What's Behind A Recent Spate Of Drug Deaths? NME Investigates

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The drugs testing amnesty at this year’s Secret Garden Party was a success, with more than 200 people testing the contents of their stash. Could it be the antidote to the recent spate of drug deaths? Jordan Bassett investigates

Last month saw a breakthrough in British attitudes to drugs. Secret Garden Party, the boutique festival in Cambridgeshire – this year headlined by Canadian dance act Caribou – held a drugs testing amnesty, the first one to have taken place in the UK. If you wanted to check that there were no harmful substances in the drugs you’d brought along, you could have them tested by experts, no questions asked.

The process was conducted by the drugs testing charity The Loop, whose co-director Fiona Measham tells NME: “I’ve been having ongoing negotiations with quite a few festivals and I’ve got to various stages before. [In the past] it’s been blocked by various people, but never the police, who have always been on board. We tried for the last two years at [Manchester festival] Parklife and Greater Manchester Police were really supportive. But the council’s concerns were, ‘It will encourage more drug use’.”

Measham says authorities were afraid of being blamed for resultant drug deaths, to which she counters: “If you don’t do it, a whole lot more people might die. The scale of the disaster could be so much greater if you don’t do testing.”

There were three deaths at this year’s T in the Park festival in Perthshire, and police recovered a number of ‘Green Rolex’ pills from the site. The ecstasy-like tablets, containing PMA – AKA the MDMA substitute and potentially fatal stimulant paramethoxyamphetamine – were linked to at least 15 deaths across Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2013.

Whereas MDMA boosts seratonin and dopamine levels, PMA instead blocks an enzyme that breaks down seratonin, meaning the brain can become overwhelmed and overheated, which can cause brain damage or death. Green Rolex pills haven’t been seen in circulation since 2013 – until now. Police ruled all three deaths “not suspicious”, though said they were investigating the deaths as possibly drug-related.

This came two months after three high-profile overdoses were reported in Manchester. A 17-year-old was attending a club night at the Victoria Warehouse when she reacted badly to a form of ecstasy tablet known as ‘MasterCard’ (so-called because it resembled the logo of the famous brand) and died in hospital. Less than a week later, two 21-year-olds collapsed at a club on Princess Street after taking ecstasy tablets in the shape of a red Lego brick. They regained consciousness in the ambulance taking them to hospital.

Two men in Suffolk were not so lucky, dying last year after taking pills in the shape of the Superman logo. These pills were discovered to contain PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine), a substance similar to PMA. Shortly before this article went to press, a 19-year-old woman died after taking ecstasy on a night out in Leeds.

It might seem, then, that the drugs market is flooded with ‘bad’ pills contaminated with substances such
as PMA. Yet according to Katy MacLeod, operations and communications director at Chill Welfare, a social enterprise that cares for people experiencing adverse reactions to drugs at festivals, this is a red herring: “There are occasional very bad batches but I think the biggest challenge at the moment is really variable MDMA.”

Measham explains that “around 1989” there was a “severe lack” of safrole, an oily, plant-based liquid used to make MDMA. So manufacturers found a way around it, using alternative, synthetic substances.

“That has now led to manufacturers in the Netherlands and elsewhere being able to make really high-purity pills,” she says. “There’s a sort of arms race among ecstasy manufacturers to see who can make the strongest pill. We’re seeing pills of up to 330mg, which is more than three times the [usual] dose. They don’t have score lines down them, so they’re not easy to break in half. Potentially you’ve got an overdose in one pill.”

MacLeod agrees that the current problem lies in dangerously high strength tablets, though has a slightly different angle on the reason behind this. She says that as ‘real’ MDMA became less available, it was being substituted for weaker drugs. These could be entirely different drugs like mephedrone – classified as a legal high in the UK until it was banned by the Home Office in 2010 – that people knowingly took instead of ecstasy. Or they could be substances such as BZP (benzylpiperazine), a euphoriant that wound up being erroneously sold as ecstasy in recent years. Because the drugs were weaker, people became accustomed to taking them in multiples. But now pure MDMA is back on the market.

“We saw ecstasy consumption patterns change [as a result of the drugs being weaker]”, she says. “And that is causing problems because now people are getting real [much stronger] MDMA again, but they’re still using multiple tablets in one sitting. Fifteen years ago, people were using one pill and not re-dosing through the night. What’s different now is that we’re seeing polydrug usage – using multiple substances together. In the last 15 years, we’ve also seen people using pills with alcohol a lot more.”

NME contacted Detective Inspector Michael Miller, the national drugs co-ordinator for Police Scotland, who issued the following statement: “When someone buys an ecstasy tablet at a festival there is no way of knowing what is in it. Drug dealing is first and foremost about making money and dealers have been known to combine various harmful chemicals into a single pill.

“There is no quality control and when these drugs are taken you have no idea what effect they will have. Our message is clear: there is no safe way to take these types of pills.”

Yet the drugs testing amnesty at Secret Garden Party was a success: 200 people used the service, a quarter of whom asked that their drugs be disposed of when they learned of their ingredients. Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, an organisation that helped set up the amnesty, told the Guardian: “We were taking dangerous substances out of circulation.”

Home drug testing kits, such as those produced by the company EZ Test, are available. These are helpful, says Measham, but come up short in tackling the current issues facing drug users. While your testing kit might reveal your ecstasy to contain harmful or undesirable substances, they won’t reveal the quantity of MDMA in a pill. “It will say it’s ecstasy but it won’t say how much. It could be 20mg or it could be 200, so that doesn’t help with the risk.”

In the absence of widespread drug testing amnesties such as the one trialled at Secret Garden Party, she offers the following advice: “The obvious things are to take small amounts, wait for the effects, then redose on maybe a two-hourly basis if you’re going to redose at all. Also, the standard stuff about taking breaks, drinking water, having a rest between dancing and being careful about mixing different drugs.”

The Loop and Chill Welfare are refreshingly progressive. Their message is: be aware, and be smart. Now, more than ever, it seems these measures are vital. As Measham says, “There’s a joke amongst our testers: what do you do if a drug’s really low purity? Go out and buy more. What do you do if a drug’s really high purity? Go out and buy more.”

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