MANILA, Philippines?The way the teenager made the pitch was much too casual for comfort.
?Ay ate, ?di ka pa naka-try? Turuan kita, ate (Hey, ma?am, you haven?t tried it? I can teach you, ma?am),? the 16-year-old girl told the undercover agent.
The exchange happened last year during one of those late Friday nights when after-school fun could last until dawn of the following day.
Disguised as a balikbayan eager ?to party??the phrase that has come to mean ?to take Ecstasy??the agent had quickly made contact with the teen who wore a blouse that didn?t quite meet a skirt that covered very little and a pair of slippers?standard attire among girls too young to drink legally but already hooked on the drug.
?It?s just like a cigarette to them,? said the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) agent of the teen scene at a resto-bar near a Metro Manila school.
?It?s sad ... It?s very casual. You?d see that it?s like nothing to them ... no hesitation to talk about it. It?s really alarming,? said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Just pop it in
The use of the party pill Ecstasy (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine or MDMA) has been gaining popularity in the country, attracting mostly the young and wealthy.
According to the agent, marijuana is no longer as popular, ?that?s only for the mountains.?
Ecstasy use has become rampant because it?s convenient, she said.
All you need to do is pop a pill to get high, no need for bongs (a water pipe to smoke marijuana and other substances), she said.
Metro bar circuit
?They say that when you?re on it, it?s like you?re not yourself, no inhibitions. One even told me that the effect lasts for three days,? said the agent, who said she doesn?t dare try the pill herself.
Ecstasy was one of the drugs that the so-called ?Alabang Boys? were allegedly peddling in the Metro Manila bar circuit and even up in Baguio City.
A total of 60 Ecstasy tablets were reportedly seized from Richard Brodett, Jorge Joseph and Joseph Ramirez Tecson in separate raids in Ayala Alabang and Quezon City on Sept. 20.
According to the 2008 United Nations World Drug Report, 0.2 percent of Filipinos between 15 and 64?the global benchmark age bracket used in drug use assessment?were into Ecstasy as of 2004. (Local and foreign surveys however do not indicate the base population in that age bracket.)
Shabu (or methamphetamine hydrochloride) users in the Philippines accounted for 6 percent in that age bracket, the highest rate of prevalence in the world. Some 4.2 percent are users of marijuana, placing the Philippines first in that age bracket among East Asian countries.
Cocaine use here, estimated at 0.03 percent, is one of the lowest in the world, about the same level as in most of the Philippines? neighbors.
A 2004 Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) study, the latest available drug use survey, said 6.7 million Filipinos are known to be using amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), called uppers, that include shabu and Ecstasy.
As studies have shown that users usually use more than one kind of drug at a time, the figures may not accurately reflect the actual number of current ATS users in the country.
But by simply observing the ease of access, the agent can tell that the party pill is everywhere.
?As young as 16, 17, they are already into it. That?s why it?s somehow infuriating, degrading ... Imagine, 16-year-olds asking you if you have tried it?? she said.
As of December 2008, Ecstasy was considered the third most popular recreational drug in the Philippines, next to the most widely used shabu and runner-up marijuana, according to PDEA?s yearend national drug situationer.
Like buying cigarettes
The PDEA considers Ecstasy as widely available as shabu. The two ATS-type drugs are together ranked ?first in availability.?
Indeed, access to the drug can at times be as convenient as buying a stick of cigarette.
They come in attractive colors?pink, blue, green or yellow colors?and designs, with logos of top fashion, phone, beverage and automobile brands etched on the pills.
At P1,000 to P1,500 each?the price of a decent pair of jeans or a couple of nice shirts?a teen may get hold of the party pill from a supply network known to cliques of users, said the agent.
Transshipment from Europe
?The sale of Ecstasy, it?s people to people. They get it from someone, and that person also got it from someone ... it?s a network. It has become their main interest. Maybe some even have a cut from referrals,? said the agent.
The US State Department noted this in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released in early 2008 which assessed worldwide drug use, trade and trends observed in 2007.
?Ecstasy is gaining popularity among young expatriates and affluent members of Philippine society,? it said.
According to Roel Bolivar, the National Bureau of Investigation?s antidrug task force deputy chief, there is no known producer of Ecstasy in the country and the supply is believed to be brought in through transshipment mostly from Europe.
The United Nations has noted that with the global decline in the manufacture and seizures of Ecstasy, Asia has emerged as a market for the drug.
While Europeans remained the top users of Ecstasy (three million out of around nine million globally in the 15 to 64 age bracket), ?Asia, notably East and Southeast Asia, have become growing Ecstasy markets over the last few years.?
Antidrug agents meanwhile have noted a shift in the use of shabu, the country?s illegal drug of choice.
Inflation, drug busts and arrests of big-time syndicate players have almost doubled the street price of shabu, from P6,000 per gram by end-2007 to an estimated P12,170 as of December 2008, six times its price in 2003.
?The price increased because of scarce supply ... that?s just because of the law of supply and demand, and that?s because of our good accomplishment because we hit high-value targets,? said Maj. Roy Derilo, PDEA director for plans and operations.
The PDEA 2008 report cited major operations in five shabu laboratories and warehouses around the country and the busting of two transnational syndicates involved in inland shabu manufacture.
Cripple RP operations
In February 2008, some P412 million worth of equipment, chemicals and the finished product were seized in three laboratories in Zamboanga City. Eight suspected syndicate members, including three Chinese nationals, were arrested.
Coordinated busts in July dismantled a lab in Real, Quezon and its warehouse in Bińan, Laguna, yielding P350 million worth of chemicals, equipment and product and two Taiwanese chemists and three Chinese nationals.
?Chemists are very high-value possessions of syndicates because not just anybody can be a chemist. They determine the quality of drugs, turn chemicals into product, that in turn turns into money,? Derilo said.
Smaller kitchen-type laboratories were also shut down around Luzon throughout last year.
With the raids crippling inland operations, there was a shift to transshipment of the finished product.
In May, security officials of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Zambales busted a shipment of 745 kilograms of shabu, roughly worth some P5 billion.
China as main source
China remains a major source of shabu imports, the UN said. Philippine-made shabu is known to be shipped to Korea, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Drug laboratories are known to have been brought here by Chinese syndicates sometime in 1997, said Derilo.
The UN?s drug assessment report identified these ports as coastline trafficking points in the country: Manila, Cagayan, Ilocos Sur, La Union, Pangasinan, Zambales, Mindoro and Quezon.
Other ports in Palawan, Masbate, Sorsogon, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Davao and South Cotabato were cited as suspected transshipment points.
With steady supply hampered by enforcement, users have even resorted to taking ?rejects? or else take meth adulterated with alum. This bad shabu is called ?goma? or rubber in street parlance.
?Even this reject quality they had to sell just to sustain the demand,? Derilo said.
?Addicts would use even the minutest amounts, just so they can satisfy their need,? said the agent.
And here, the social divide becomes apparent.
?For Ecstasy users, they have a place to use ? a pad maybe. In squatter areas, they just look for one corner and do it. Or some, even in their own homes, in full view of their kids. The children watch them as they do it,? said the agent.