NEW YORK (AP) _ A lawyer arriving from Paris is stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport for a routine customs inspection. Discovered in the false bottom of his bag are 21,000 ecstasy pills.

An Israeli is overheard on a wiretap arranging illicit deliveries of ecstasy to Manhattan hotels. Investigators seize 300,000 pills worth $7.5 million and make 32 arrests.

A young ultra-Orthodox Jew, about to be sentenced in Brooklyn, laments accepting a free flight to Belgium in exchange for returning with luggage laden with a designer drug _ again, ecstasy.

Authorities cite these recent cases and others as proof that New York City has become the epicenter of a national boom in illegal imports of ecstasy, the synthetic ``psychedelic amphetamine'' also known as MDMA, or simply ``E.''

Seizures of the innocent-looking tablets _ some are embossed with smiley faces, shamrocks or Playboy bunny ears _ have multiplied like rabbits. U.S. Customs reports it confiscated 3.5 million pills throughout the country in fiscal 1999, compared to 750,000 in 1998; the total has already reached 4 million this year.

In the New York City area alone, the totals were 1.3 million pills in 1999, up from 48,400 in 1998.

Agents have discovered ecstasy stashed in airmailed packages, and in imported cars and antique furniture. But mainly, it's smuggled in luggage carried by couriers from Europe, where pills are produced for less than a dollar for sale in a youthful and expanding U.S. market for up to $40 a piece, authorities said.

Using undercover officers and cooperating suspects, authorities have learned that the New York imports serve a vast Northeast market. Federal officials, who asked not to be identified, said New York appeared to be the largest American gateway for ecstasy based on number of pills seized.

Other major entry points include Miami and Orlando. Memphis _ a hub for international air deliveries _ is the main supplier for California.

The multimillion dollar profit potential has attracted an eclectic collection of traffickers working in varied locales, as evidenced by the Feb. 24 arrest of notorious mob turncoat Salvatore ``Sammy the Bull'' Gravano for his alleged role in an ecstasy ring in Phoenix, and the seizure of 30,000 pills carried by an air traveler to Cincinnati three weeks later.

Authorities say Israeli and Russian organized crime groups _ and even some members of Brooklyn's conservative Jewish communities _ are hooked on dealing ecstasy.

Joel Gluck, 19, was one of several young Hasidic men recruited by an Amsterdam-based ring which believed their traditional black hats, dark suits and sidecurls would deflect suspicion. They were given the trips to Europe and cash in exchange for smuggling back millions of pills.

Federal officials have responded to the ecstasy explosion with a flurry of enforcement measures and war-on-drugs rhetoric reminiscent of the crack cocaine scare of a decade ago.

``Only with a concerted global law enforcement offensive can we conquer this threat,'' the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Donnie Marshall, declared last month after authorities shut down an East Coast ring selling 100,000 pills a week.

Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly has used the agency's Web site, www.customs.gov, to warn parents that ecstasy abuse _ once confined to urban dance parties known as ``raves'' _ has become a ``full-fledged epidemic'' spreading into suburbia and other sheltered communities.

The commissioner and others also have repeatedly cited medical evidence that ecstasy causes severe dehydration, dizziness and headaches or, with prolonged use, depression, memory loss and even permanent brain damage.

``There's a notion that ecstasy makes you feel good, that there's no downside,'' Kelly said in an interview. ``But there's plenty of horror stories.''

The DEA classifies ecstasy in the same category as LSD and heroin. As with those drugs, federal defendants face stiff penalties. For instance, the suppliers in the Hasidic courier case face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Those sentencing guidelines, critics charge, are too harsh.

``There's a drastic difference between ecstasy and crack cocaine or heroin, but the guidelines don't appreciate that difference,'' said Joseph Tacopina, a defense attorney representing a real estate owner in another federal ecstasy conspiracy case.

Pro-ecstasy Web sites argue the drug bears no real resemblance to hard-core narcotics. They note both the absence of widespread gunplay, turf wars, overdoses and physical addiction associated with the cocaine and heroin trade, and ecstasy's history of use by some therapists to enhance psychotherapy.

One student at Bard College, a small liberal arts school north of New York City, says ecstasy is readily available through a network of fellow students.

``It's been the one drug where there's been the steadiest supply this semester,'' the student, who asked that his name not be used, said in an interview.

He said he takes a $25 ``hit'' of ecstasy before going to small weekend dance parties. The drug, he added, is considered on par with marijuana and alcohol.

``It's like it's not a big deal around here,'' he said.

___

On the Net: http://www.ecstasy.org, which says it aims to gather and make accessible objective, authoritative and up to date information about ecstasy.

The DEA: http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/agency/agency.htm