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Photography Alexander Popov

Almost half of all pills sold at UK festivals last year contained no MDMA

Apparently Brexit and Covid are to blame

An “unprecedented shift” in the drug market – mainly caused by a combination of Brexit and Covid lockdowns – has led to a sharp increase in fake MDMA.

New research led by criminologists and chemists, based on fieldwork conducted by drug-checking charity The Loop, found that 45 per cent of samples sold as MDMA tested at English festivals last summer contained no MDMA at all, and were instead made up of substances like cathinones (a psychoactive substance similar to amphetamine) and caffeine.

They found the presence of MDMA in samples sold as MDMA fell from 93 per cent in 2019 to 55 per cent in 2021. The report also highlights research from the harm reduction project Wedinos, which found in 2021 that one-third of samples they analysed did not contain MDMA.

The rise of ‘fake’ MDMA is largely down to two factors: Brexit and Covid. Essentially, a shortage of lorry drivers and subsequent reduction in Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) transporting items across the UK is affecting supplies of some illegal substances, while COVID lockdowns led to many MDMA suppliers halting production. Now that clubs and festivals are open again, suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand.

“This study illustrates how cathinones are mis-sold as MDMA during periods of scarcity in the MDMA market,” explains Dr Michael Pascoe, a Cardiff University research associate and co-lead author of the study.

“COVID-19 lockdowns and the shutdown of UK nightlife led to a slump in demand for ‘party drugs’ and suppliers scaled back production. Then, as UK nightlife re-opened ahead of other European countries, demand outpaced supply. This was compounded by Brexit-related supply chain disruptions affecting distribution. During this unprecedented turbulence in the drug market, substances that look like MDMA were mis-sold to unknowing customers.”

The report adds that the increase in fake MDMA “poses additional unknown risks to the health of people who use illicit drugs”. Side effects of cathinones can include panic, psychosis and prolonged insomnia.

If you decide to take drugs this summer, The Loop advises testing your drugs where possible, ingesting small quantities, looking out for your friends, and seek help if you or a friend feels unwell. You can also follow The Loop on Twitter for drug alert updates and advice.