This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
In May of 2018, Dutch forest ranger Erik de Jonge decided he'd had enough. "Dear ecstasy users. It's 3.39AM. We've been working since 6PM to clean up the waste from your little pills," he tweeted.
De Jonge works in North Brabant, a province in the south of the Netherlands, where most of Europe's MDMA is manufactured. To produce the drug you need chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and acetone. After the pills have been pressed, a large amount of surplus chemicals are left, with experts in local government saying around 200,000kg of drug waste is produced every year in the province. Pretty much all of this is dumped out in nature – sometimes up to ten times a week – for people like De Jonge and his team to clean up.
The waste is often driven out in barrels stacked in vans, and discarded in deserted sections of nature reserves. A driver ropes the barrels to the back of the car and around a tree; this way, as the van drives off, the barrels fall out and the waste is dumped. It all happens so quickly, there's little chance of getting caught.
However, this isn't the only way MDMA manufacturers dispose of their illegal waste. For example, in Moergestel, a small town in North Brabant, the police found a specially converted van that was designed to leak small drips of waste as it drove along the open road. Elsewhere, in the town of Baarle-Nassau, a water purification plant had to close down for a few days after someone dumped litres of hydrochloric acid into the sewer, which killed all the purifying bacteria in the plant.
It's clear that something has to change. Frank Petter – the mayor of Bergen op Zoom, another city in the province – recently made a pretty solid suggestion to the city councillors: installing a sort of rubbish bin, where MDMA producers can get rid of their waste without any fear of retribution from police. Jan van Maarseveen, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Amsterdam, agrees that it's time something's done about the situation. "It might be time for us to start thinking about ways to produce modern drugs, such as MDMA, in a responsible way," he suggested when I spoke to him on the phone.
The chemicals themselves aren't the problem – pharmacists, universities and pharmaceutical companies use them on a daily basis. Obviously, the difference is that those institutions can simply have their hazardous waste picked up by a professional disposal company. In fact, it's mandatory for them to do so. As such, the parts of the chemicals that can be are purified and reused, with the rest incinerated in such a way that only nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water remain.
So while there is a responsible way to get rid of the chemicals, this method isn't available to MDMA producers, who produce tons of illegal, harmful waste. Making it legal to dispose of the waste of an illegal product might sound hypocritical, but it's not much stranger than some of the other drug policies in the Netherlands – where the sale of cannabis in coffeeshops is regulated, but it's illegal to grow it, or supply those coffeeshops with the drug.
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There are, however, some rare exceptions around the world to the outlawing of MDMA and the waste from its production. In the United States, for example, a non-profit organisation was granted approval to research MDMA as a possible aid to psychotherapy. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) found evidence that, in capsule form, the drug could help cure patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The MDMA for the research had to be produced somewhere, so MAPS turned to a pharmaceutical company in an undisclosed location in the UK, which could, with a temporary exemption, legally create the drug in a laboratory – and dispose of the waste in a legal way, along with the other pharmaceutical waste the company produces on a daily basis.
Outright legalising MDMA still seems the simplest solution for the current drug waste problem in North Brabant. It would have another advantage, too. Right now, parts of rainforests in Cambodia are wiped out to mine the roots of the rare Sassafras tree. The roots are then used to make safrole, an important raw material needed for the production of MDMA. These raw materials can be found in everyday biomass as well, explained Jan van Maarseveen. "But because of our strict drug laws, criminals don't have access to it."
If pharmaceutical companies were allowed to produce ecstasy, there wouldn't be as much waste to begin with. "A serious producer would optimise MDMA production in a laboratory, and the necessary solvents could be recycled," Maarseveen said. But the Dutch government isn't planning to make the drug legal and the production process as sustainable as possible anytime soon; its focus is still on cracking down on drug producers, as it always has.
The Netherlands' Christian Democratic Party, for example, have called for CCTV cameras to be placed along the access roads into nature reserves in North Brabant, and for drones to be deployed overhead. It remains to be seen whether increased surveillance will really make a difference. Even now, illegal manufacturers dump their chemical waste elsewhere too, like in sewers and slurry pits, the latter causing toxic waste to be spread across farms.
A realistic solution seems far away, especially since authorities still tend to blame the problem on drug users, as the Netherlands' chief of police Erik Akerboom recently did in an interview with Dutch public broadcaster NOS. "It's important for users to realise that they are contributing to a bad system," he offered.
It's the same message that politicians have promoted since MDMA was banned in the Netherlands in 1988: just don't do it. But for the past 30 years, the fact the drug is illegal hasn't stopped people from taking it, hasn't stopped it from being produced and definitely hasn't stopped illegal waste from being dumped. It might be time for a new approach.