know ecstasy was illegal [this happened in 1989; MDMA was criminalised in the Netherlands in 1988].

When did the active repression begin?
Philippus: In the 90s, the hospitality industry started publicly opposing raves, because young people weren’t going to clubs as much. They would only play “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and “The Summer of '69” [while the rave scene had house music, which was new at the time]. Ecstasy was the perfect scapegoat, and they asked politicians to follow their lead. One of the hospitality association’s ideas was to produce a “musical masterpiece” [“Say No to XTC by C.I.P., a pretty old school tune meant to convince people not to do drugs or go to raves]. As crappy as the song is, it does stick in your head – but it was never quite a hit.

When did the government intervene?
Philippus: In the early days of ecstasy, hardly anything was known about its side effects. They didn’t aggressively try to remove it from the streets, like in the UK. Their emphasis was on health – that’s why you could get your pills tested legally.
Wietse: The repression happened later on, but the pushback didn’t come from the Netherlands. In the early-2000s, foreign countries started knocking on our door. France wanted to kick us out of the EU, and Bill Clinton pressured the Netherlands into enforcing stricter policies. When the police finally started doing their research, a lot of murders were linked to the ecstasy scene. But once other countries were satisfied with our efforts, the ecstasy unit was disbanded, in 2004. It took until about 2010 for all the labs to spring up again.


What about today?
Wietse: Minister of Justice and Security, [Ferdinand] Grapperhaus often mentions drug use at festivals and uses repressive policies. The negative consequences of ecstasy production are much more noticeable now than in the 90s, in terms of its threat to public safety and the environment. It may sound cynical, but the recent chemical dumps are a consequence of these repressive policies. At some point, the authorities cut the supply of raw materials to produce ecstasy, like PMK, from China. That’s when producers started making their own stuff.  
Philippus: The chemicals used to end up in the Yangtze [Asia’s longest river, in China], but now they’re entering the Maas, the Waal [two Dutch rivers] and our own nature reserves.

Has ecstasy also had a positive influence in the Netherlands?
Phillippus: In the early days, MDMA gave Dutch people, especially men, the last push to hop on the dance floor.
Wietse: Belgium has a longer history of dance clubs, whereas the Dutch are a bit more reserved in that respect.
Phillippus: In the 80s, men used to watch women dancing from the bar. I’ve also heard from old-school users that male ravers started hugging their friends and expressing their love for them more honestly. It’s something they brought into their daily lives, too.
Wietse: That’s true in my case.

Why didn’t you write about your own experiences in the book?
Philippus: Everyone thinks their own drug experiences are awesome, but you end up with lame stories pretty quickly. 

Wise words. Thank you, and good luck with the book!