Another 2 weekends have came and went since pill-related deaths were in the news. At the time, one of the Flowers wrote this piece, arguing for the urgent introduction of drug testing in our clubs to help save lives and turn the tide on dodgy pills. Tonight, we finish the job.
These are testing times for Scotland’s pill takers, so now is the time to put everything we think we know about ecstasy to the test – time to test the tales about red Mortal Kombats on the west coast, time to test the media, the police and our politicians, time to test the response from our clubs and time to test the pills…
Let’s start at the beginning, the Summer of Love – not 1969 or even 1989 but 2011. Youngsters the world over had become increasingly tired of tales from older inhabitants of the dancefloor about how ecstasy/everything else was definitely better back in their day. But in the 20 odd years since “ecstasy” had been widely used, there was little doubt that the quality of what was sold had steadily been in decline. MDMA, the drug commonly referred to as ecstasy began to be less potent and bulked up with increasing amounts of amphetamine/caffeine/mephedrone/bright colours. While in some countries, ecstasy was sold for upwards of £20 a pill, it became common to pay no more than a quid or two in Scotland. Many clubbers knew they were getting exactly what they paid for…not very much. There were always risks and scares, particularly the one around mephedrone but it made little sense for producers to put any chemicals which were potent in low doses, MDMA or otherwise, in pills they might be selling at 50p a pop. One day, everything changed, suddenly it wasn’t just something your mate said his mate had heard about, suddenly the “ten pound pill” was here. The oldies began to whisper, “wow, these are nothing like back in the day.”
The strength of ecstasy in circulation significantly increased post 2011, with many pills containing around 200mg of MDMA. However, there was at least a perception that these new pills were not as adulterated as whatever was doing the rounds previously. Scientific studies of MDMA reveal it to be less toxic and less addictive than our favourite drugs like alcohol and tobacco, so the actual health effects of pills which were of higher strength and quality is unclear, we do know it’s definitely more dangerous to take 7 or 8 of what used to be sold as ecstasy (which many users often did, given their apparent low strength), than to take a small amount of a high dose, “clean” ecstasy.
Identifying what’s in a pill is a tough game, most people simply do not have the resources to accurately ascertain the exact chemical composition of what they’re given down a dark alley, so they rely on the best means available. There are various sites which pill poppers frequent, posting everything from useless anecdotes to laboratory tests. This can create a false sense of security, as users begin to believe what’s in their pills can be determined by the brand or location. Prior to the latest tragedy, the red Mortal Kombat had good “brand value” as pills go, proving exactly why this approach fails.
In early 2013, both in Amsterdam and in Ireland, red pills with a Mortal Kombat logo were in circulation, by the summer they were in Glasgow (although there is little way to be sure these were from the same source). The reports, both from the labs and from the users, were that these pills were high strength. The dealers and the drug producers are just as capable of viewing or even inventing this data/gossip as anyone else, and it’s in the interests of those pressing pills to make them appear similar to those which websites tell you are high strength or pure or laboratory tested. Despite all the logical flaws, these particular pills developed a reputation.
But even in the beginning, rumours abounded that there was something else in the red Mortal Kombats. One Dutch test did reveal something, 0.8mg of a substance called PMMA. PMMA, like its close relative PMA, may share some chemical properties with MDMA but their effects, while not fully understood, are known to be far, far more dangerous; all across Europe PMA and PMMA have been the common link between pills and people dying. Due to its slightly slower reaction time, many people die as a result of overdoses. Believing the pills to be weak, they take more – when they finally come up, they may have consumed toxic levels of PMA as opposed to manageable levels of MDMA. Most pills contain some MDMA, if only to fool users that what they are experiencing is what they have come to expect and it’s strongly believed that the mixing of MDMA with PMA/PMMA is what’s particularly dangerous and is linked to serotonin syndrome. There is now a debate about whether 0.8mg is anywhere close to an active dose, but it cannot be considered anything other than an adulterate. There is no way of knowing how much PMA (if any) was in the pills in Glasgow, since the police never say, although they have indicated they believe PMA to have been present. Refusing to disclose this basic information prevents informed decision-making and rational debate.
