Two weeks ago, drum and bass heads spent the day swinging their jaws in time to the sounds of DJs such as Hedex, Hybrid Minds and Wilkinson at The Warehouse Project in Manchester. In the afternoon, a member of staff left the venue with some drugs. They made the short journey, a couple of minutes down the The Mancunian Way motorway, to the Manchester Drug Analysis and Knowledge Exchange (MANDRAKE) at Manchester Met University.
This was one of two drop offs made during the 13-hour club night, and surely the first time drugs have travelled from a nightclub to a university rather than the other way around. The aim of the operation? To see whether the drugs that were fuelling the party contained anything dangerous that punters should know about. This is known as a “back-of-house testing” service, which means that MANDRAKE tested drugs that were confiscated by security at The Warehouse Project, surrendered in an amnesty bin, found on the floor or handed in to medical staff. This isn’t to be confused with “front-of-house testing”, where anyone at the event can get their baggie analysed.
And perhaps because drugs in the UK are increasingly containing cheap, nasty chemicals that are often more dangerous than more traditional street drugs (the heroin can contain lethal synthetic opioids, the ecstasy is starting to contain synthetic cathinones, otherwise known as bath salts, and the THC vapes often contain synthetic cannabinoids) it wasn’t long before MANDRAKE found something concerning. This time, it was alpha-PVP, a synthetic cathinone potentially being sold as coke. Around 10pm, with six hours left of the rave, they released a warning via X (formerly Twitter) tagging The Warehouse Project: “Multiple samples of fine white powder, potentially mis-sold as cocaine contain the synthetic cathinone alpha-PVP.”
“There was a sandwich bag, and in that bag there were a number of smaller ziploc bags that you’d normally find drugs in,” Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, the director of MANDRAKE, tells THE FACE when we asked about the warning. “There was, I’d say, about 15 or 20 [baggies in there], which had maybe been taken from a dealer. We tested all the ziploc bags – about a quarter of them contained the synthetic cathinone and the remainder contained cocaine.” The drugs were not mixed together – each baggie contained either coke or alpha-PVP, but there was nothing to mark the baggies apart.
“They were all in the same bags and there wasn’t anything to indicate what was what,” Dr Sutcliffe continues. “They didn’t have any identifying marks on them and they all looked visually similar in terms of consistency and colour.”
He doesn’t know the exact circumstances that resulted in the stash being recovered by the event’s staff, but said that he believed nobody would typically be carrying such a high amount of drugs around for personal use. “Potentially someone who might have been wanting to purchase cocaine may have been mis-sold synthetic cathinone,” he says. At Manchester Pride last month, MANDRAKE found another synthetic cathinone (BMDP, also known as benzylone) suspected to be mis-sold as MDMA. BMDP and alpha-PVP are very similar both in chemical structure and effect.
Synthetic cathinones (like mephedrone) have some similar effects to MDMA, such as a euphoric and alert feeling, but they are much longer acting and have a slower onset of action. The danger is that the user thinks that they’ve got weak ecstasy, for instance, so they take more and it eventually hits them like a freight train. When that happens, the effects can last for days, which increases the risk of paranoia, insomnia and panic attacks.
Sacha Lord – the co-founder of The Warehouse Project and Parklife festival, and the Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester – says that he feels constrained by legislation when it comes to providing potentially life-saving drug-testing measures. “There should be no debate that testing saves lives,” he tells THE FACE. “If you can’t stop drugs from getting into a Category A prison, what are event organisers supposed to do with venues or festival fields?”
“The War on Drugs is lost,” Lord continues. “It’ll never be won, so we now have to look at successes across Europe – not only to introduce back-of-house testing, but go a step further and introduce drug education into the sixth form curriculum.” He added: “For the last decade, many festivals have had back-of-house testing, but at the very start of the season this year, Suella Braverman personally stepped in to stop it.”
