Inside the ecstasy factory making pills bound for Parklife festival

Most pills are made in the Netherlands, but there’s also a cottage industry in the UK, with people knocking out pingers in spare bedrooms, garages and lock-ups.

On Wednesday 19th April 2023, the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) received an anonymous email from someone in Moston, a suburb in the northeast area of the city. It reported a disturbance at an address where an argument was apparently taking place. A couple of officers were dispatched to the scene to conduct some house-to-house enquiries; they ended up busting what they described as a makeshift lab” pumping out ecstasy pills.

The police said a man, 46-year-old Jian Huang, was extremely evasive” in response to questions relating to his female partner and children. This, they argued, aroused concern for their welfare, she officers entered the house. Upstairs bedrooms inside the address were found padlocked,” the GMP later stated. But when Huang said he had no keys to these rooms, entry was forced to the internal bedroom doors, and an extremely large amount of class A drugs, a tablet production machine and associated equipment was located inside the address.”

In total, the police found 38,500 ecstasy tablets, seven kilograms of unpressed MDMA, and 10 litres of liquid containing the party drug. It is believed they were being prepped for sale, likely bound for Parklife festival due to when they were recovered,” the GMP continued.

Jian Huang was recently sentenced to nine years in prison, after pleading guilty to a charge of possession with intent to supply class A drugs at Manchester Minshull Street Court. The address appeared to double up as a lab [that converted] ecstasy from its liquid form to a pressed tablet,” Detective Constable Heather Gore said after the sentencing. But how, exactly, does an ecstasy pill factory like this work?

First, some basics…

What you’re looking at here is a typical small-scale domestic production environment,” Mike Power, a journalist and author who has published books on the underground drug market, tells THE FACE. These things can be set up anywhere – in a child’s bedroom, as in this case, loft, a warehouse, a garage or a lock up. They can be set up in the back of a van.”

How does the process work?

What’s happening is that the active ingredient, in this case MDMA in liquid form, is dried and mixed with something called an excipient,” Power explains. “[Which is] a mixing or flowing powder, followed by a binding agent. Then a colouring agent is added.” After this, the pills are ready to be stamped using a pill press machine, which are available online, with prices ranging from £900 to £300,000 depending on the sophistication of the machine and the speed at which it can operate.

Power explains: With this type of machine, it has a hopper that you drop the powder into at the top and it falls through into a pill press, which is just a mould, a single chamber with what’s called a die cut attached to it.” This is what gives the pill its design, from Punisher and Donald Trump to Berghain logos.

“A low-level ecstasy pressing outfit”

In spite of the fact MDMA production and manufacturing is largely concentrated in or around The Netherlands, there is still some domestic manufacturing here in the UK, fuelling the electronic music scene on home soil, according to both Power and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Most ecstasy pills are pressed in Holland and then imported to the UK readymade,” Power explains. But, obviously, we do have some domestic production which has historically been centred around Manchester and Liverpool.” He added: This [Huang’s operation in Manchester] is a typical, very low level ecstasy pill pressing outfit. Even though [they only found] seven kilos of MDMA [in his home], think how many ecstasy pills are used in Britain each weekend.”

According to the latest numbers from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), however, ecstasy use in the UK is at its lowest level since data on the topic was first collected in 1993. But 1.1 per cent of people aged 16 to 59 years, and 2.4 per cent of people aged 16 to 24 still report taking the drug.

And, every so often, Britons get busted with an ecstasy pill press. In 2019, 35-year-old Robert Smith from West Yorkshire was jailed for 32 months for having what the police described as a sophisticated ecstasy laboratory” in his garage.

In 2018, ecstasy pill pressing operations were also uncovered in Liverpool and Bristol – according to the police, the press found in Bristol was capable of making 93 pills per minute. That same year, a pill manufacturing lab was discovered in Ireland. The local gardaí [the Republic of Ireland’s police force] said that that pill press was capable of producing between 4,000 and 7,000 ecstasy pills every hour which is loads – the collective gurning from that much ecstasy could probably produce enough kinetic energy to power a small town. Sentences for those convicted of being involved in the above crimes ranged from four to 14 years in prison.

How much money is being made?

The GMP said that the 38,500 pills they found in Jian Huang’s house in Manchester have a street value of approximately £385,000”. It’s worth noting, however, that’s the street value; there’s no way Huang would be making that much, unless he was planning to rock up to The Warehouse Project and sell them himself. It’s more likely Huang was selling these pills wholesale.

An anonymous source I spoke to is very familiar with the wholesaling of ecstasy. MDMA wholesale prices are lower than they’ve ever been in my experience,” he tells THE FACE. You can get a kilo [of MDMA] in Holland, if you have the right connections, for less than one euro a gram. I know that from personal conversations.” He added: Even on the dark web, it’s down to, like, £4,000 a kilo.” To put that into context, the price of a kilo of MDMA was as high as £5,500 at the beginning of last year. The latest data from The Independent Drug Expert Alliance, a network of drug experts, reports that a kilo of MDMA goes for between £3,000 and £8,000 in the UK.

So how much would someone like Huang sell 38,500 pills for? People will claim [their pills contain] 220mg [of MDMA], but that’s hardly ever the case,” he says. If you wanted to make a noticeable dose of ecstasy in a pill, you’d probably put 150mg in nowadays. What’s that? Six and a half [pills] in a gram. So you’re making 6,500 pills from a kilo of MDMA and getting that kilo for a oner [£1,000]. You’re going to be selling them at about £3 each.”

The EMCDDA says that an ecstasy tablet across Europe has a typical MDMA content of 150 to 170mg”. The EMCDDA no longer provide insights specifically for the UK because of Brexit, but last year The Loop said, in a post on X, that the the ecstasy pills they tested at festivals last summer contained an average of 149mg of MDMA. They also report that the average retail (street value, as the police say) cost of a pill can be as low as €4 and as high as €19, but the average is €10. The average retail price of a pill in the UK is £10.

Are pills from makeshift labs safe?

If the pictures of Huang’s operation are anything to go by, there were no hygiene considerations in that operation whatsoever. You’re not going to see people walking around an environment with a pristine white lab coat and a clipboard, that’s for sure. But the real problem with makeshift pill factories is that it’s almost impossible to get the accuracy of dosage right. There’s an inability, therefore, for consumers to know how much they’re taking,” Power says. That information, of course, is essential if you’re going to take the drug as safely as possible (click here for THE FACE’s guide).

I’m sure there’s a lesson here about how legalising ecstasy would pretty much wipe out most of the harms associated with the party drug, largely because people would have a supply free of contaminants and would know exactly what dosage they’re taking. But, to be honest, I’m thinking too much about that pill press being set up in a kid’s bedroom to preach it.

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