A Thousand Flowers spoke to Glaswegians who have taken pills similar in appearance and again, the stories were mixed. Everyone we spoke to identified that there had been at least some MDMA in the pills they took, many said they had taken them with no ill effects or even that they had been of high strength and/or quality. But a few stories stood out, two people recounted being unwell, between November and December 2013. One man in particular said he’d been avoiding “red pills” since his bad experiences. He identified himself as being an irregular user but his advancing years and the fact he was talking to us about all the pills he had taken suggested otherwise, “I don’t normally care about one bad night or being sick every so often, you could feel rubbish for any reason but this felt very different. When I saw the news it didn’t click for a while.”
It’s impossible to judge whether what was going about a few weeks ago are in any way similar to the pills from last summer. We don‘t know if they are the ones the people we spoke to have taken, the ones in Northern Ireland or the ones from Holland. But the reason these pills were made to look the way they did is that people on the internet said they were good and probably clean. We need better science than that and we need to be clear that while warning users against taking specific pills is a sensible public health precaution in a localised crisis like we’ve had, the appearance of the pill is not the issue.
To demonstrate the range of PMA and PMMA contaminated pills (and how little what they look like matters), there have been reports of White Christmas Trees, Green No. 1s, Red Stars, Lovehearts of all colours, White Mistubushis, Green or Yellow Rolexes, Yellow Rockstars and Pink Supermans (which may still to be in circulation, so watch yourself.) What links all these reports isn’t aesthetics but geography; save a stray report from London, PMA and PMMA appears to be a very Northern problem – Glasgow, Manchester, Lanarkshire, Merseyside, Belfast, Helensburgh, more Lanarkshire and Glasgow even more. The west coast of Scotland is a hotspot for reports of tainted pills and no-one is doing anything about it, other than repeating the same mistakes we’ve made countless times before.
Understanding that PMA is the health issue, rather than MDMA, is a message no-one seems willing to comprehend. The media has been completely shoddy; this boring, anti-scientific piece in the Daily Record is the perfect example of the kind of nonsense we’re being fed. It uses the word “ecstasy” for no clear reason, creating a false association and ignoring the fact that “ecstasy” is not the name given the toxic compound of MDMA and PMMA, it simply asserts that decent testing and regulation would mean more deaths and then just says no, as usual. Admittedly, it beats what the Record were up to on their front pages, with days and days of highly emotive pictures and editorialising which intentionally obscured the facts. The age of the young woman perhaps prevented some of the more hateful victim blaming we’ve encounter in other cases but within a few days they were blowing up another young woman’s Facebook pictures to cover their entire front and brandishing her as “Stupid” and “Lucky” for being sold bad pills. We don’t consider someone who’s just been poisoned unnecessarily to be either stupid or particularly lucky and we don’t believe calling kids names on your front page is a mature attempt to understand and counteract PMA and PMMA contamination in Scotland and start saving lives.
The Arches has also demonstrated its contempt for those who use the space this week. They announced on their Facebook page that in the interests of “protecting the health and safety of its customers” (who may be at risk from pills containing PMA or PMMA) that everyone would now have to be over 21 and have ID. This is as wilfully ignorant as it is dangerous. Having your passport on you does not indicate that the pills you’ll buy in the club or take with you will not be contaminated, people of all ages die as a result of PMA/PMMA toxicity – that’s what’s killing clubbers in Glasgow. Anything else is incidental.
We should contrast the way the Arches has responded with the reaction from Manchester’s Warehouse Project to a similar incident, while they can’t allow drug testing for their patrons due to the law, they can and will now be testing all the pills they seize and posting the results, to ensure dangerous substances being consumed in their space are known about. Surely the Arches must follow suit, instead of blaming it on the weans or pretending that lack of driving licenses is contributing to pill contamination. They also need to state openly that their venue is a space in which drugs, including ecstasy, are consumed on a regular basis by a large number of people and that is tacitly accepted by the rest of society. Basically, they just need to stop lying and start having a mature conversation about what’s going on.