Lord believes that the intervention showed “extremely dangerous and backward thinking”, and at the time, he led a chorus of opposition to the policy. At the end of the summer, the Home Affairs Select Committee, an influential cross-party committee of MPs, released a report. Siding with Lord, they called for a nationwide drug-testing service to anonymously test drugs and a licensing scheme for drug-testing at music events. In the end, after much confusion, the government quietly backed down and back-of-house testing was permitted at Glastonbury, and Leeds and Reading Festivals.
These are things we desperately need in this country if we want to save lives, but for now, The Warehouse Project are doing what they can, such as building an app that sends push notifications warning clubbers of potentially mis-sold drugs in circulation at their events, available via Android and Apple.
THE FACE spoke to a 33-year-old coke dealer, based in Manchester, with 10 years experience buying in bulk. He recently realised that his supply had been contaminated with what he believes was “flakka” (synthetic cathinones). “We’ve had to use someone else [a different supplier] because I got some the other week and people were going dodgy on it,” he said. “They couldn’t see properly, they couldn’t focus on shit.”
“I don’t know what’s in it, I’ll be honest,” the dealer said. “But people were saying that it was battering them more than coke ever did. Like, with the initial bit they feel like it’s coke, but then afterwards they just feel fucking ropey or [paranoid].” He’s unable to send the “coke” back and unable to sell it, so this is bad for business. “We’ve had to go and find someone else because the link [an Albanian organised crime gang] has kilos of the stuff so it’s going to be the same shit coming in for at least a month.”
“I do use a purity kit but all it does is indicate the purity of the cocaine, I don’t have a kit to show what else is in it,” he says.
What did it show recently, when the customers complained?
“It came back low strength [cocaine], which is alarm bells ringing because normally what we get indicates it’s about 70 or 80 per cent, sometimes even higher.” He added: “I don’t know if this thing that they’re putting in it somehow makes the fucking test think it’s coke as well. It’s definitely different and it’s only been the last month or two.”
A 27-year-old in Leeds who took coke two weekends ago said the experience was different to normal. “It was quite nice at first but then it made me hyper aware and very, very anxious,” they said. “I didn’t sleep at all that evening; it wasn’t a nice feeling at all.” There’s something going on with the coke in the north and it sounds a lot like synthetic cathinones have entered the group chat.
According to Dr Sutcliffe, Manchester’s party drugs are generally getting lower in quality, too. “From the data we have, which is Greater Manchester data and not necessarily a wider trend, we have seen a marked decrease over the last 12 months in purity across the board,” he says. “Cocaine purity, ketamine purity and MDMA purity tends to have dropped.”
The average amount of MDMA in an ecstasy pill in the area has also dropped. “Last year, it was about 190mg [per pill] on average,” he says. “Now, the tablets we’ve been seeing have been below 100mg.” That’s still pretty strong, by the way, so still proceed with caution when it comes to pills. Dr Sutcliffe said this drop could be related to efforts by the United Nations to control the sale and production of MDMA precursor chemicals, such as safrole, isosafrole, piperonal and 3,4‑methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone.
This isn’t ideal for Manchester and the neighbouring city of Salford, which has an underground clubbing scene that’s having a real moment. Together, these cities have cultivated a rich partying culture, one that’s not going to wane even if the quality of drugs does.
At the moment testing options are very limited: you can post a sample to WEDINOS but it might take weeks to come back depending on the drug. You also can post it to Energy Control who are based in Spain, or you can buy a reagent test, which can potentially indicate towards one substance in your sample but can’t identify any secondary chemical. Reagent kits are good for catching out a charlatan going around Boomtown selling sugar or crushed up paracetamol, for instance, but beyond that they have limited value.
The fuss around preventing testing all seems a bit pointless when you think that people who don’t have access to it will still take drugs. The lines are going to get racked up and the pills will get necked regardless. It’s just more dangerous that way, so it’s hard not to consider why nationwide back and front-of-house testing isn’t rolled out as soon as possible. It could save lives, after all.