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Would you take a mystery powder on a night out?

The Global Drug Survey’s findings say a lot of us would, especially once we’ve taken something else

It’s 4am. Someone spilt the last dregs of Red Stripe on the speakers, so that Four Tet remix of Eric Prydz sounds even more ominous than it did when you were peaking. You’re out of filters and your mate is hunched over on the sofa licking the inside of an empty baggie like some kind of reptilian creature. Then you notice a little white bag with an unknown substance trampled into the floor, camouflaged by mayo-soaked chips and Rizla papers. Do you take it? Likely, according to new findings by the Global Drug Survey.

In this year’s report, 7 per cent of respondents said they’d used a mystery white powder within the last 12 months. Over the last two years, the survey has found that between 5 and 15 per cent of survey participants admit to used an unknown power, so the number’s unwavering. 

There’s what GDS calls a “myriad of novel psychoactive substances, many of them crystalline white powders whose composition gives little or no clue as to their composition”.

Of those who said yes, 81 per cent admitted to already being intoxicated when they ingested the powder. From that number, 23.5 per cent were mixing it with other drugs, and 43.6 were using alcohol. Despite the obvious risks of taking a substance with absolutely no clue what it is, a large number reported that they still had a pretty good time. 65.7 per cent actually said they got “a good buzz”, and only 0.7 per cent ended up seeking emergency medical help.

Out of 21 countries represented in the polls last year, the UK topped the chart for global users snorting up the mystery pick n mix at 21 per cent, closely followed by Scotland (20.2 per cent) and Ireland (19.5 per cent). Countries with incidentally more lax drug laws actually lagged behind here: Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland saw low numbers using mystery substances.

Dr Adam Winstock of the Global Drugs Survey explained the nuances of powders in a previous interview with Dazed. He said if you’re buying a powder with the belief that it’s MDMA, it’s usually going to be the case. “Dodgy and nasty stuff is as difficult to knock up as quality MDMA. At festivals where pills and powders being sold, some may have ALPHA PVP, which is a very potent, long acting stimulant drug,” he explained. “People are taking that in the belief that it was MDMA powder or a pill. People were becoming aggressive, confused and psychotic.

The fact is that you can't differentiate one crystalline stimulant powder from another. Crystal meth looks really similar to MDMA powder, but a drug dealer is obviously going to get more money flogging crystal meth than MDMA.”

Of course this goes out the window if you've zero to riff off when playing the Price is Right with your nostrils: there’s a huge disparity between the affects that coke, MDMA and Ketamine have on your system. Sometimes it’s easier to spot what’s in the baggy, and other times – especially if you’re off your nut really – it’s harder to tell. And given the resurgence in super strong MDMA at the minute, it’s clear we have to know exactly what we’re taking to pace ourselves and reduce harm.

So how best to avoid ending up in the emergency room? In a statement within the survey findings, it was said that “the important message is don’t take unknown pills/powders when you are intoxicated and be aware of the risk of taking drugs from strangers – the issues of sexual assault whilst under the influence is something GDS highlighted three years ago”.

Take part in the Global Drug Survey study which covers drug vaping, psychadelics and harm reduction here