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What are cathinones, the designer drugs present in fake MDMA?

Numerous samples of MDMA tested across the bank holiday weekend turned out not to be MDMA at all. So what were they?

Festival goers who attended Manchester Pride and Lost Village Festival over the Bank Holiday weekend were warned about two separate substances being mis-sold as MDMA.

During Lost Village Festival, which was held in Lincolnshire, drug testing charity The Loop put out an alert on Twitter, warning drug users that a small amount of powder tested by the local police force was actually the novel cathinone dipentylone. Meanwhile, in Manchester, the council said a substance being sold was ecstasy was another cathinone called benzylone, or BMDP.

But what are cathinones, and how do they differ from MDMA?


Cathinones are “very wide class” of synthetic stimulants, which includes the likes of mephedrone (or mcat) which was an extremely popular recreational drug in the early 2010s, Guy Jones, senior scientist at The Loop and technical lead at Reagent Tests UK, tells Dazed.

Many cathinones, like mcat, were once considered legal highs in the UK before becoming banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act. At one point, mcat was the most used drug in the UK, offering stimulant-like effects and feelings of euphoria similar to those of MDMA.

However, not all cathinones are created equal, and some, like eutylone, are known to have “nasty side effects,” according to Jones.

While benzylone is expected to have “almost no psychoactive effects as it gets processed in the liver into a drug which has extremely low potency,” dipentylone can cause insomnia if taken in high doses.

While it does offer a mild, stimulant-like high, dipentylone doesn’t offer the same effects as MDMA. If mistaken for weak or low-quality MDMA, users may be prompted to take more in order to get the desired effect.

“Taking large doses doesn’t overcome this and can give side effects such as being unable to sleep for 36 hours,” says Jones. In some cases, severe insomnia can cause psychosis. “Despite not being very enjoyable, it can feel compulsive and make people want to take more even though they recognise the effects are bad.”


Unfortunately, cathinones and MDMA are “often visually indistinguishable” to the naked eye, says Jones. So simply looking at your powder won’t give you enough information to know if you’ve been sold the right drug.

That said, it is possible to test your drugs using an at home reagent testing kit, such as the marquis reagent. “Costing about £1 per test, this is a very easy way to test MDMA and eliminates one of the major risks that people are exposed to,” says Jones.

These tests work by changing colour in the presence of different drugs. These colours are then compared to the reference chart: if you have MDMA, your test will turn out one colour and if you have cathinones it should turn a different colour.

You can buy reagent testing kits online.


If you’ve mistakenly taken a cathinone instead of MDMA, it’s good to know that, for the majority of cases, the effects will subside on their own, especially after you manage to get some sleep.

“Moving to a calming environment, stopping consumption of other drugs (including cannabis) and distracting yourself with television or video games should all be effective while you wait for the effects to wear off,” says Jones.

If you do begin to feel unwell, make sure you seek medical attention as soon as possible.