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MDMAvia Flickr

How to sesh safely when fake and high strength drugs circulate

Reports of imposter substances going around as well as dangerous pills make the case for widespread drug testing and harm reduction – here’s how to keep the party problem-free

Post-pandemic partying in England is officially here, and with it, the joy of dancing, seeing friends, channeling pent-up frustrations, and hearing new tunes on a big system for the first time. But with the return of raving came tragedy: over the opening weekend, two young people died and several others were taken ill in Bristol and London, from what is believed to be high-strength MDMA pills. Warnings have been issued about the super-strong blue ‘Tesla’ pills thought to be behind the deaths (although autopsies are yet to be carried out), as well as red ‘Ferrari’s and dangerous, possibly synthetic ketamine.

High strength pills often come in and out of circulation: the double-dose, peach and lilac Donald Trumps from 2019 being recent examples. “High strength drugs are a regular cause of harm to people who use drugs, who often don’t realise how strong their drugs are,” says Guy Jones, technical lead at Reagent Tests UK and senior scientist at The Loop. “Every year we are seeing hundreds of people dying as a result of strong cocaine or strong MDMA with no other drugs consumed.” Reagent Tests UK allows users to purchase kits to test their substances (one MDMA kit allows for 40 tests, and only a scraping of a pill or a few crumbs of powder is required). The website Pill Report allows users to post pictures of their pingers, to green-light them as safe or to issue a warning.

While clubs were shuttered and socialising was put on hold, many recreational users naturally put the brakes on party drugs during the pandemic. Supply also seemed to dwindle during lockdown: a special Covid-focused report by the Global Drug Survey found that 55 per cent of British respondents said they experienced a decrease in the availability of illicit drugs during the pandemic. But as things open up again, many will find that their tolerance for substances has decreased, making extra-strong pills even more of a cause for concern.

Another effect of the pandemic – and Brexit, for those based in the UK – is the interference with global supply chains that have affected the availability of goods, legal and illegal. Where many goods previously relied on the EU’s ease of movement, this whole business is now significantly harder. “While we obviously don’t have direct interactions with supply chains, there have been a number of suggestions that the global logistics disruption which is affecting all goods internationally really is affecting all goods,” Jones explains. “The (il)legal status of drugs does not stop them being smuggled and shipped around the world, as we have known for the last 50 years that the Misuse of Drugs Act has been in operation. If drugs were being sent through completely unique supply lines, then those supply lines would be targeted by police, so it makes sense that drugs are smuggled in with legal imports.” 

How this is affecting current batches and the make-up of pills is difficult to say, with some suggesting recent crackdowns on chemical precursors around the world is to blame for imposter substances. “There are bad batches circulating, containing various substances,” says Jones. “Reagent Tests UK has identified multiple batches of 4-CMC and N-ethylpentylone, and MANDRAKE in Manchester have identified 4-CMC also.” One Reddit user recently reported hospitalisation from what they believed was crystal MDMA (and other commenters saying they’d also experienced the side-effects of heart problems and panic). After testing, it was shown to be a chemical called TFMPP. “TFMPP is pretty miserable stuff, there is a good reason why it mostly vanished after it was banned, unlike mephedrone (2010) or ketamine (2006),” says Jones. “I am extremely surprised to see it in circulation again and would not expect it to be widespread but without good coverage of drug checking services, the UK is somewhat in the dark about its prevalence.”

But Jones stresses that “bad batches” shouldn’t be the focus when it comes to the discourse around drug deaths. “While ‘bad batches’ (generally they are not just bad but contain zero per cent of the intended drug) have the potential to cause significant harm where they arise, active imposter substances typically make up just one in 20 of our total samples of MDMA. Of the remaining samples, 15 in 20 might be high purity MDMA and I conjecture that these “good batches” cause at least as many medical admissions as the rarer bad batches, in part simply because they are so abundant in number.”

The Loop is focused on harm reduction and stresses the vital importance of drug testing. Some clubs already do provide free testing, but not all. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that we’re strongly supportive of wider access to drug checking,” Jones says. “What might be more surprising is that one of the government’s own committees has published a report in which they make recommendations for the provision of drug checking services at music events. The recommendation in May was that the government should act urgently to facilitate drug checking in 2021 as we come out of the pandemic.” While The Loop’s Adam Waugh has expressed concern about the ‘pingdemic’ and hospitality staff shortages over the summer, meaning reduced welfare teams that “could indirectly risk club and festival safety this summer”.

All of this, essentially, emphasises the need for the legalisation of recreational drugs in the UK. While it’s predicted that Britain will legalise weed in around two to seven years, politicians are notoriously afraid of pushing for decriminalisation. For some, only after they leave power do they support drug reform, like former Conservative leader William Hague, who’d pressed for “zero tolerance” on drugs while in power (a policy that fell apart once more than a third of his shadow cabinet admitted to having taken drugs themselves), but has just written a column in The Times arguing that we should follow Portugal’s lead and “treat addiction primarily as a health problem”. 

While we wait for politicians to come to their senses, The Loop has useful resources about harm reduction in the form of infographics they’ve sent to every nightclub in the UK to display on their walls. Their advice includes taking a quarter of a pill or small dab of MDMA to see how it affects you and wait at least an hour before taking more, as well as to avoid mixing drugs, sip water regularly, and take frequent breaks to cool down.

The Cause, the Tottenham nightclub where 21-year-old Bill Hodgson sadly passed away two weeks ago, is holding a fundraiser party called Rave Safe for The Loop on August 15. “We are absolutely devastated by what has happened and our thoughts are with the friends and family of Bill, a young man whilst not known to us personally, appeared loved within the dance music community,” the club wrote in a statement. Support for organisations like The Loop are crucial so that young people have access to drug testing in order to avoid tragic events like this in the future.

You can donate to The Loop here, and find tickets to Rave Safe here