Neither the Arches, the Police nor our society actually has a “zero tolerance” approach to ecstasy use anymore, we just aren’t ever allowed to say so. If the venue did not tolerate drug use, it wouldn’t be able to open its doors to sell drugs like booze or have separate areas dedicated to the consumption of drugs like tobacco or… run a massive nightclub in which hundreds of people take pills every week. We sense the long arm of Polis Scotland around the venue but that’s no excuse, the Home Office is fully behind the Warehouse Project scheme. If the Arches care about what the people who use their space are taking every weekend in between pouring their wallets out at the bar, they will start testing any pills they can and making those results available to the public.
There has been barely a word from our political class, despite all the needless deaths over a sustained period due to PMA in the last 4 or so years, particularly on the West Coast of Scotland. A plague on all their houses, as usual.
So…what can we do about all this? Well users can test their pills in labs but that’s expensive and impractical. It’s also the only way to know, so if you can do this you should. But for most users, testing means testing at home. While this is much more reliable than using someone else’s “data“, this advice also comes with a massive warning. Without knowing the exact strength and chemical composition, all we have are colours on a chart. To test for most adulterates, you need a range of 5 separate “reagent” tests (basically those wee drops of stuff that turn a colour depending on what something is) which you can then cross check against a series of charts, in the hope of detecting a substance. The problem here is that these are often unreliable when dealing with drug cocktails. It’s therefore not possible to identify if a pill is “safe” using this method but it may be useful at identifying pills which could be very harmful. You also cannae take yer test tubes and colour charts to the Arches. So most people simply lack the resources/aren’t lab technicians and therefore can’t be the responsible users they want to be. DIY science is far from perfect. But here’s some anyway.
A sample of a trace of pill which appeared similar to those in recent news reports was tested using the mandelin reagent. This is not necessarily the traditional home MDMA test, because it was presumed that the sample would contain MDMA, so the test was intended to detect PMA/PMMA. The tests went “a kind of dark purply black.” This certainly suggests MDMA but it doesn’t conclusively rule out the possibility of something else. MDMA goes blueish black, PMA orange. So unfortunately, this all proves very little, not least because for legal reasons, the author chose not to be on the same premises as the sample or the testing, so all we have are some pictures of something that’s a random colour in a tube. We have no reason to doubt the veracity of the pictures or that they are an accurate representation of the results of a home test, it’s more that we doubt home testing, particularly with just one reagent would ever be reliable in identifying small amount of contaminates.
So if we can’t rely on appearance or even home testing, if the press and the police and the venue are sticking their fingers in their ears, blaming all illicit drugs, refusing to recognise PMA/PMMA as a health concern or just blaming it on the young team, what do we have left?
We need to roll out an immediate drug testing program in Scotland, that means full chemical composition testing in our clubs as an immediate health protection measure. Having a driver’s license and being over the age of 21 is simply not enough to deal with this. We need some honesty about the fact many people take pills, very few people die as a result of MDMA toxicity, and everybody knows all of this. We need to do what no-one seems prepared to do, to have separate yet intrinsically linked discussions both about PMA/PMMA and about ecstasy/MDMA. We cannot continue to treat everything as “the drugs.”
PMA/PMMA needs to be hunted down with great vigour. Remember when the whole of Europe went into a frenzy, seeking out those contaminating what we consumed? The media didn’t rest until they had discovered and made comical charts detailing the exact means by which Findus’ infamous horse Lasagne came to be. Yet nobody seems to give a fuck about kids dying in clubs because pills are being contaminated by a deadly susbstance like PMA.
MDMA will continue to be contaminated so long as we continue to fail to recognise its use or meaningfully regulate it. We need a long discussion about the best way to implement proper regulation and testing, but there can’t be any doubt that that’s where we need to be heading.
This year, millions more pills will be taken in Scotland and some way well contain PMA. Polite society will look down their noses at those taking them and brand them “stupid” or “lucky” not to die. But more people will die. Polite society will continue to drink, smoke and ride horses – all more damaging to your health than taking the odd bit of MDMA.
The safety of Scotland’s pill users is in our hands. There may be many more testing times ahead for them if we continue to fail them so continuously and spectacularly. We need to keep testing everything we know about the effects of ecstasy (and every other drug which is used widely) until we have discovered the very best way to protect the many thousands of Scots who will continue to take pills. That will be a lengthy and evolving battle but it‘s a one we can‘t wait to have any longer.
In the end, we may come to realise that the only way to start making pills safer is to start making safer pills.
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