If you bought ecstasy last year, there was a 45 per cent chance that there was no MDMA in it at all. That’s according to recent research published in the Journal of Drug Science, Policy and Law. This monumental slump in the quality of drugs sold as MDMA (pills or crystal) was the result of the perfect shitstorm: the nightclubs and festivals were shuttered due to the pandemic dramatically reducing the demand, and resulting in big time manufacturers in The Netherlands scaling back their activities, a police operation disrupting big dog dark web wholesalers and Brexit disrupting road haulage (the majority of our ecstasy comes from mainland Europe in shipping containers).
The report, conducted by the drug harm reduction charity The Loop and involved researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Liverpool, drew on data collection from around 2,000 samples handed to them by festivalgoers or taken out of amnesty bins at three festivals in 2019 and 2021. Out of the 45 per cent of the mis-sold “ecstasy” in 2021, a lot contained caffeine and synthetic cathinones. Another harm reduction outfit, WEDINOS, who test drugs that are sent to them, had similar results – of all the MDMA products they tested in 2021, 15 per cent contained only cathinones and 14 per cent only caffeine.
“That was last year,” Professor Fiona Measham, founder of The Loop, tells THE FACE. “We don’t know what’s going to happen this year. Last year, a lot of the pill manufacturers understandably stopped because all nightlife closed. We imagine that this year, things will be starting to settle down and go back to normal.”
Taking synthetic cathinones when you think you’re taking MDMA is not good. It’s been linked to an increased risk of panic, psychosis and insomnia, even for seasoned wreck heads who’ve been losing summer mornings tripping over guy ropes in fields for years and have a shoebox brimming with tattered wristbands to prove it.
These effects have been known to last long after the last record has been played and the last dishevelled punter has trudged off the site. “It can be days rather than hours,” Measham says. “Those are all horrible things to experience at a festival. If you take a tablet thinking you’re going to be happy in the dance tent for four hours and instead you’re anxious, paranoid and stressed for four days, it’s clearly quite a shocking experience.”
So what will happen this year? “Some people will have some [ecstasy] from last year, in an old sock drawer or things like that,” Measham continues. “So there will be some still in circulation from last year, but what I imagine is that there’ll be a whole new 2022 summer season of pills that we haven’t seen before.” Early signs indicate that could be right: At Parklife last weekend, The Loop reported that only 11 per cent of the ecstasy products they tested contained no MDMA – and out of the 89 per cent that were the real deal, some were strong as fuck, ranging in strength from 58mg to a staggering 271mg with an average of 167mg.
I tested two pills and some MDMA powder (sourced from East and North London) using a presumptive testing kit. Unlike the uber-accurate infrared spectroscopy techniques The Loop uses, these testing kits aren’t 100 per cent accurate, but they can give an indication if there’s MDMA present in your baggie. But although they can be useful if someone’s walking around selling crushed up paracetamol (some scoundrels do), it’s important to recognise the limitations, too: they might indicate the presence of MDMA, but not the strength or any secondary active ingredients. The tests on the pills and crystal I conducted myself all indicated the presence of MDMA.
At the end of last year, a pill containing a monstrous 477mg of MDMA was recorded in Manchester. After the floundering disaster that was the past two years, we reckon this summer will be a messy one. And we deserve to saunter around in a field, with rapidly waning serotonin receptors, asking people on repeat if they’re having a good day. You just have to respect the strength of these pills; don’t take more than a quarter at a time, don’t redose for at least two hours, sip a bottle of water and get some fresh air if you’re getting too hot.
I’m going to go on: keep an eye on your mates, don’t hesitate to use the welfare tent if things go wrong (you’ll never get in trouble for doing this) and seriously consider your doses, taking into account that the manufacturers seem to think it’s a good idea to make pills so strong they could get a fully grown bear gurning.
The truth is that MDMA is not a “more is better” drug. If you take a quarter of a pill, then another quarter, say, two hours later, any more you take is not going to get you back to the original rushy delirium where you dance for five hours before telling your best mate that you fancy them. It will just make your comedown worse and increase your risk of having an adverse reaction. So, take a quarter, sip some water (not just lukewarm Red Stripe) and go slow.