If taking pills is Russian Roulette, we must make the odds better


A 24-year-old man from Kirkintilloch died over the weekend and 2 people remain in hospital, with police and health officials believing pills of some kind to have been involved.  A spokesperson for Police Scotland said, “”One line of enquiry being pursued by officers is that a type of ecstasy may have been involved. However, this has still to be confirmed.”

No images of the pills have been released – which would lead us to assume that no drugs were recovered, as the precedent is always to provide images to warn users where possible.   However, police have advised that they may have been either clear capsules, containing white powder, or they may have been pink, unmarked tablets.

We could over analyse the actions and statements of the police but what’s perhaps of more relevance is the marked difference in the way these deaths have been reported in the media, compared with previous incidents, like that death of a young woman at the Arches last year“Rogue ecstasy”, “ecstasy type” and just “pills”.  In other words, the assumption being made is that MDMA, the chemical component in ecstasy, is unlikely to have been solely responsible for the incident, if it played any role at all. While there is no way to ascertain what the chemical composition of any drugs involved may be at present, the presumption being made here, however subtlety, is that these were tainted pills.

This would follow a pattern of deaths from pills being sold as ecstasy – 3 men died over the new year in Suffolk, having taken pills thought to contain PMA/PMMA, a drug which is both more toxic and more dangerous than MDMA.  PMA/PMMA (which we examine in more detail here) has been the attributed to a great many deaths through the UK in recent years, including those from “Red Mortal Kombats” in Glasgow last year.  There is no suggestion that these pills contained PMA/PMMA.  There is no certainty in this discussion whatsoever, so what do we have?


Pink pills with a Superman logo, which contained PMA, were responsible for deaths in Suffolk.

The response from a NHS spokesperson speaks volumes of the road we seem to have finally, finally acknowledged we may be on:

People taking unregulated recreational drugs are playing Russian roulette with their lives. No one knows exactly what these drugs contain or how strong they are. I urge anyone who feels unwell, or knows anyone who appears unwell after taking recreational drugs to seek early treatment.

There’s a glaring word in that statement, unregulated. Those who work in our Health Service know the danger here lies not with people taking drugs but with the lack of any regulation of the drugs being taken.  We used to pretend prohibition was regulation, but it’s the opposite.  The problem is that those taking the drugs had no way to know, that those selling the drugs are infinitely less likely to have their paperwork  checked by the relevant authorities than a pharmacist or an offie, that anyone can put anything in anything and call it anything.  You can’t return a bad pill and get a refund, this is a free, and unregulated, market.

1 in 10 Scots has taken what they believe to be ecstasy; lots of people have a stake in pills being less dangerous.  There is no certainty that any level of regulation, testing or anything else would have prevented what occurred this weekend, there never is.  All we have are probabilities, odds – while science is so frequently and relentlessly shunned as the basis for drugs policy.  If our clinicians remind us that “unregulated recreational drugs are playing Russian roulette”, surely only regulation can stack the odds more in favour of public health.

With even the Home Office now having to accept that there is “no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use” and the police, the NHS and even our media beginning to behave like almost grown ups, it is just the politicians who are continuing to hide in plain sight.


Theresa May tried to bury the report which said no specific policy has much impact on drug use.

If pill testing kits were made more readily available, in clubs and for home use, something Holyrood could do if it wanted to, then it would be less probable that drug dealers would get away with selling tainted pills.  If police publish the details and chemical composition of all drugs seized, then the odds you’d know what you were taking could be improved.  If we regulated ecstasy use and take production and control out of criminal hands, then people are less likely to risk taking “ecstasy type” pills.   I’d put money on all of that, more money than I’m willing to continue see wasted hassling wee boys for tenner bags of grass on street corners.

Taking anything is a risk but by making public health challenges, like people taking pills, into a hapless casino, we take a needless gamble on our collective health.


Further Reading:

Our approach to pills is unsafe

Testing times for Scotland’s pill takers

Zero tolerance isn’t working at the Arches or anywhere

Even the Home Office can’t hide the truth about our drug laws


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